Muhammad Ali remembered: Kentucky roots, worldwide fame

Muhammad Ali in Kentucky

Memorable images of Muhammad Ali in Kentucky.
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Memorable images of Muhammad Ali in Kentucky.

The Louisville Lip has fallen silent.

The world on Saturday mourned Muhammad Ali — Olympic gold medalist; three-time professional boxing heavyweight champion of the world; symbol of the socially turbulent 1960s; and, in his heyday, perhaps the most famous citizen in the world — who died Friday night in Phoenix at age 74.

A family spokesman said Ali’s funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville. It will be open to the public. Eulogies will be given by former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel.

In his prime, Ali was a fighter of breathtaking speed and agility.

Yet he was equally well-known for his ebullient personality, which included bold boasts (“I’m the greatest of all time”) and clever rhymes (“I know this will shock and amaze you, but I’m gonna retire Joe Frazier”) in what was skillful self-promotion.

Ali first became heavyweight champion of the world via a dramatic upset on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami, when the defending champ, Sonny Liston, did not answer the bell for the seventh round. Ali had entered that fight a 7-1 underdog.

In 1967, Ali was stripped of the heavyweight crown for his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Creating a vast public backlash, Ali claimed to be a conscientious objector unwilling to take up arms in war due to his Islamic religious beliefs.

Unable to get a boxing license because of his conviction for refusing induction into the Army, Ali would not fight again until October 1970.

He did not regain the heavyweight crown until Oct. 30, 1974, when he scored another stunning upset, this time over the previously undefeated George Foreman.

Ali lost the crown in the ring for the first time when he was upset in February 1978, by the much younger Leon Spinks.

But in September of that year, Ali, then 36, fought a rematch with Spinks and became the first man to win the heavyweight title of the world three times.

In his latter years, Ali was afflicted with the neurological malady Parkinson’s Syndrome — his symptoms characterized by physical twitches and both impaired movement and speech.

Though boxing was the foundation of his fame, Ali’s achievements in the sport were only part of his larger-than-life persona.

Early life

Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.

His father, Cassius M. Clay Sr., was a sign painter. His mother, Odessa, was a domestic worker. Though far from rich, the Clay family was not poor. Many years later, Cassius Clay Sr. would say of Ali and his younger brother, “I didn’t raise those boys in no ghetto.”

Ali was 12 when, indirectly, his path to boxing was launched. In a story that became an integral part of Ali’s subsequent legend, his road to riches and fame began with a stolen bicycle.

In October 1954, Ali had ridden his red-and-white Schwinn to Louisville’s Columbia Auditorium. Along with a buddy, Ali was attending The Louisville Home Show, essentially a bazaar held by black merchants of Jefferson County.

Ali and his friend had spent the day at the bazaar sampling free candy and popcorn.

When it came time to leave, Ali made a jolting discovery. His bike was nowhere to be found.

Someone told Ali that he thought there was a policeman in the basement of the auditorium. Planning to report his bike stolen, Ali went to find that policeman.

It turned out that policeman, Joe Martin, was a boxing instructor in his spare time.

“One night, this kid came downstairs and he was crying,” Martin told author Thomas Hauser for the book, Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times.

“… He was having a fit, half crying because somebody had stolen his bike. He was only 12 years old then, and he was gonna whup whoever stole it. … I said, ‘Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people that you’re gonna whup.’”

Six weeks later, an 89-pound Cassius Clay fought for the first time. History will show he won a decision over a foe named Ronnie O’Keefe.

Years later, Martin would say there seemed nothing special about Ali at first. It took about a year for Ali’s unusual combination of physical speed and personal determination to emerge.

Before Ali turned 18, he would fight 108 amateur boxing matches. He won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two national Golden Glove championships and two national AAU titles.

Yet he almost missed his greatest achievement as an amateur. After he qualified to represent the United States in the 1960 Rome Olympics, it emerged that Ali was afraid to fly.

He had to be coaxed into a trans-Atlantic voyage. But once in Rome, he won his first three fights and wound up facing Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a crafty left-hander, for the gold medal in the 178-pound division.

The Pole clearly won the first round and was still ahead on points after the second. But in the final round, Ali was able to summon his best form, and almost scored a knockout. As it was, he won on every judge’s card.

He brought the gold medal home to Louisville.

Turning pro — and Muslim

A group of 11 Louisville businessmen — all white and calling themselves The Louisville Sponsoring Group — were chosen by Ali and his parents to manage the young boxer’s pro career.

