Muhammad Ali – the greatest turns 70
He will be forever known as “The Greatest”. In 1979 Ali was training at his Deer Lake Pennsylvania training camp; a rustic setting located 20 miles from Reading, Pennsylvania served as the setting for Ali’s training from 1972 through his last bout against Trevor Berbick in 1981.
While training to fight his former sparring partner Larry Holmes in May 1980, a week spent at Ali’s camp remains one of the definitive moments of the life I’ve lived.
More than any athlete of the previous century, with the possible exception of the late Jackie Robinson, Ali has had the greatest impact on the world we live in. His conviction, determination, commitment and belief system, the Champ remains an American Icon of immeasurable quality.
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 in 1999, was crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated. He won the World Heavyweight Boxing championship three times, and won the North American Boxing Federation championship as well as an Olympic gold medal.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky and was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who was named for the 19th century abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay. Ali later changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam and subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975.
Ali met Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 in Miami for the World Heavyweight Title. During the weigh-in on the previous day, the ever-bashful Ali—who frequently taunted Liston during the buildup by dubbing him "the big ugly bear", among other things—declared that he would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," and, in summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston's assaults, said, "Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see." – classic Ali bravado.
Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In 1964, Ali failed the Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were subpar. However, in early 1966, the tests were revised and Ali was reclassified 1A. He refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, because "War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers." Ali also famously said, "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong" and "no Vietcong ever called me nigger."
Ali refused to respond to his name being read out as Cassius Clay, stating, as instructed by his mentors from the Nation of Islam, that Clay was the name given to his slave ancestors by the white man.
"Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - it means beloved of God - and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me. "
By refusing to respond to this name, Ali's personal life was filled with controversy. Ali was essentially banned from fighting in the United States and forced to accept bouts abroad for most of 1966.
From his rematch with Liston in May 1965, to his final defense against Zora Folley in March 1967, he defended his title nine times.
The America of the mid to late 1960’s was very different from the America of today. It’s not that far-fetched to suggest that Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army served as the catalyst for the anti-war movement and empowered the African American population to understand the leadership they could offer America.
Ali's actions in refusing military service and aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular former champion into one of that era's most recognizable and controversial figures.
Appearing at rallies with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and declaring his allegiance to him at a time when mainstream America viewed them with suspicion — if not outright hostility — made Ali a target of outrage, and suspicion as well. Ali seemed at times to even provoke such reactions, with viewpoints that wavered from support for civil rights to outright support of separatism.
Near the end of 1967, Ali was stripped of his title by the professional boxing commission and would not be allowed to fight professionally for more than three years. He was also convicted for refusing induction into the army and sentenced to five years in prison. Over the course of those years in exile, Ali fought to appeal his conviction. He stayed in the public spotlight and supported himself by giving speeches primarily at rallies on college campuses that opposed the Vietnam War.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? " Muhammad Ali - explaining why he refused to fight in Vietnam.
When he was the best and most well-known athlete in the world, Ali was forced to the sidelines because of his beliefs. Muhammad Ali was a man who stood by his words, stood by his belief system. If that seems unmanageable in today’s world of million dollar athletes, the Muhammad Ali of the late 1960’s, the Muhammad Ali who was ready to risk everything he had stood for as a testament to a person the world has rarely seen. A true leader among men.
In 1970, Ali was allowed to fight again, and in late 1971 the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. Ali met Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. The fight, known as '"The Fight of the Century", was one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time and remains one of the most famous.
It featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had reasonable claims to the heavyweight crown. The fight lived up to the hype, and Frazier punctuated his victory by flooring Ali with a hard left hook in the 15th and final round and won on points. Frank Sinatra — unable to acquire a ringside seat — took photos of the match for Life Magazine. Legendary boxing announcer Don Dunphy and actor and boxing aficionado Burt Lancaster called the action for the broadcast, which reached millions of people.
Ali beat Frazier in two rematches; beat George Foreman in 1974 to regain his Heavyweight title, lost a 1978 bout and then won a rematch against Leon Spinks (winning the title for the third time) before his last two fights (both losses) against Holmes and Berbick.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the early 1980s. Although Ali's doctors disagreed during the 1980s and 1990s about whether his symptoms were caused by boxing and whether or not his condition was degenerative, he was ultimately diagnosed with Pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome. By late 2005 it was reported that Ali's condition was notably worsening. According to the documentary “When We Were Kings,” when Ali was asked about whether he has any regrets about boxing due to his disability, he responded that if he didn't box he would still be a painter in Louisville, Kentucky.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony on November 9, 2005, and the prestigious "Otto Hahn peace medal in Gold" of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for his work with the US Civil Rights
Movement and the United Nations (December 17 2005).
On November 19, 2005, the $60 million non-profit Muhammad Ali Center opened in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to displaying his boxing memorabilia, the center focuses on core themes of peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.
According to the Muhammad Ali Center website, "Since he retired from boxing, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian endeavors around the globe. He is a devout Sunni Muslim, and travels the world over, lending his name and presence to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education efforts of all kinds, promoting adoption and encouraging people to respect and better understand one another. It is estimated that he has helped to provide more than 22 million meals to feed the hungry. Ali travels, on average, more than 200 days per year."
Ali’s net worth is reported to be in excess of $80 million. Ali earned more than $60 million as a boxer, but lost most of that money. He has earned tens of millions of dollars in retirement, the name Muhammad Ali synonymous with greatness and success.
Happy 70th Champ – truly the best there ever was, the best there is, the best there ever will be.
Sources cited and used in this Insider: Muhammad Ali bio. For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom