When the bell rang to begin the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world that long-ago February day in 1964 in Miami and a battered Sonny Liston, slumped on a stool in his corner, spat out his mouth guard instead of standing up, it was the ridiculed long shot, Cassius Clay, on his feet, ready, who realized first, a moment before anyone else, what had just happened.
Shooting his arms into the air in triumph, his mouth a wide “O” of joy, he managed a brief victory dance alone in the center of the ring before pandemonium erupted, and the world came over the ropes to embrace him.
“I am the greatest!” Clay shouted into the microphone that would be stuck into his face for the next half-century. “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world!”
And so he was, for one more day as Cassius Clay, then for decades as Muhammad Ali, the only man to win the title of heavyweight boxing champion three times, a reign interrupted in 1967 by his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army, a moral stand that stalled his boxing career and deprived him of the fortune he could have earned during three years in his prime but cemented his fame as a revered cultural icon.
Ali was a brash, bragging, rhyming champion who, despite riches, still cared deeply about social issues, “a new kind of black man,” to use his phrase, fearless, proud, independent, who expanded what it means to be a hero and introduced many in this country to the Muslim faith. Ali settled into decades as a sort of roving ambassador, controversy fading into universal affection, ending up among the most beloved, most recognizable, most important stars of the 20th century, without question the most significant athlete who ever lived.
“Ali was a beautiful warrior, and he was reflecting a new posture for a black man,” the poet Toni Morrison wrote. “His grace was almost appalling.”
Muhammad Ali, who battled Parkinson’s disease for 30 years, died Friday night at a hospital in the Phoenix area, his home in recent years. He was 74, in poor health and died of “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes,” according to his family. In January, he was hospitalized for 18 days with a urinary tract infection and re-entered the hospital this past week.
Ali — who planned his own funeral years ago — will be buried Friday in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. A procession will carry his body down a street that bears his name, through his boyhood neighborhood and down Broadway — the scene of the parade that honored the brash young man for his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. After the procession, a memorial service open to all will be held at Louisville’s KFC YUM! Center. Those giving eulogies will include former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal — who famously has done a masterful impression of Ali — and TV sports host Bryant Gumbel.
The force of his fists made Ali the undisputed heavyweight champion, but it was the force of his personality that made Ali “the Greatest.” His story also is rooted in Chicago, where he first found his religion and lived for a dozen years.
One way to begin to understand the enormous shift that Ali represented and helped bring about is to compare him to previous black heavyweights, from Liston, an illiterate ex-con, to Floyd Patterson, self-loathing and unbalanced, to Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” himself hugely famous and beloved but also politely deferential: “I do my talking in the ring,” Louis would say.
That is not a sentiment that ever would be uttered by Muhammad Ali, who talked nonstop, in the ring and out. At first, this caused him to be scorned. He did not meet the cliche of the humble hero, bowing his head and thanking his trainer and God. That was true for white athletes and doubly true for blacks, who were expected to know their place. In that sense, Ali did: He knew he was the greatest, told anyone within earshot that he was the greatest. The amazing thing is that he believed that all his life. Before anyone else knew how great Ali someday would be, he already knew.
Somehow he just knew.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville. His father was a house painter and his mother a maid. When he was 12, his bike was stolen outside Columbia Auditorium. He alerted a nearby policeman, Joe Martin, telling him he was going to “whup” whoever took it.
“Well, you better learn to fight before you start challenging people that you’re gonna whup,” answered Martin, who also trained boxers and started training Clay.
His first fight was a three-minute, three-round split decision, for which the future champion received $4.
In 1956, Clay won the novice Golden Gloves championship as a light-heavyweight. The next year, he talked his way into a hotel room to meet trainer Angelo Dundee and told him, “I’m Cassius Marcellus Clay, and I’m the Golden Gloves champion,” promising that, in 1960, he would win a gold medal boxing in the Olympics.
He was 15 years old.
In 1960, he won the national Golden Gloves heavyweight title in Madison Square Garden and earned a spot on the Olympic team, but he almost didn’t go because of his fear of flying and actually bought an Army surplus parachute that he wore on the plane, praying. He won his gold medal, as predicted, in the light-heavyweight division. Ali already saw his future.
“I’ll be the greatest of all time,” he told a reporter.
Returning home, he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City but denied service in a segregated Louisville restaurant — though he did not, as a result, then take his Olympic medal and throw it in the Ohio River. That was one of many myths cooked up in the dozens of biographies written about Ali. In reality, he lost the medal.
In 1960, he turned professional. His bravura came naturally, but it was also a conscious, savvy marketing decision that he traced to an encounter with TV wrestler Gorgeous George Wagner in Las Vegas in 1961.