In his book, Hauser called the contract they gave the young fighter “fair and generous for its time.” Ali got a $10,000 signing bonus.

On Oct. 29, 1960, Ali made his professional boxing debut in Louisville’s Freedom Hall. His foe was a part-time boxer, Tunney Hunsaker, whose “day job” was police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va.

Ali won a decision in six rounds.

The Louisville businessmen backing Ali decided he needed better training than he could get in Kentucky. Eventually, Ali’s management settled on Angelo Dundee to train the young fighter. Thus was launched an association that would last throughout Ali’s career.

Between Hunsaker and his first chance at the heavyweight crown, it took Ali 18 fights and four years to get into position for a crack at Liston.

During that time, the lively persona that became identified with Ali took shape.

Before a 1962 fight in Las Vegas, Ali made a promotional appearance on a Vegas radio station. The guest who came after him was the pro wrestler, Gorgeous George.

As Ali later told Hauser, “They asked Gorgeous George about a wrestling match he was having, and he started shouting, ‘I’ll kill him. I’ll tear his arm off. If this bum beats me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off my hair. But it’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.’”

Hooked, Ali attended the Gorgeous George match. He found a packed arena and a lively crowd. “I’d never been shy about talking,” Ali said, “but that’s when I decided if I talked even more, there was no telling how much money people would pay to see me.”

So Ali developed his own schtick, took to predicting what round he would stop his opponents. Sometimes, he would toy with foes, seeming to extend fights just to ensure his pre-fight prediction rang true. In one stretch, he ended bouts in exactly the round he had predicted seven times in eight fights.

By 1964, as he reported to Miami to train for the Liston fight, Ali’s playful but brash persona was fully formed.

“If you want to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny,” was one of his earliest pre-fight rhymes.

Ali’s horizons were expanding in other realms, too. By autumn 1963, press reports began to appear linking him with the Nation of Islam.

In January 1964, Ali traveled from Miami to New York with Malcolm X and spoke at a Nation of Islam rally. It was being said at the time that he “had fallen under the influence” of the Black Muslim movement.

During that time, Ali told The Courier-Journal that “Integration is wrong. The white people don’t want integration. I don’t believe in forcing it, and the Muslims don’t believe in it.”

Shortly before the Liston fight, Cassius Clay Sr. told the Miami Herald that his son had become a Muslim and had been “brainwashed to hate white people.”

The Black Muslim movement was not popular with mainstream America — i.e. … white America — and Ali’s public utterances of support killed the gate of his first championship fight. When he stopped Liston, there were only 8,297 fans in a venue that held 15,744.

Ali had first been exposed to the teaching of the Nation of Islam in 1961. As espoused by leader Elijah Muhammad, the group held views that were considered both eccentric and dangerous by the mainstream.

Elijah Muhammad taught that white people were a genetically inferior race of evil-doers. He also held that a “Mother of Planes” (which sounded like a flying saucer) manned by the best and brightest black people was circling the Earth and would return to wreak devastation on the evil-doers.

Ali would remain a practicing Muslim for the rest of his life. However, in later years, he would renounce the teaching that whites were inferior and naturally evil as well as the Mother of Planes theory.

It was Elijah Muhammad himself who announced that the boxer was forsaking his Christian name and would heretofore be known as Muhammad Ali.

Many in the sports media of the 1960s refused to refer to Ali as Ali, continuing to call him Cassius Clay in print and on the air.

Amidst all the controversy, Ali proved his victory over Liston had been no fluke by defeating the ex-champ again in a rematch. The fight drew only 4,280 in Lewiston, Maine.

Interestingly, during all that time, Ali continued to employ Angelo Dundee, who was white, in his corner.

“In the way he treated me, I never saw any evidence that Muhammad hated white people,” Dundee, who died in 2012 at age 90, said at the time the Muhammad Ali Center opened in Louisville in November 2005.

No to the draft

By April 1967, Ali was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and had a 29-0 record.

One of Ali’s victories had been a harsh, 12-round beating of former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson.

Patterson had angered the younger fighter by calling him “Clay” and vowing to return the heavyweight title “to America.” Many thought that Ali had prolonged a fight he could have easily ended in order to inflict more damage on a man who had angered him.

Just as Ali seemed to be coming into his full powers as a boxer, his career came to a screeching halt.

In 1964, Ali’s draft status with the federal government had been reclassified from 1-A (eligible for the armed services) to 1-Y (not qualified) after he failed the mental aptitude portion of the military qualifying exam.

