(Reuters) – More than 60 years ago, a bicycle thief in Louisville, Kentucky, unknowingly set in motion one of the most amazing sports careers in history.
An angry 12-year-old Cassius Clay went to a policeman on that day in 1954, vowing he would find the thief who took his bike and have his revenge. The policeman’s advice was to learn to box first so Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, went to a gym, where he learned quite well.
He would go on to be a record-setting heavyweight champion and also much more. Ali was handsome, bold and outspoken and became a symbol for black liberation as he stood up to the U.S. government by refusing to go into the Army for religious reasons.
As one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, Ali did not believe in modesty and proclaimed himself not only “the greatest” but “the double greatest.”
He died on Friday at the age of 74 after suffering for more than three decades with Parkinson’s syndrome, which stole his physical grace and killed his loquaciousness.
Americans had never seen an athlete – or perhaps any public figure – like Ali. He was heavyweight champ a record three times between 1964 and 1978, taking part in some of the sport’s most epic bouts. He was cocky and rebellious and psyched himself up by taunting opponents and reciting original poems that predicted the round in which he would knock them out in. The audacity caused many to despise Ali but endeared him to millions.
“He talked, he was handsome, he did wonderful things,” said George Foreman, a prominent Ali rival. “If you were 16 years old and wanted to copy somebody, it had to be Ali.”
Ali’s emergence coincided with the American civil rights movement and his persona offered young blacks something they did not get from Martin Luther King and other leaders of the era.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise,” Ali said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Ali also had his share of fights outside the ring – against public opinion when he became a Muslim in 1964, against the U.S. government when he refused to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War and finally against Parkinson’s.
The one-time Christian Baptist became the most famous convert to Islam in American history when he announced he had joined the Black Muslim movement under the guidance of Malcolm X shortly after he first became champion. He eventually rejected his “white” name and became Muhammad Ali but split from Malcolm X during a power struggle within the movement.
The U.S. Army twice rejected Ali for service after measuring his IQ at 78 but eventually declared him fit for service. When he was drafted on April 28, 1967, he refused induction and the next day was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association. In June of that year he was found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger,” Ali said in a famous off-the-cuff statement.
He never went to jail while his case was on appeal and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Still, Ali’s career had been at a standstill for almost 3-1/2 years because boxing officials would not give him licenses to fight.
‘FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY’
He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on Jan. 17, 1942, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a name shared with a 19th century slavery abolitionist. His early boxing lessons led to several Golden Gloves titles in his youth and his career took off when he won a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
His first professional fight was a six-round decision victory on Oct. 29, 1960, against Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Despite an undefeated record, Ali was a decisive underdog 3- 1/2 years later in Miami when he faced Sonny Liston, the glowering ex-convict who was then the heavyweight champion.
Ali’s credo in the ring was “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and his dazzling hand and foot speed confounded Liston, as it would many bigger, more powerful opponents to come. Ali became world champion when Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round.
THE ALI-FRAZIER BATTLES
Joe Frazier became the heavyweight champion while Ali was dormant appealing against his draft conviction and, after Ali’s 1970 return to the ring, the two took part in three classic fights.
The first, billed as the “Fight of the Century” in New York in 1971, was a tremendous battle that showed Ali still possessed his skills. Frazier dropped him with a left hook in the last round and, even though Ali rose quickly, Frazier won the fight on a decision. It was Ali’s first defeat after 31 victories.
Frazier lost the title to Foreman in January 1973 but the second Ali-Frazier bout still drew enormous attention in 1974 with a 32-year-old Ali winning a unanimous decision.
Then came the “Rumble in the Jungle” match against Foreman for the heavyweight crown in Kinshasa, Zaire, on Oct. 30, 1974. Ali had a surprise ploy – a passive “rope-a-dope” strategy in which he laid back against the ropes, essentially hiding behind his arms and inviting the larger, stronger Foreman to hit him until he was too tired to hit anymore.
It paid off in the eighth round, when Ali knocked out the weary Foreman with a left-right combination.
It was one of the brightest moments of Ali’s career, confirming him as one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Ali defended his title three times in 1975 before meeting Frazier once more in October in the “Thrilla in Manila.” The bout was fought in brutal heat and Ali won when Frazier’s trainer would not allow him to go out for the final round.
On Feb. 15, 1978, a careless, lethargic Ali lost his title to little-known Leon Spinks in a 15-round decision. Seven months later, he reclaimed the title with a 15-round decision over Spinks. The victory, when Ali was four months shy of 37, came 14 years after he had won his first championship.
However, Ali, whose entourage helped him to spend several fortunes, needed money and refused to leave the sport even when it was apparent that age had sapped his talents.
He retired about a year after beating Spinks but came back in 1980 to fight former sparring mate Larry Holmes, losing a lopsided bout that was stopped after 10 rounds.
A year later, he ignored pleas to retire and lost to journeyman Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. Then he retired for good with a record of 56 wins, including 37 knockouts, and five losses.
