Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed, President, Islamic Research Foundation International
Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He became a legendary boxer by virtue of becoming the first and only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
This article provides detailed information about his childhood, life, boxing career, achievements & timeline.
At birth he was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. His father was Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. and he was a sign painter who also loved to act, sing, and dance. His mother was Odessa Grady Clay. She worked as a cleaning lady when money was tight.
He has a brother by name of Rahman Ali who is also a Muslim visits local Masajids for Salat (prayers).
Childhood & Early Life
Cassius Clay Sr. gifted his son a new red-and-white Schwinn in 1954, which was promptly stolen. The 12-year-old, 89-pound Cassius Clay vowed “I’m gonna whup whoever stole my bike!” He reported the theft to a policeman named Joe Martin. The policeman, Joe Martin, told young Cassius Clay that he better learn how to fight before he challenged anyone. After 6 months of training with Joe Martin, Cassius won his debut match in a three-round decision. Young Cassius Clay dedicated himself to boxing and training with an unmatched fervor. According to Joe Martin, Clay set himself apart by two things: He was “sassy,” and he outworked all the other boys. Martin began to feature Ali on his local television show, “Tomorrow’s Champions,” and he started Ali working out at Louisville’s Columbia Gym. An African American trainer named Fred Stoner taught Ali the science of boxing. Among the many things Ali learned was how to move with the grace and ease of a dancer. Although his schoolwork suffered, Ali devoted all of his time to boxing and improved steadily. Martin served as his early coach, teaching him the technicalities of the game. In the last four years of his amateur career, he was trained by cutman Chuck Bodak.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”
Even though he was a teenager Ali won both the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and Golden Gloves championships. At the age of eighteen he competed in the 1960 Olympic games held in Rome, Italy, winning the gold medal in the light heavyweight division. This led to a contract with a group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsors Group. It was the biggest contract ever signed by a professional boxer. Ali worked his way through a series of professional victories, using a style that combined speed with great punching power. He was described by one of his handlers as having the ability to “float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee.”
Ali’s unique style of boasting, rhyming, and expressing confidence brought him considerable media attention as he moved toward a chance to fight for the world heavyweight boxing championship. When he began to write poems predicting his victories in different fights he became known as “The Louisville Lip.” Both the attention and his skill as a fighter paid off. In February 1964, when he was only twenty-two years old, he fought and defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Muhammad Ali was was nicknamed as ‘The Greatest’. He was one of the legends in the sport of professional boxing. He stood at 6 feet 3 inches, and became an imposing figure in the ring. He became famous for his swift footwork, and powerful jab. What differentiates him from his contemporaries are the values that he has been upholding all through his life. He is a strong believer of religious freedom and racial justice. These values attracted him to convert to Islam He changed his slave name of Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali. He is one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years. Muhammad Ali created ripples in the arena of professional boxing at the tender age of 22, by knocking out the then heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964. After that there was no looking back for this powerful fighter who knocked off each of his opponents to bag the titles.
Muhammad Ali’s Record
Muhammad Ali holds the career record of 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts before his retirement from boxing in 1981 at the age of 39. The most extraordinary matches were against Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He became the first and only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Fascinatingly, apart from being formidable and dominating, Ali was enormously verbal as well and started the ceremonial of throwing remarks at his opponent much before the fight. He offered leadership and an example for African American men and women around the world with his political and religious views.
Wife and Children
The names of his wives are Yolonda Williams (m. 1986), Belinda Boyd (m. 1967–1977), Sonji Roi (m. 1964–1966), Veronica Porsche Ali (m. 1977–1986).
His children are Asaad Amin, Hana Ali, Jamillah Ali Miya Ali, Khaliah Ali Muhammad Ali Jr., Laila Ali, Maryum Ali, Rasheda Ali
Ali was married four times and had nine children, including two children he fathered outside of marriage. Ali married his first wife, Sonji Roi, in 1964; they divorced after one year when she refused to adopt the Nation of Islam dress and customs.
Ali married his second wife, 17-year-old Belinda Boyd, in 1967. Boyd and Ali had four children together: Maryum, born in 1969; Jamillah and Liban, both born in 1970; and Muhammad Ali Jr.; born in 1972. Boyd and Ali divorced in 1976.
At the same time Ali was married to Boyd, he traveled openly with Veronica Porche, who became his third wife in 1977. The pair had two daughters together, including Laila Ali, who followed in Ali’s footsteps by becoming a champion boxer. Porche and Ali divorced in 1986.