“They asked Gorgeous George about a wrestling match, and he started shouting, ‘I’ll kill him; I’ll tear his arm off. I’m the greatest wrestler in the world,’ ” Ali later said. “And all the time I was saying to myself, ‘Man, I want to see this fight. It don’t matter if he wins or loses.’ That’s when I decided: I’d never been about talking, but if I talked even more, there was no telling how much money people would pay to see me.”
In 1963, he defeated British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper before 55,000 fans in London, knocking him out in the fifth round, exactly as he had predicted to reporters.
In 1964, his 19-0 record earned him the right to box Liston. Clay ballyhooed the fight in a way that would have made Gorgeous George blush.
“Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight,” bragged Clay, who by then was known as “The Louisville Lip” and “Mighty Mouth.” The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet.” Not so Liston. “The man needs talking lessons,” Clay said. “The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”
His bravado blinded experts to the ability that backed it up — Clay was the 7-to-1 underdog. Of the 46 sports reporters at ringside, 43 picked Liston to win. The regular New York Times boxing writer, Joe Nichols, wasn’t even there, convinced the fight would be such a mismatch in Liston’s favor it wouldn’t be worth seeing. The novice Times reporter who did attend was so convinced that Clay not only would lose but be injured by Liston that he mapped out the route that he would take to the hospital.
One observer who wasn’t fooled was the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X, a fixture at the contender’s training camp. “Clay will win,” he predicted before the fight. “Clay will be our hero.”
Clay upset Liston.
“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” he shouted immediately after his victory, turning on the newsmen who had mocked his chances. “Eat your words!” the new champion cried. “Eat your words!”
The next day, he announced he had changed his name to Cassius X. Two months after that, he would be assigned the name Muhammad Ali by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said. “I’m free to be who I want.”
Because of how the Liston fight ended, the boxing powers demanded a rematch — with Liston the challenger this time and Ali the champion. The bout took place in Maine after Massachusetts balked because of rumors of mob involvement. Ali was roundly booed as he approached the ring. Braggarts are frowned upon in American culture, and the media — almost exclusively older white males — hated how Ali boasted.
Ali won a second time against Liston, the fight stopped at 2:12 in by the referee.
Ali continued to fight, with the Nation of Islam’s Herbert Muhammad as his manager, but the gears of history were about to chew up his boxing career: Ali’s number came up in the military draft. On March 17, 1966, Ali appeared before Local Board 47 to request an exemption.
Ali testified that he easily could have joined the military, “traveling the country at the expense of the government or living the easy life and not having to get out in the mud and fight and shoot. If it wasn’t against my conscience to do it, I would easily do it. I wouldn’t raise all this court stuff, and I wouldn’t go through all of this and lose the millions that I gave up and my image with the American public that I would say is completely dead and ruined because of us in here now. I wouldn’t jeopardize my life walking the streets of the South and all of America with no bodyguard if I wasn’t sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tell us, and it is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of non-believers, and this is a Christian country and not a Muslim country.”
Though the hearing officer ruled Ali “of good character, morals and integrity and sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form” and recommended that his conscientious-objector status be maintained, the Selective Service appeal board voted unanimously in 1967 to maintain Ali’s 1-A draft status and ordered him to report to Louisville for induction.
“You my enemy,” he told a group of white students confronting him. “My enemy’s the white people, not the Viet Cong. … You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, but you want me to go somewhere and fight. You won’t even stand up for me at home.”
Ali was right about his reputation being “dead and ruined.” The media pilloried him.
‘‘Clay could have been the most popular of all champions,’’ Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times, as though the 24-year-old’s story were already finished. ‘‘But he attached himself to a hate organization and antagonized everyone with his boasting and his disdain for the decency of even low-grade patriotism. This fighter should not be patronized either in person or on theater TV. Not a nickel.’’
Ali was condemned on the floor of Congress.
‘‘A complete and total disgrace,’’ a representative from Pennsylvania said.
U.S. Rep. Robert Michel, R-Peoria, denounced him in the House of Representatives. ‘‘I cannot understand,’’ the decorated World War II vet said, ‘‘how patriotic Americans can promote or pay for pugilistic exhibitions by an individual who has become the symbol of draft evasion.’’
Ali described the situation perfectly: ‘‘I’ve left the sports pages. I’ve gone onto the front pages.’’
The repercussions were immediate. Kentucky refused to hold his next bout, as did other American cities, including Chicago, where the Illinois attorney general quashed his fight against Ernie Terrell on the technicality that Ali wasn’t using his legal name.
Terrell dropped out anyway, and Ali’s next fight was moved abroad, to Toronto. Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo stepped in.