AFTER THE RING
Ali did not have to be in a boxing ring to command the world stage. In 1990, a few months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein held dozens of foreigners hostages in hopes of averting an invasion of his country. Ali flew to Baghdad, met Saddam and left with 14 American hostages.
A nation that once questioned his patriotism cheered loudly in 1996 when he made a surprise appearance at the Atlanta Games, stilling the Parkinson’s tremors in his hands enough to light the Olympic flame. He also took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, looking frail in a wheelchair.
In November 2002 he went to Afghanistan on a goodwill visit after being appointed a U.N. “messenger of peace.”
Ali was married four times, most recently to the former Lonnie Williams, who knew him when she was a child in Louisville. He had nine children, including daughter Laila, who became a boxer.
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome, which has been linked to head trauma, came about three years after Ali retired from boxing in 1981. He helped establish the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at a hospital in Phoenix.
Eight facts about former boxing champ Muhammad Ali
- Ali had a show-time personality, dazzling footwork and great hand speed that combined to make him a champion like his sport had never seen. His career record was 56 victories, 37 of them by knockout, and five losses. He held the world championship an unprecedented three different times.
- Fighting under his given name of Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In a 1975 autobiography he said he threw the medal into a river one night after being refused service in a Louisville restaurant and being harassed by a gang of whites. Two biographers, however, said Ali actually lost the medal unintentionally.
- His first professional fight was a six-round decision in 1960 over Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Ali and Hunsaker became friends and Ali wrote in an autobiography that one of the hardest body blows he ever received came from Hunsaker.
- After Malcolm X helped Ali become a member of the Nation of Islam, he dropped his given name in favour of Cassius X. Malcolm X later split from the church in a dispute but the fighter stayed on and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad said was his “true name.”
- Claiming conscientious objector status, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967. He was sentenced to five years in prison, lost his title and could not get a fight at a time when he was in his athletic prime. He never went to prison while his case was under appeal and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
- In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome that apparently was linked to his career. It left him slow, shaky and unable to speak much above a whisper but close associates said he never lost his sense of humour or zeal for his faith.
- Ali, named the top sportsman of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated magazine, met world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. He was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
- The U.S. Army measured Ali’s IQ at 78. In his autobiography he said, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
Important bouts in the career of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali
- 5, 1960 – Wins the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in Rome in a unanimous decision over Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.
- 29, 1960 – Makes his professional debut in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, winning a six-round unanimous decision over Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.
- 25, 1964 – Boasting a 19-0 record, wins the heavyweight title at age 22 by beating Sonny Liston, who surrenders after six rounds, in Miami Beach.
- March 22, 1967 – After eight successful title defences, including another win over Liston and one over former champ Floyd Patterson, Ali knocks out Zora Folley in the seventh round in New York. It was his last fight before losing his titles and facing prison for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army.
- 26, 1970 – After a 3 1/2-year layoff due to his legal troubles, Ali returns to the ring in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry and wins by TKO in the third round.
- March 8, 1971 – Ali faces Joe Frazier, who had become heavyweight champ during Ali’s hiatus, in a greatly anticipated match that promoters called “the fight of the century” in New York. Both men were undefeated going into the bout, which pitted Ali’s speed and reach against Frazier’s doggedness and stronger punching power. Ali started strong but Frazier dominated the latter part of the 15-round fight and won by unanimous decision.
- March 31, 1973 – Ali’s second loss is a split decision against Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw. Six months later Ali wins a rematch with Norton.
- 28, 1974 – Ali beats Frazier, who had lost his title to George Foreman, by unanimous decision.
- 30, 1974 – Ali is a decided underdog going into the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, against the fearsome and younger Foreman. Instead of his usual dancing footwork, Ali spends much of the fight covering his face with his arms and leaning against the ropes in a strategy called the “rope-a-dope.” His plan is to let Foreman tire himself out by throwing punches that did no serious damage and it works, allowing Ali to knock him out in the eighth round and reclaim the major boxing championships.
- 1, 1975 – The second rematch with Frazier is called the “Thrilla in Manila” and part of the pre-fight hype includes Ali calling Frazier a gorilla. Ali wins when Frazier is unable to come out for the 15th and final round. The temperature approached 100 degrees (38 C) and Ali describes the fight as the closest he had come to death.
- 15, 1978 – Ali, now 36, loses his titles by split decision to Leon Spinks, 25, who had only seven professional fights after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics.
- 15, 1978 – Ali gets the a heavyweight title back by beating Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision, making him the first man to reign as champion three times. He then retires.
- 2, 1980 – At age 38 he attempts a comeback in a title fight against Larry Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, but his skills are clearly eroded. Ali’s trainer stops the fight after 10 rounds, marking the only time in his career that Ali lost by anything other than a decision.
- 11, 1981 – Ali’s final fight is a unanimous decision loss to Trevor Berbick.
