Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest boxers of all time, who became a global icon for his athletic achievements, political activism, and charismatic personality. He was born Cassius Clay in 1942 and changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam in 1964.
He won three world heavyweight titles, and fought in some of the most memorable bouts in boxing history, such as the “Fight of the Century”, the “Rumble in the Jungle”, and the “Thrilla in Manila”.
He also refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and faced legal and social consequences for his stance. He later became a humanitarian and a spokesperson for Parkinson’s disease, which he suffered from for decades until his death in 2016.
Muhammad Ali’s Early Life and Career
Ali began boxing at the age of 12 after his bicycle was stolen and he wanted to learn how to fight. He was trained by Joe Martin, a police officer who ran a boxing gym. He won several amateur titles, including the national Golden Gloves and the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Ali turned pro in 1960 and quickly rose to fame with his speed, skill, and charisma. He was known for his trash-talking, poetry, and predictions of the round in which he would knock out his opponents. He won his first 19 fights, 15 by knockout, and earned a shot at the world heavyweight title against Sonny Liston in 1964.
World Heavyweight Champion
Ali shocked the world by defeating Liston, who was considered unbeatable, in seven rounds. He proclaimed himself “the greatest” and announced his conversion to Islam. He defended his title nine times, against challengers such as Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, and Zora Folley. He also fought in the first ever satellite broadcast of a sporting event, against George Chuvalo in Toronto in 1966.
Ali’s Political and Social Impact
In 1967, Ali declined to participate in the U.S. Army’s induction process, citing his religious convictions and his opposition to the Vietnam War. He famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and boxing license, and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971.
NSA and FBI Monitoring
Ali’s draft resistance and involvement with the Nation of Islam, a radical black separatist group led by Elijah Muhammad, attracted the attention of the U.S. government. He was monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who collected thousands of pages of documents on his activities, associations, and communications.
Exile and Comeback
Ali was unable to fight for nearly four years, during which he lost his prime as an athlete. He spoke at colleges and rallies and became a symbol of the anti-war and civil rights movements. He also broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced mainstream Sunni Islam. He returned to the ring in 1970, and fought Joe Frazier for the title in 1971, losing by decision in a brutal match. He regained the title in 1974, by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire, in a fight known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”. He defended his title 10 times, including three fights against Frazier, the last one being the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, which Ali won by stoppage.
Personal Life and Legacy
Marriages and children
Ali was married four times and had nine children, including two who followed his footsteps as boxers, Laila and Asaad. He also had two children from extramarital affairs and adopted a son from Africa. His first wife was Sonji Roi, whom he married in 1964 and divorced in 1966. His second wife was Belinda Boyd, whom he married in 1967 and divorced in 1977. His third wife was Veronica Porche, whom he married in 1977 and divorced in 1986. His fourth and last wife was Lonnie Williams, whom he married in 1986 and remained with until his death.
Religion and Beliefs
Ali was raised as a Baptist, but converted to Islam in 1964, after being influenced by Malcolm X, a leader of the Nation of Islam. He changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, to Muhammad Ali, which he said was his “true name”. He followed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who preached black supremacy and separatism. He later denounced the Nation of Islam and embraced mainstream Sunni Islam. He also practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. He was a pacifist, a vegetarian, and a supporter of various causes, such as civil rights, world peace, and interfaith dialogue.
Ali was a popular figure in the media and entertainment industry, appearing in movies, television shows, documentaries, books, songs, and video games. He starred in a biographical film, The Greatest, in 1977, and voiced himself in an animated series, I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, in 1977-1978. He also recorded two spoken word albums, I Am the Greatest! in 1963, and The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay in 1976. He was the subject of several documentaries, such as When We Were Kings in 1996, and Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World in 2001. He also inspired a biopic, Ali, starring Will Smith, in 2001.
Philanthropy and Humanitarianism
Ali was involved in many charitable and humanitarian efforts, both in the U.S. and abroad. He supported the Special Olympics, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, and the Muhammad Ali Center. He also traveled to various countries, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea, to help negotiate the release of hostages, deliver humanitarian aid, and promote peace and goodwill. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, and the United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998.
Ali’s Battle With Parkinson’s Disease and Death
Evidence for Parkinson’s diagnosis
Ali began to show signs of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder, in the early 1980s, shortly after he retired from boxing. He had slurred speech, tremors, and slow movements, which were attributed to his long and violent career in the ring. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, by a team of neurologists led by Dr. Abraham Lieberman. He was treated with medications, such as levodopa, and underwent a surgical procedure, called thalamotomy, to reduce his tremors.
Ali’s condition worsened over the years, affecting his mobility, cognition, and communication. He used a wheelchair and needed assistance for his daily activities. He also suffered from other health problems, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and septic shock. He made fewer public appearances, and spent most of his time at his home in Arizona, with his wife and caregivers. He still attended some events, such as the lighting of the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in 2005.
Death and Tributes
Ali died on June 3, 2016, at a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, from septic shock, after being admitted for a respiratory infection. He was 74 years old. His funeral was held on June 10, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and was attended by thousands of people, including dignitaries, celebrities, and fans. He was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery, after a public procession through the city. He was eulogized by his family, friends, and admirers, such as Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel, Lonnie Ali, and President Barack Obama. He was praised for his courage, charisma, and legacy, as a boxer, a humanitarian, and a hero.