“I said I’m the greatest,” Ali said afterward, “I never said I was the smartest.”

However, when the war in Vietnam heated up in 1966, the qualifying standard on the aptitude test was lowered and Ali now had a qualifying score.

Informed of his reclassification, Ali uttered to reporters what became a famous quote: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

Eventually, he based his bid to be excused from service in the Army on religious grounds.

During this time, his contract with the white Louisville businessmen who had been managing his career expired and he replaced them with Herbert Muhammad, the son of the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad.

But there wouldn’t be many fights to promote in the late 1960s. On April 28, 1967, Ali was among 26 who reported to an Army induction center in Houston, Texas.

When one’s name was called, one was supposed to step forward, which symbolized that one was accepting induction into the United States Army.

When the name “Cassius Marcellus Clay,” rang out, Ali did not move.

He was informed that refusal to accept induction was a felony that could carry a five-year prison sentence.

Ali said he understood the consequences of his actions.

His old name called once more, Ali again refused to step forward.

He submitted a written explanation to the Army: “I refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States because I claim to be exempt as a minister of Islam.”

The response was swift. Not two weeks after refusing to join the Army, Ali was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Red Smith, the legendary New York sportswriter, wrote that “there are draft dodgers in every war, and Clay isn’t the only slacker in this one.”

Every state athletic commission in the United States soon withdrew recognition of Ali as heavyweight champion. No state would license him to fight.

The comeback

In June 1967, an all-white jury needed only 20 minutes to convict him for draft avoidance. A Houston judge gave Ali the maximum sentence — five years and $10,000. Pending appeal, Ali was not required to report for incarceration.

As a convicted felon, Ali was obligated to turn in his passport. It meant the man who could not get a boxing license in the United States also couldn’t leave the country to fight.

It would be three years before Muhammad Ali entered a boxing ring for real again.

He spent those years in a variety of ways — giving lectures on college campuses, appearing in a documentary film, even acting in a Broadway musical.

His refusal to serve in the U.S. Army made Ali a flash point of the political and social divisiveness of the 1960s.

Many considered a man who made his living boxing to be a hypocrite for claiming a religious objection to the violence of war.

Others accused Ali of personal cowardice for avoiding service. This even though a man of his fame would have almost certainly spent any military service fighting boxing exhibitions and making public relations appearances, not carrying a rifle through the jungles of Vietnam.

However, Ali’s actions made him a hero to the anti-war movement, which was gaining strength in the late 1960s.

The sight of a black man willing to give up his livelihood — and defy the white establishment — in support of his political beliefs earned Ali respect from many blacks, including some who disagreed with his stance on the Vietnam War.

All the while, Ali’s sympathizers searched for a way to get him back in the boxing ring. In 1970, they found an unlikely venue where they could make it happen.

The state of Georgia had no state athletic commission, so the mayor of Atlanta could essentially sanction a fight. So on Oct. 26, 1970, Ali made a triumphant return to professional boxing, beating Jerry Quarry in a third-round technical knockout.

On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed his conviction for refusal to be inducted into the Army.

The decision essentially turned on a technicality.

The government had begun the case against Ali claiming that he failed to meet any of the three requirements for conscientious objector status: 1.) that one be opposed to war in any form; 2.) that one’s opposition be based on religious training and belief; and 3.) that one be sincere.

At the Supreme Court level, the government conceded that Ali met standards two and three, but argued that he did not meet No. 1 because he had indicated he would be willing to fight in a Muslim holy war.

However, the Court ruled that since the original draft board had not specified which of the three requirements were the basis of its decision, it was possible it had been based on claims the government now conceded.

The Frazier fights

Though he would go on to some of his most famous victories in this second act of his career, old timers say Ali was never the fighter he had been before the three-year layoff.

“He was a big man with a small man’s speed,” said Angelo Dundee. “That’s what made him so great, those amazing reflexes. Well, they weren’t quite the same” after the layoff.

Only two fights after his layoff, Ali signed to face the man who had eventually gained the heavyweight title in his absence.

In Joe Frazier, Ali had a rival of such magnitude that it would fully test and draw out his own greatness.

The fight between the undefeated reigning heavyweight champion and the undefeated former champion was one of the most anticipated sporting events of the 1970s.

Given the social polarization of the time (1971), the matchup inevitably took on political overtones.

Because of his stand on the draft and his conversion to Islam, Ali represented the counter culture.

Frazier had grown up poor in a segregated South Carolina. His life experience was arguably more representative to the experience of many blacks in America than Ali’s relatively middle class upbringing had been.

