Cassius Clay “Muhammad Ali” (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)
“The People’s Champion of Boxing”
an American professional boxer, widely regarded as one of the greatest and most significant sporting figures in history. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring, controversial and polarizing figure both inside and outside the boxing ring.
Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and he began training when he was 12 years old. At 22, he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in an upset in 1964. Shortly after that, Clay converted to Islam, changed his “slave” name to Ali, and gave a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination.
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles, which he successfully appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court where, in 1971, his conviction was overturned. Due to this hiatus, he had not fought for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
Ali remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964, and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, in which he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier. Ali retired from boxing permanently in 1981.
At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali, inspired by professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, thrived in—and indeed craved—the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He had a sister and four brothers, including Nathaniel Clay. He was named for his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who himself was named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, also from the state of Kentucky. Clay’s paternal grandparents were John Clay and Sallie Anne Clay; Clay’s sister Eva claimed that Sallie was a native of Madagascar. He was a descendant of slaves of the antebellum South, and was predominantly of African descent, with Irish and English heritage. His father painted billboards and signs, and his mother, Odessa O’Grady Clay, was a household domestic. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius and his younger brother Rudolph “Rudy” Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali) as Baptists. He grew up in racial segregation. His mother recalled one occasion where he was denied a drink of water at a store. “They wouldn’t give him one because of his color. That really affected him.”
He was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin, who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief taking his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told him he had better learn how to box first. For the last four years of Clay’s amateur career he was trained by boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.
Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Ali claimed in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant and fought with a white gang. The story has since been disputed and several of Ali’s friends, including Bundini Brown and photographer Howard Bingham, have denied it. Brown told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one!” Thomas Hauser’s biography of Ali stated that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it. Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960, winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. From then until the end of 1963, Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. He defeated boxers including Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper. Clay also beat his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore in a 1962 match.
These early fights were not without trials. Clay was knocked down both by Sonny Banks and Cooper. In the Cooper fight, Clay was floored by a left hook at the end of round four and was saved by the bell. The fight with Doug Jones on March 13, 1963, was Clay’s toughest fight during this stretch. The number-two and -three heavyweight contenders respectively, Clay and Jones fought on Jones’ home turf at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jones staggered Clay in the first round, and the unanimous decision for Clay was greeted by boos and a rain of debris thrown into the ring (watching on closed-circuit TV, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder). The fight was later named “Fight of the Year”.
In each of these fights, Clay vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities. Jones was “an ugly little man” and Cooper was a “bum”. He was embarrassed to get in the ring with Alex Miteff. Madison Square Garden was “too small for me”. Clay’s behavior provoked the ire of many boxing fans.
After Clay left Moore’s camp in 1960, partially due to Clay’s refusing to do chores such as dish-washing and sweeping, he hired Angelo Dundee, whom he had met in February 1957 during Ali’s amateur career, to be his trainer. Around this time, Clay sought longtime idol Sugar Ray Robinson to be his manager, but was rebuffed.
By late 1963, Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Based on Clay’s uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights, and Liston’s destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first-round knock outs, Clay was a 7–1 underdog. Despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup, dubbing him “the big ugly bear”. “Liston even smells like a bear”, Clay said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Clay turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus, shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight”. Clay’s pulse rate was measured at 120, more than double his normal 54. Many of those in attendance thought Clay’s behavior stemmed from fear, and some commentators wondered if he would show up for the bout.
The outcome of the fight was a major upset. At the opening bell, Liston rushed at Clay, seemingly angry and looking for a quick knockout, but Clay’s superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude Liston, making the champion miss and look awkward. At the end of the first round Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston repeatedly with jabs. Liston fought better in round two, but at the beginning of the third round Clay hit Liston with a combination that buckled his knees and opened a cut under his left eye. This was the first time Liston had ever been cut. At the end of round four, as Clay returned to his corner, he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston’s cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. Though unconfirmed, Bert Sugar claimed that two of Liston’s opponents also complained about their eyes “burning”.
Despite Liston’s attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the irritation from his eyes. In the sixth, Clay dominated, hitting Liston repeatedly. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by TKO. Liston stated that the reason he quit was an injured shoulder. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted: “Eat your words!” He added, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
In winning this fight, Clay became at age 22 the youngest boxer to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion, though Floyd Patterson was the youngest to win the heavyweight championship at 21, during an elimination bout following Rocky Marciano’s retirement. Mike Tyson broke both records in 1986 when he defeated Trevor Berbick to win the heavyweight title at age 20.