Ali married his fourth and final wife Yolanda (“Lonnie”) in 1986. The pair had known each other since Lonnie was just six and Ali was 21; their mothers were best friends and raised their families on the same street. Ali and Lonnie couple remained married until his death and had one son together, Asaad.
Muhammad Ali participated in the light-heavyweight class Golden Gloves tournament for novices in 1956. It took him three years, but finally in 1959, Ali was named Golden Gloves Champion and earned the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title in the light-heavyweight division.
Shortly after his high school graduation, 18 year-old Cassius Clay began his journey towards greatness at the 1960 Rome Olympics. His expansive personality and larger-than-life spirit earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Olympic Village.”
The future 3-time Heavyweight World Champion nearly missed the trip to Rome due to his fear of airplane travel; he insisted on bringing a parachute on the plane with him.
On September 5, 1960, “The Greatest” proved his dominance in the Light Heavyweight Boxing Division by beating Zigzy Pietrzykowski of Poland, capturing the Olympic Gold Medal.
Sports Illustrated praised Clay’s “supreme confidence” and “intricate dance steps.”
Muhammad Ali, in his first ever fight which took place in 1954 he won by a split decision. Following this, he won the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class.
In 1959, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light-heavyweight division.
His outstanding achievements in his amateur years won him a seat in the US Olympic boxing team in 1960. He won the first three bouts to face Zbigniew Pietrzkowski from Poland. Crushing the latter, he earned his first gold at the event. The Olympic win garnered him a ‘hero’ status.
His heroic wins, majority of which were through knockouts, made him the top contender for Sunny Liston’s title. As such, a fight was scheduled between the two in February 1964 in Miami.
While Liston was the reigning champion, Clay seemed to be the underdog at the event, more so because his last fights against Jones and Cooper displayed lack of skills.
Even before the fight began, the two turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus, demeaning and defaming each other, an incident which was the first-of-its-kind in the history of boxing. Enraged by the disparaging comments, Liston looked over for a quick knockout but lost the match in the sixth round
Muhammad Ali defeated Liston, and became the then youngest boxer to assume the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. Meanwhile, in 1964, he changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali, converting to Islam. “My Name is Muhammad Ali”
Following the conversion, a rematch was arranged between Ali and Liston. However, the second match bore the same result as the first one, except for the fact that it lasted for just about two minutes.
His second title defense was against Floyd Patterson, who twice lost to Liston in first round knockouts. The match continued for 12 rounds post which he was declared the winner.
In the following years, he won a match each against George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London and Karl Mildenberger. His match against Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome received much limelight, which he won convincingly in the third round TKO.
In 1967, he stood against Terrell, who was the unbeaten heavyweight champion for five years. The fight prolonged for fifteen rounds, in which both the players displayed tremendous skill and prowess. Ali however won the fight in a unanimous decision.
Ali was stripped of his title as he refused to render his services to the army in the Vietnam War. Not only was his boxing license suspended he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison along with a fine.
Muslim spokesman Malcolm X (1925–1965) inspired Ali. Ali began to follow the Black Muslim faith called the Nation of Islam (a group that supports a separate black nation) and announced that he had changed his name to Cassius X. This was at a time when the struggle for civil rights was at a peak and the Muslims had emerged as a controversial (causing disputes) but important force in the African American community. Later the Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) gave him the name Muhammad Ali, which means “beloved of Allah.” (Allah is an Arabic word for The God ). In his first title defense in May 1965 Ali defeated Sonny Liston with a first-round knockout. (Many called it a phantom punch because it was so fast and powerful that few watching the fight even saw it.). Ali successfully defended his title eight more times.
During the Vietnam War (1957–75) Ali was drafted into military service in April 1967; a war fought in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Communist North Vietnam from overtaking South Vietnam). He claimed that as a minister of the Black Muslim religion he was not obligated to serve. The press criticized him as unpatriotic, and the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title. Ali told Sports Illustrated, “I’m giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I’ll come out stronger than ever.” Ali was finally sentenced to five years in prison but was released on appeal, and his conviction was thrown out three years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Affiliation with the Nation of Islam
When Ali was fighting in the Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959, for the first time he heard about the Nation of Islam and attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1961. He continued to attend meetings, although keeping his involvement hidden from the public. In 1962, Clay met Malcolm X, who soon became his spiritual and political mentor. By the time of the first Liston fight, Nation of Islam members, including Malcolm X, were visible in his entourage. This led to a story in The Miami Herald just before the fight disclosing that Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, which nearly caused the bout to be canceled. The article quoted Cassius Clay Sr. as saying that his son had joined the Black Muslims when he was 18.