Nevertheless, Frazier by default was cast as the representative of the establishment.

The bout lived up to its hype. Smokin’ Joe gave Ali his first loss as a professional fighter, scoring a 15-round decision in Madison Square Garden.

By the time the rematch came in 1974, neither of the men held the heavyweight title, Frazier having lost it to George Foreman.

In the lead-up to the fight, Ali took to calling Frazier ignorant. It infuriated Frazier and the two men got into a fistfight while appearing with Howard Cosell on a TV show.

The second Ali-Frazier fight proved less dramatic than the confrontation on Cosell’s show. Ali won a unanimous 12-round decision.

In his next bout, Ali traveled to Zaire. He would attempt to regain the heavyweight crown against a fighter whose style and bearing (at that time) brought back memories of Liston.

George Foreman was 40-0 with 37 knockouts. Foreman was a large man and his public persona was menacing. Leading up to the fight, seemingly no one other than Ali thought the younger man was beatable.

“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind,” was Ali’s pre-fight poem.

The Foreman fight proved a triumph of Ali’s ability to think on his feet. Ali realized early in the fight that the way to win was to let Foreman punch himself out — a strategy that came to be known as “the rope-a-dope.”

Laying on the ropes deflecting (mostly) punches with his arms, Ali let the big man wail away. Foreman ran out of gas by the fifth round.

Ali knocked him out in the eighth.

So he carried the heavyweight title into the rubber match with Joe Frazier in Manila, Philippines, on Sept. 30, 1975.

This would turn out to be one of the great professional boxing matches ever, featuring two men of immense pride, still considerable skill (even though both were on the wrong side of 30) and — at least on Frazier’s part — genuine personal enmity for the other.

Ali predicted that “it will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manilla.”

Being so characterized enraged Frazier again.

In the fight that ensued, two great boxers of immense heart threw everything they had at each other.

Ali dominated the early action, but Frazier rallied and controlled the middle rounds. Ali regained the initiative late and all but closed Frazier’s eyes.

Before the 15th round, an exhausted Ali reportedly asked his cornermen to cut his gloves off, meaning Ali felt he was too exhausted to answer the bell for the final round.

Dundee refused to do so.

Meanwhile, Frazier’s corner looked at the eyes swollen shut on their fighter and threw in the towel instead.

Ali had won the rubber match with his greatest rival.

“I hated Ali,” Frazier told the author Thomas Hauser many years later. “God might not like me talking that way, but it’s in my heart. First two fights, he tried to make me a white man. Then he tried to make me a n-----. How would you like if your kids come home crying from school because everybody was calling their dad a gorilla?”

Years later, Ali publicly apologized for some of his taunting of Frazier.

“Muhammad has said that he regrets many of the things he said about Joe Frazier,” Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, said in 2005. “He has communicated that to Joe.”

Frazier died on Nov. 7, 2011, at age 67.

Career twilight

After the final Frazier bout, Ali’s boxing skills diminished rapidly.

Still, he managed to successfully defend his title six more times before a matchup with lightly regarded Leon Spinks in 1978.

Out of shape and looking every bit of his 36 years, Ali lost his title to Spinks. Given an immediate rematch seven months later, Ali became the first to claim the heavyweight championship of the world three times by winning a unanimous 15-round decision.

It would have been the perfect way to end a brilliant career.

The heart that propelled the son of a Louisville sign painter to become one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century — and the money he could make by fighting — would not let him walk away.

Twice more, Ali entered the ring. In October 1980, he was hopelessly outclassed and badly mauled by Larry Holmes. Some 14 months later, Ali fought again, this time losing to the highly mediocre Trevor Berbick.

That would be Ali’s final fight. He ended his professional career with a record of 56 wins, five losses, with 37 knockouts.

In later years, as his Parkinson’s Syndrome worsened, many wondered how much damage came from those final two fights.

Cultural icon

It’s hard to fully capture the cultural magnitude of Ali.

Some terms still in use in conversation — float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; pulling the rope-a-dope — trace back to him.

Many credit/blame Ali (“I’m the greatest of all time!”) as the father of “trash talk” in American sports.

An ESPN special in 2007, Ali Rap, essentially credited Ali and his rhymes and syntax as a creative impetus to modern hip-hop music.

Ali’s large, unwieldy entourage, said to number in excess of 50 friends, employees and other hangers-on late in his boxing career, was a forerunner of the modern pro athlete “posse.”

