“I am the greatest,” claimed Muhammad Ali – and many still consider him to be the finest heavyweight boxer of all time. His catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” exemplified both his style in the ring and his articulate showmanship.
Robbed of his bike in school, Cassius Clay started to box at the age of 12. As a high school student, he won the national Golden Gloves middleweight championship in 1959 and 1960, and the AAU national light heavyweight title in 1960, then the light heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics. He had his first professional fight on 29 October 1960.
For his sixth professional fight against Lamar Clark in 1961, Clay composed a ditty predicting how and when he would beat his opponent.
His prediction was correct, knocking Lamar out in the second round. The rhymes became part of the Clay/Ali persona.
Still relatively unknown, Clay stepped into the ring on 25 February 1964 and before the end of the seventh round was proclaimed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He defeated the legendary Sonny Liston, world heavyweight champion for the last two years.
Liston, suffering from an injured shoulder, failed to finish the fight and thus forfeited his title.
The eccentric Clay had the Miami audience stunned with his speedy footwork and his double-quick counter-punching, a technique which seemed to confuse his opponent but delight the crowd.
Clay now converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. As a supporter of the radical Nation of Islam, Ali spoke against the assimilation of black and white races, maintaining that black people should remain culturally distinct.
In 1967, the boxer caused further sensation, by refusing to fight in Vietnam. He claimed his religious beliefs prevented him and famously blurted out to reporters “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”, becoming the hero of young conscientious objectors.
He was arrested, had his boxing license suspended, and was stripped of the heavyweight title. He was unable to box for two years while the case went to appeal.
Ali regained his world heavyweight boxing title on 29 October 1974 in Zaire. In the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle”, he slaughtered the supposedly invincible George Foreman, with Ali employing the now famous ‘Rope-A-Dope’ to tire Foreman out, before flooring him in the eighth round.
Grace, speed and strength won Ali heavyweight boxing titles, and his personality and wit won him worldwide affection. In an outstanding 25 world title fights, he lost only three times.
In 1981 Ali retired from the ring after an unsuccessful comeback, and three years later was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.
“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”
Muhammad Ali, refusing to fight in Vietnam