Clay (Ali) was refused entry to the Nation of Islam (often called the Black Muslims at the time) initially due to his boxing career. However, after he won the championship from Liston in 1964, the Nation of Islam was more receptive and agreed to publicize his membership. Shortly afterwards on March 6, Elijah Muhammad gave a radio address that Clay would be renamed Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (most high). Around that time Ali moved to the south side of Chicago and lived in a series of houses, always near the Nation of Islam’s Mosque Maryam or Elijah Muhammad’s residence. He stayed in Chicago for about 12 years.
Only a few journalists (most notably Howard Cosell) accepted the new name at that time. Later Ali announced: “Cassius Clay is my slave name.” Not afraid to irritate the white establishment, Ali stated, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. 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’s friendship with Malcolm X ended as Malcolm split with the Nation of Islam a couple of weeks after Ali joined, and Ali remained with the Nation of Islam. Ali later said that turning his back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes he regretted most in his life.
Allying himself with the Nation of Islam, its leader Elijah Muhammad, and a narrative that labeled the white race as the perpetrator of genocide against African Americans made Ali a target of public condemnation. The Nation of Islam was widely viewed by whites and some African Americans as a black separatist “hate religion” with a propensity toward violence; Ali had few qualms about using his influential voice to speak Nation of Islam doctrine. In a press conference articulating his opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali stated, “My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese.” In relation to integration, he said: “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all”.
In a 2004 autobiography, Ali attributed his conversion to mainstream Sunni Islam to Warith Deen Muhammad, who gained control of the Nation of Islam upon the death of Elijah Muhammad, and persuaded the Nation’s followers to become adherents of Sunni Islam. Muhammad Ali practiced Sunni Islam.
Ali had gone on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972, which inspired him in a similar manner to Malcolm X, meeting people of different colors from all over the world giving him a different outlook and greater spiritual awareness. In 1977, he said that, after he retired, he would dedicate the rest of his life to getting “ready to meet God” by helping people, charitable causes, uniting people and helping to make peace. He went on another Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1988.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, he stated that “Islam is a religion of peace” and “does not promote terrorism or killing people”, and that he was “angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims”. In December 2015, he stated that “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion”, that “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda”, and that “political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam, and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
In later life, Ali developed an interest in Sufism, which he referenced in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly. Around 2005, Ali converted to Sufi Islam and announced that out of all Islamic sects, he felt most strongly inclined towards Sufism. According to Ali’s daughter, Hana Yasmeen Ali, who co-authored The Soul of a Butterfly with him, Ali was attracted to Sufism after reading the books of Inayat Khan, which contain Sufi teachings.
Ali later moved away from Inayat Khan’s teachings of Universal Sufism after traditional Sunni-Sufis criticized the movement as being contrary to the actual teachings of Sunni Islam. Muhammad Ali received guidance from Sunni-Sufi Islamic scholars such as Grand Mufti of Syria Almarhum Asy-Syaikh Ahmed Kuftaro, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti, who was at Ali’s bedside during his last days and ensured that his funeral was in accordance with Islamic rites and rituals.
Ali’s Retirement & Return to Boxing
When Muhammad Ali refused to enter the Vietnam War draft he was stripped of his championship titles, passport, and boxing licenses. He lost an initial court battle and was facing a 5-year prison term. Muhammad Ali was the first national figure to speak out against the war in Vietnam. During his 3 ½ year layoff, Ali earned a living speaking at colleges. In 1970, with the mood of the country changing, Ali staged his comeback; first against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, and then Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden. In his next match, billed as “The Fight of the Century”, Ali faced undefeated Champion, Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.
Ali fought valiantly, but lost. Months later, however, he won one of the biggest fights of his life – the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and upheld his conscientious objector claim. Ali was free of the specter of prison, and once again able to box anywhere in the world.