The actor, Sylvester Stallone, says he got the idea for the film Rocky from watching Ali’s 15-round fight with a white journeyman fighter named Chuck Wepner.

Will Smith starred in a film version of Ali’s life, Ali, reportedly delighting the boxer by calling him during breaks in filming to do his imitation of Ali for Ali.

The most lasting image of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta was not rendered by any of the competing athletes.

It was the sight of Ali, his arms trembling from the Parkinson’s Syndrome, lighting the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.

Loves Kentucky

The world and the nation often seemed more comfortable in embracing Ali and his legacy than his fellow Kentuckians.

In 2004, Sports Illustrated scientifically polled Kentuckians on the greatest athlete ever produced in the commonwealth. Dan Issel, the University of Kentucky basketball standout who was raised in Illinois, was ranked first in the poll, with the native Kentuckian, Ali, second.

Given the tumult of the 1960s and the stands Ali chose in those polarizing times, perhaps it is not surprising that a state with Kentucky’s Bible Belt leanings and patriotic tenor would have a hard time fully embracing him.

In November 2005, Ali opened The Muhammad Ali Center, a museum that memorializes his boxing achievements and a cultural and educational facility designed to keep alive his causes.

The center sits in Ali’s hometown, where he first became known as The Louisville Lip.

“Muhammad loves Louisville and he loves the state of Kentucky,” Lonnie Ali said the weekend the facility opened.

Fight statistics

Total bouts: 61

Wins by knockout: 37

Wins by decision: 19

Losses by knockout: 1

Losses by decision: 4

W = Won by decision; L = Lost by decision; KO = Knockout; KO’d = Knockedout


Oct 29 Tunney Hunsaker, Louisville Kentucky, W6

Dec 27 Herb Siler, Miami Beach, Florida, KO4


Jan 17 Anthony Sperti, Miami Beach, Florida, KO3

Feb 7 Jim Robinson, Miami Beach, Florida, KO1

Feb 21 Donnie Fleeman, Miami Beach, Florida, KO7

Apr 19 Lamar Clark, Louisville, Kentucky, KO2

June 26 Duke Sabedong, Las Vegas, Nevada W10

July 22 Alonzo Johnson, Louisville, Kentucky, W10

Oct 7 Alex Miteff, Louisville, Kentucky, KO6

Nov 29 Willie Besmanoff, Louisville, Kentucky, KO7


Feb 10 Sonny Banks, New York, New York, KO4

Feb 28 Don Warner, Miami Beach, Florida KO4

Apr 23 George Logan, Los Angeles, California, KO6

May 19 Billy Daniels, New York, New York, KO7

July 20 Alejandro Lavorante, Los Angeles, California, KO5

Nov 15 Archie Moore, Los Angeles, California, KO4


Jan 24 Charlie Powell, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, KO3

Mar 13 Doug Jones, New York, New York, W10

June 18 Henry Cooper, London, England, KO5


Feb 25 Sonny Liston, Miami Beach, Florida, TKO7, WORLD


May 25 Sonny Liston, Lewiston, Maine, KO1, WORLD

Nov 22 Floyd Patterson, Las Vegas, Nevada KO12, WORLD


Mar 29 George Chuvalo, Toronto, Canada, W15, WORLD

May 21 Henry Cooper, London, England, KO6, WORLD

Aug 6 Brian London, London, England, KO3, WORLD

Sept 10 Karl Mildenberger, Frankfurt, Germany, KO12, WORLD

Nov 14 Cleveland Williams, Houston, Texas, KO3, WORLD


Feb 6 Ernie Terrell, Houston, Texas, W15, WORLD

Mar 22 Zora Folley, New York, New York, KO7, WORLD


Oct 26 Jerry Quarry, Atlanta, Georgia, KO3

Dec 7 Oscar Bonavena, New York, New York, KO15


Mar 8 Joe Frazier, New York, New York, L15, WORLD

July 26 Jimmy Ellis, Houston, Texas, KO12

Nov 17 Buster Mathis, Houston, Texas, W12

Dec 26 Jurgen Blin, Zurich, Switzerland, KO7


Apr 1 Mac Foster, Tokyo, Japan, W15

May 1 George Chuvalo, Vancouver, Canada, W12

June 27 Jerry Quarry, Las Vegas, Nevada, KO7

July 19 Alvin Lewis, Dublin, Ireland, KO11

Sept 20 Floyd Patterson, New York, New York, KO8

Nov 21 Bob Foster, Stateline, Nevada KO8


Feb 14 Joe Bugner, Las Vegas, Nevada, W12

Mar 31 Ken Norton, San Diego, California, L12

Sept 10 Ken Norton, Los Angeles, California, W12

Oct 20 Rudy Lubbers, Jakarta, Indonesia, W12


Jan 28 Joe Frazier, New York, New York, W12

Oct 30 George Foreman, Kinshasa, Zaire, KO8, WORLD


Mar 24 Chuck Wepner, Cleveland, Ohio, KO15, WORLD

May 16 Ron Lyle, Las Vegas, Nevada, KO11, WORLD

June 30 Joe Bugner, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, W15, WORLD