Muhammad Ali Quotations
Muhammad Ali was not only a boxing champion, he was a championship talker. Following are some quotations from Ali:
- “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
- “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”
- “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”
- “At home I am a nice guy but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”
- “I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, and throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
- “I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today.”
- “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”
- “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
- “I may not talk perfect white talk-type English but I give you wisdom.”
- “If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up!”
- “I’m the onliest person that can speak to everybody in the whole world. My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco. These are countries that don’t follow the Kentucky Derby.”
- “Sometimes I feel a little sad because I can see how some things I said could upset some people. But I did not deliberately try to hurt anyone. The hype was part of my job, like skipping rope.”
- “Now the things that once were so effortless – my strong voice and the quickness of my movements – are more difficult. But I get up every day and try to live life to the fullest because each day is a gift from God.”
President Obama’s Tribute to Muhammad Ali
PALM CITY, Fla (Reuters) – President Barack Obama paid tribute on Saturday to boxer Muhammad Ali, saying his fight for racial justice and religious tolerance “shook up the world” and was an inspiration.
“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it,” Obama said in a lengthy statement honouring Ali’s accomplishments.
The former world heavyweight boxing champion died on Friday at age 74 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for three decades.
Obama, who keeps a pair of Ali’s gloves on display in his private study, said he came to know Ali as “a man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.”
Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, cited Ali’s infamous “I am America” quote:
“‘I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.'”
Obama, who was golfing in Florida on Saturday, said Ali’s struggle “would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognise today.”
Ali “could be careless with his words” but Obama said “his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes,” noting time Ali spent visiting sick children.
“We watched a hero light a torch, and fight his greatest fight of all on the world stage once again; a battle against the disease that ravaged his body, but couldn’t take the spark from his eyes,” Obama said.
Immediate reactions when hearing about Muhammad Ali’s death
(Reuters) – Former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died on Friday, aged 74. Following are some of the immediate reactions to the news:
REV. AL SHARPTON, NEW YORK-BASED CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER, ON TWITTER
“Ali, he was and always will be the greatest. A true champion in and out of the ring.”
REV. JESSE JACKSON SR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER, ON TWITTER
” Let us pray for @MuhammadAli; good for America, world boxing champion, social transformer & anti-war hero. #TheGreatest.”
ROY JONES JR., FORMER BOXING CHAMPION, ON TWITTER
“My heart is deeply saddened yet both appreciative and relieved that the greatest is now resting in the greatest place.”
GEORGE FOREMAN, ALI’S OPPONENT IN THE “RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE”
“Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met. No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age. To put him as a boxer is an injustice.”
BERNICE KING, DAUGHTER OF CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER MARTIN LUTHER JR.
“You were a champion in so many ways. You ‘fought’ well. Rest well.”
FLOYD MAYWEATHER JR, FIVE DIVISION WORLD CHAMPION
“There will never be another Muhammad Ali. The black community all around the world, black people all around the world, needed him. He was the voice for us. He’s the voice for me to be where I’m at today.”
DON KING, BOXING PROMOTER
“It’s a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die. Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world.”
MANNY PACQUIAO, FILIPPINO BOXER AND POLITICIAN
“We lost a giant today. Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali’s talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefited from his humanity.”
OSCAR DE LA HOYA, FORMER WORLD CHAMPION, ON TWITTER
“A legend who transcended sport and was a true champion for all.”
INTERNATIONAL BOXING ASSOCIATION (FEDERATION THAT RUNS OLYMPIC BOXING)
“AIBA would like to honour one of the greatest boxer of all time and a true human being who fought endlessly for his beliefs. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.”
PELE, BRAZILIAN FOOTBALL GREAT, ON INSTAGRAM
“The sporting universe has just suffered a big loss. Muhammad Ali was my friend, my idol, my hero. We spent many moments together and always kept a good connection throughout the years. The sadness is overwhelming.”
MIKE TYSON, FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION, ON TWITTER
“God came for his champion. So long great one.”
CARL LEWIS, DOUBLE OLYMPIC 100M CHAMPION AND NINE-TIMES OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER, ON TWITTER
“My mind, my heart and soul is devastated. I admired and imitated Ali. We must not forget his conviction and love.”
DONALD TRUMP, REPUBLICAN U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
“Muhammad Ali is dead at 74! A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!”
HILLARY CLINTON, DEMOCRATIC U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, AND HER HUSBAND FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON IN JOINT STATEMENT
“From the day he claimed the Olympic gold medal in 1960, boxing fans across the world knew they were seeing a blend of beauty and grace, speed and strength that may never be matched again.”
ADAM SILVER, NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION COMMISSIONER
“Muhammad Ali transcended sports with his outsized personality and dedication to civil rights and social justice.”
Writing by Bill Trott
Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Bill Trott
Compilations by Frank McGurty, Brendan O’Brien, Martyn Herman, Bill Trott
Editing by Greg Mahlich , Ed Osmond, Clelia Oziel, Paul Tait, Frances Kerry and Mary Milliken