Ali returned to the ring and beat Jerry Quarry in 1970. Five months later he lost to Joe Frazier (1944–), who had replaced him as heavyweight champion when his title had been stripped. Ali regained the championship for the first time when he defeated George Foreman (1949–), who had beaten Frazier for the title, in a fight held in Zaire in 1974. Ali referred to this match as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali fought Frazier several more times, including a fight in 1974 staged in New York City and a bout held in the Philippines in 1975, which Ali called the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali won both matches to regain his title as the world heavyweight champion. In 1975 Sports Illustrated magazine named Ali its “Sportsman of the Year.”
Ali now used a new style of boxing, one that he called his “rope-a-dope.” He would let his opponents wear themselves down while he rested, often against the ropes; he would then be strong and lash out in the later rounds. Ali successfully defended his title ten more times. He held the championship until Leon Spinks defeated him in February 1978 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seven months later Ali regained the heavyweight title by defeating Spinks in New Orleans, Louisiana, becoming the first boxer in history to win the heavyweight championship three times. At the end of his boxing career he was slowed by a condition related to Parkinson’s disease (a disease of the nervous system that results in shaking and weakness of the muscles). Ali’s last fight (there were sixty-one in all) took place in 1981.
Role as statesman
When Ali’s boxing career ended, he became involved in social causes and politics. He campaigned for Jimmy Carter (1924–) and other Democratic political candidates and took part in the promotion of a variety of political causes addressing poverty and the needs of children. He even tried to win the release of four kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in 1985. As a result, his image changed and he became respected as a statesman. At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, the world and his country honored Ali by choosing him to light the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.
Ali remains in the public eye even as he continues to suffer from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. In 1998 he announced he was leaving an experimental treatment program in Boca Raton, Florida, claiming that the program’s leader was unfairly using his name to gain publicity. In 1999 Ali became the first boxer to ever appear on a Wheaties cereal box. Later that year he supported a new law to clean up the business side of boxing. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Ali agreed to record sixty-second announcements for airing in Muslim countries to show that the United States remained friendly to those of the Muslim faith. Among many documentaries and books about Ali, a film version of his life, Ali, was released in December 2001.
Awards & Achievements
Muhammad Ali was honored with a number of titles including, ‘The Greatest’, ‘Fighter of the Year’, ‘Sportsman of the Year’, Sportsman of the Century and ‘Sports Personality of the Century’.
He was the proud recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in in 2005 by then President George W. Bush.
He was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He is even honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.
Ali was mourned globally, and a family spokesman said the family “certainly believes that Muhammad was a citizen of the world … and they know that the world grieves with him.” Politicians such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, David Cameron and more paid tribute to Ali. Ali also received numerous tributes from the world of sports including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson, the Miami Marlins, LeBron James, Steph Curry and more. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer stated, “Muhammad Ali belongs to the world. But he only has one hometown.”
Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.
Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center (located at 144 N. Sixth Street, Louisville, KY 40202 USA), is a multicultural center with an award-winning museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali. The Center’s museum captures the inspiration derived from the story of Muhammad Ali’s incredible life and the six core principles that have fueled his journey.
The SIX CORE PRINCIPLES are:
- Confidence Belief in oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s future.
- Conviction A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise.
- Dedication The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
- Giving To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
- Respect Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
- Spirituality A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself. (Courtesy: https://alicenter.org/visit/)
When and How Did Muhammad Ali Die?
He died on June 3, 2016, at Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., after being hospitalized for what was reportedly a respiratory issue. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. The disease was mainly a result of the head injuries he received during boxing. In recent years he had undergone surgery for spinal stenosis. In early 2015, the Champ battled pneumonia and was hospitalized for a severe urinary tract infection.
He died of respiratory complications on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S, at the age of 74. He is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky
Ali’s funeral had been preplanned by himself and others for several years prior to his actual death. The services began in Louisville on June 9, 2016, with an Islamic Janazah prayer service at Freedom Hall on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center. On June 10, 2016, the funeral procession went through the streets of Louisville and ended at Cave Hill Cemetery, where Ali was interred during a private ceremony. His grave is marked with a simple granite marker that bears only his name. A public memorial service for Ali at downtown Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center was held in the afternoon of June 10. The pallbearers included Will Smith, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, with honorary pallbearers including George Chuvalo, Larry Holmes and George Foreman. Ali’s memorial was watched by an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide.
His net worth is estimated to be $80 million.
Sayings of Muhammad Ali:
“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.”
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
“It’s a lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself”— Ali, on beating Foreman in Zaire.
“The More We help Others, the More we help ourselves”
“Boxing was just a Means to Introduce me to the world”