Oct 1 Joe Frazier, Quezon City, Philippines, KO14, WORLD


Feb 20 Jean-Pierre Coopman, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, KO5, WORLD

Apr 30 Jimmy Young, Landover, Maryland, W15, WORLD

May 24 Richard Dunn, Munich, Germany, KO5, WORLD

Sept 28 Ken Norton, New York, New York, W15, WORLD


May 16 Alfredo Evangelista, Landover, Maryland, W15, WORLD

Sept 29 Earnie Shavers, New York, New York, W15, WORLD


Feb 15 Leon Spinks, Las Vegas, Nevada, L15, WORLD

Sept 15 Leon Spinks, New Orleans, Louisiana, W15, WORLD


Oct 2 Larry Holmes, Las Vegas, Nevada, KO’d11, WORLD


Dec 11 Trevor Berbick, Nassau, Bahamas, L10

Memorable quotes from Muhammad Ali

(Compiled by John Gettings)

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

— Time magazine (1978)

“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”

— New York Times (1977)

“I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.”

— New York Times (1962)

“I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”

— after announcing he’s joined the Nation of Islam (1964)

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

— refusing military induction based on religious grounds (1966)

“I am the greatest.”

— favorite slogan first used in 1962

“I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

— promoting his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman in 1974

“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”

— from an interview in the New York Times (March 2001), apologizing to former opponent Joe Frazier, whom he called an “Uncle Tom” and “a gorilla” while promoting the first of their three legendary fights in 1971

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

— Playboy magazine (1975)

“I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.”

— from his official statement refusing induction to the armed forces (1967)

“I’m the best. I just haven’t played yet.”

— when asked about his golf game

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

— catchphrase said to have originated with his aide Drew “Bundini” Brown (1964)

“I have the world heavyweight title not because it was ‘given’ to me, not because of my race or religion, but because I won it in the ring through my own boxing ability.”

— from his official statement refusing induction to the armed forces (1967)

“Howard Cosell was gonna be a boxer when he was a kid — only they couldn’t find a mouthpiece big enough.”

— joking about the longtime ABC-TV boxing broadcaster (1974)

“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.”

— Sunday Express (London) (1963)

“I’ll beat him so bad he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.”

— on fight with Floyd Patterson (1965)

“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.”

— Playboy magazine (1975)

“He’s too ugly to be the champ!”

— on heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston

Tale Of The Tape

Muhammad Ali

Height: 6-3

Weight: 210

Reach: 82

Chest/Norm.: 43

Chest/Exp.: 45

Waist: 34

Biceps: 15

Neck: 17

Wrist: 8

Calf: 17

Ankle: 10

Thigh: 25

Fist: 12

Forearm: 15

Muhammad Ali time line

Jan. 17, 1942

Born Cassius Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky.

Oct. 29, 1960

In his professional debut, Clay defeats Tunney Hunsaker in Louisville, Ky.

Feb. 25, 1964

Clay announces his membership in the Black Muslim religion and adopts the name Muhammad Ali.

April 28, 1967

Ali refuses induction into the U.S. Army, declaring himself to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

April 29, 1967

World Boxing Association and state boxing commissions strip Ali of his championship title.

June 20, 1967

Ali is found guilty of draft evasion in Houston, Texas; he is fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison, but remains free on appeal.


Ali is allowed to resume fighting.

June 28, 1971

The U.S. Supreme Court reverses Ali’s draft-evasion conviction, ruling he had been drafted improperly.

June 27, 1979

Ali announces his retirement from boxing.


Ali announces he has Parkinson’s disease, a progressive degenerative disorder.

July 21, 1996

Ali lights the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta.

Nov. 14, 2005

George W. Bush presents Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Nov. 21, 2005

Ali opens The Muhammad Ali Center, both a museum that memorializes his boxing achievements and a cultural and educational facility designed to keep alive his legacy and causes.

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