The fight, which took place March 29, 1966, at Maple Leaf Gardens, went 15 rounds. Ali won 14.
“He was just so damn fast,” Chuvalo later said. “As he moved into range, he’d already begun to throw the punch. So if you waited until he got into range to punch back, he beat you every time.”
A friend wondered if, given his draft problems, Ali would stay in Canada after the fight.
“Of course, I’m going home,” Ali replied. “The United States is my birth country. People can’t chase me out of my birth country. I believe what I believe, and you know what that is. If I have to go to jail, I’ll do it.”
During the next year, Ali defended his title seven times, with four of the matches fought abroad. Perhaps his most famous fight of that period was against Terrell at the Houston Astrodome. One of the bodies sanctioning boxing, the World Boxing Association, listed Terrell as the champion, having stripped Ali of his title in late 1965 over a contract dispute related to scheduling a rematch against Liston.
The newspapers insisted on calling him Cassius Clay, as did Terrell, a Chicagoan who later said he liked Ali and thought it was part of the traditional half-joking pre-bout insults. It wasn’t.
“You are acting just like another old Uncle Tom, another Floyd Patterson,” Ali taunted Terrell during a tense interview with Howard Cosell, whose career rose along with Ali’s. “I’m going to punish you.”
Ali mauled Terrell, “a vicious, ugly, horrible fight,” breaking a bone in Terrell’s face and damaging his eye, all the while shouting “What’s my name?” as he beat him. “Uncle Tom! What’s my name?”
Ali’s victory against Terrell did nothing to help his reputation. The New York Times called him ‘‘a mean and malicious man whose facade continues to crumble as he gets deeper into the Black Muslim movement.” Sports Illustrated called the fight “a barbarous display of cruelty.”
“That’s what the boxing game is about,” Ali sensibly replied.
A month later, on April 28, 1967, 26 men reported as demanded to the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston. Twenty-five of them stepped forward when their names were called and were inducted into the military. One, Ali, refused, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what?” Ali told the crush of reporters. “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
The World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his title after his remarks.
The law took a bit longer. In June 1967, he was found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
His heavyweight championship title was given to Joe Frazier. His passport was seized, too. No more foreign fights for Ali. He didn’t step in to a ring for a professional bout for more than three years.
But Ali never went to prison. As the case worked its way up the courts on appeal, the nation continued to sour on the Vietnam War. What had in 1966 and 1967 looked like lack of patriotism began to be seen more like a new kind of courage. In the fall of 1970, Atlanta’s boxing commission licensed Ali to fight, and he defeated Jerry Quarry in three rounds on Oct. 26, 1970.
New York’s boxing commission followed. In December, Ali earned the right to fight for the championship by defeating Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, leading, on March 8, 1971, to “The Fight of the Century,” a celebrity-packed bout against Frazier. (Unable to secure ringside tickets, Frank Sinatra took photos for Life magazine.) The two went 15 rounds in a brutal fight. Frazier won by unanimous decision, dealing Ali the first loss of his professional career.
Ali fared better in court. In June 1971, the Supreme Court sided with him on a technicality but privately impressed that his objection had been founded on solid religious principles.
Other top fights came. “The Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30, 1974, at which Ali regained his title, defeating the younger, hard-hitting George Foreman in Zaire (Don King had gotten the government of Zaire to provide an unprecedented $10 million purse) and “The Thrilla in Manilla” on Oct. 1, 1975, his third fight against Frazier.
On Feb. 15, 1978, Ali lost to Leon Spinks. Seven months later, on Sept. 15, 1978, he defeated Spinks, becoming the first fighter in professional boxing to gain the heavyweight title three times.
He retired for the first time in June 1979, at 37, but was lured back to the ring by gigantic purses — $8 million to fight Larry Holmes, millions more to face Trevor Berbick. Ali lost both bouts and retired for good in 1981.
His loss to Berbick, on Dec. 11, 1981, was his last professional fight. He lost by decision and announced his retirement. His career featured 56 victories — 37 by knockout — and five defeats.
His good works in the last three decades of retirement defy summary. He delivered food and medical supplies across the world and supported the Special Olympics and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
“Muhammad Ali has perhaps raised more money for American charities than any other living person,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1984, he announced he was battling a new opponent: Parkinson’s disease. He established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame to begin the Summer Games in Atlanta.
The last decades saw a cascade of honors. Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century,” the BBC called him “Sports Personality of the Century,” Amnesty International gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award, and the United Nations Secretary-General dubbed him its “United Nations Messenger for Peace.”
In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian.
“He was the greatest man I ever knew,” Foreman said. “People say he was the greatest heavyweight. But I say that’s a putdown. He was simply the greatest man, period.”