A Brief History: Muhammad Ali
by Logan Volkert
There exists a handful of figures who have cemented their names in the history books and have transcended what it means to be great. Greatness, in a sense, comes from one’s skill in their respective field. Figures like Aristotle or Albert Einstein, however, are known around the globe, even by those who have little interest in philosophy or physics because of the immortal influence their greatness holds. This coming October, Ken Burns, an American filmmaker known for his historical documentaries, is releasing the fourth episode in his PBS docuseries, Muhammad Ali. Because of this, I felt it only right that I kick the semester off with a brief look at one of the most influential figures in history: Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. He was one of two sons of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., a billboard and sign painter, and Odessa Grady Clay, a domestic helper (Encyclopedia). Growing up in a segregated American South, Muhammad Ali regularly endured racism and senseless acts of discrimination. Where there is trouble, however, there is hope. One day, someone stole Ali’s bicycle, and after he vowed to get his revenge, Louisville police officer Joe Martin took Ali in and showed him the ropes of boxing (Biography).
Little did a 12-year-old Muhammad Ali know at that time, he would one day become one of the greatest boxers in all of the sports history, winning countless honorary awards, including an Olympic gold medal, the Golden Gloves, a spot in the Boxing Hall of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After beginning his amateur boxing career, Muhammad Ali worked his way through the ranks until winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. While this was an impressive feat, Ali had yet to prove himself in the eyes of the boxing world. He was charismatic, sure, but his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” persona was missing that breakthrough, career-defining moment. His wins were, at that point, against past-their-prime veterans and average fighters (Encyclopedia).
On February 25, 1964, however, Muhammad Ali shocked the masses when he upset Sonny Liston in the heavyweight championship of the world. It was at this time that Ali had also started to explore religion, specifically the teachings of Islam. Under his radical-minded mentor Elijah Muhammad, Cassius Clay, Jr. renamed himself to what we know him as today and set out to shock not only the world of boxing but the world in general (Encyclopedia).
On May 25, 1965, Ali defeated Sonny Liston once again. Only this time, his win came via a 1:44 first-round knockout. It was here that Neil Leifer, a photographer for Sports Illustrated, snapped one of the most iconic photographs in history: “The Punch,” which pictured Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Sonny Liston yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker!”
From here, Ali went on a streak, defeating various worthy opponents such as Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell, and Zora Folley. Ali’s bout against Cleveland Williams was particularly noteworthy, as he landed over 100 punches and took only three.
On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States Army during the peak of the Vietnam War, citing his religious beliefs as the cause for refusal (Biography). While we now know the Vietnam War to be controversial, it was, at that time, approved by most of the American public. Because of this, Ali’s decision was frowned upon, and he faced legal consequences as well as a suspension from boxing. These convictions were, however, overturned a couple of months later by the Supreme Court.
In the later 1960s, Muhammad Ali’s philosophies began garnering him widespread respect and attention when approval of the Vietnam War dropped significantly, and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum (Encyclopedia).
In October of 1970, Ali was back in the ring and, in “The Fight of the Century,” lost to Joe Frazier, who had claimed Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight title during his legal absence. Ali, however, had heart, and as a response to this loss, won 10 fights in a row, eight of them against top-tier opponents.
Then, in yet another turn for the worst, Ken Norton broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw on March 31, 1973. Ali, however, was not deterred. He won a rematch against Norton, a rematch against Joe Frazier, and, in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” defeated George Foreman on October 30, 1974. Alas, after one final victory against Joe Frazier, Ali’s body began to decline.
Muhammad Ali developed Parkinson’s Disease and, as a result, spent a large amount of his time giving back to the world, both through financial donations and spiritual teachings (Encyclopedia). Ali turned away from the separatist teachings of Elijah Muhammad and gravitated towards the peaceful messages of Orthodox Islam. After this, Muhammad Ali turned in his boxing prowess for wisdom regarding life and what it means to be a good person. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the end, Muhammad Ali had proven himself to be one of the greatest boxers that ever stepped foot in the ring. Now, we know him to be one of the most respectable figures in history. He ended his professional career with a record of 56 wins, 5 losses, and 37 knockouts. In 1990, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame, and, in 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award given to those who have made lasting, positive impacts relating to world peace and cultural appreciation. From Muhammad Ali, we learn that by staying true to ourselves and by never letting adversity stop us, we can, against all odds, overcome anything.
“Muhammad Ali.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/biography/Muhammad-Ali-boxer.
“Muhammad Ali.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 2 Sept. 2021, http://www.biography.com/athlete/muhammad-ali.