Soon after the Liston fight, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam and affiliating with the Nation of Islam. Ali then faced a rematch with Liston scheduled for May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. It had been scheduled for Boston the previous November, but was postponed for six months due to Ali’s emergency surgery for a hernia three days before. The fight was controversial. Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked down by a difficult-to-see blow the press dubbed a “phantom punch”. Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, and referee Jersey Joe Walcott did not begin the count. Liston rose after he had been down about 20 seconds, and the fight momentarily continued. But a few seconds later Walcott stopped the match, declaring Ali the winner by knockout. The entire fight lasted less than two minutes.
It has since been speculated that Liston dropped to the ground purposely. Proposed motivations include threats on his life from the Nation of Islam, that he had bet against himself and that he “took a dive” to pay off debts. Slow-motion replays show that Liston was jarred by a chopping right from Ali, although it is unclear whether the blow was a genuine knock-out punch.
Ali defended his title against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on November 22, 1965. Before the match, Ali mocked Patterson, who was widely known to call him by his former name Cassius Clay, as an “Uncle Tom”, calling him “The Rabbit”. Although Ali clearly had the better of Patterson, who appeared injured during the fight, the match lasted 12 rounds before being called on a technical knockout. Patterson later said he had strained his sacroiliac. Ali was criticized in the sports media for appearing to have toyed with Patterson during the fight.
Ali and then-WBA heavyweight champion boxer Ernie Terrell had agreed to meet for a bout in Chicago on March 29, 1966 (the WBA, one of two boxing associations, had stripped Ali of his title following his joining the Nation of Islam). But in February Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A from 1-Y, and he indicated that he would refuse to serve, commenting to the press, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.” Amidst the media and public outcry over Ali’s stance, the Illinois Athletic Commission refused to sanction the fight, citing technicalities.
Instead, Ali traveled to Canada and Europe and won championship bouts against George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London and Karl Mildenberger.
Ali returned to the United States to fight Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome on November 14, 1966. The bout drew a record-breaking indoor crowd of 35,460 people. Williams had once been considered among the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, but in 1964 he had been shot at point-blank range by a Texas policeman, resulting in the loss of one kidney and 10 feet (3.0 m) of his small intestine. Ali dominated Williams, winning a third-round technical knockout in what some consider the finest performance of his career.
Ali fought Terrell in Houston on February 6, 1967. Terrell was billed as Ali’s toughest opponent since Liston—unbeaten in five years and having defeated many of the boxers Ali had faced. Terrell was big, strong and had a three-inch reach advantage over Ali. During the lead up to the bout, Terrell repeatedly called Ali “Clay”, much to Ali’s annoyance (Ali called Cassius Clay his “slave name”). The two almost came to blows over the name issue in a pre-fight interview with Howard Cosell. Ali seemed intent on humiliating Terrell. “I want to torture him”, he said. “A clean knockout is too good for him.” The fight was close until the seventh round when Ali bloodied Terrell and almost knocked him out. In the eighth round, Ali taunted Terrell, hitting him with jabs and shouting between punches, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Ali won a unanimous 15-round decision. Terrell claimed that early in the fight Ali deliberately thumbed him in the eye—forcing Terrell to fight half-blind—and then, in a clinch, rubbed the wounded eye against the ropes. Because of Ali’s apparent intent to prolong the fight to inflict maximum punishment, critics described the bout as “one of the ugliest boxing fights”. Tex Maule later wrote: “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.” Ali denied the accusations of cruelty but, for Ali’s critics, the fight provided more evidence of his arrogance.
After Ali’s title defense against Zora Folley on March 22, he was stripped of his title due to his refusal to be drafted to army service. His boxing license was also suspended by the state of New York. He was convicted of draft evasion on June 20 and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He paid a bond and remained free while the verdict was being appealed.
In March 1966, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating that he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong”. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.” He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeals process. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8–0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself, as he had been the U.S. Solicitor General at the time of Ali’s conviction).
During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African American pride and racial justice.
On August 12, 1970, with his case still in appeal, Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission, thanks to State Senator Leroy R. Johnson. Ali’s first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after Quarry was cut.
A month earlier, a victory in federal court forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali’s license. He fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December, an uninspired performance that ended in a dramatic technical knockout of Bonavena in the 15th round. The win left Ali as a top contender against heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
Ali and Frazier’s first fight, held at the Garden on March 8, 1971, was nicknamed the “Fight of the Century”, due to the tremendous excitement surrounding a bout between two undefeated fighters, each with a legitimate claim as heavyweight champions. Veteran boxing writer John Condon called it “the greatest event I’ve ever worked on in my life”. The bout was broadcast to 35 foreign countries; promoters granted 760 press passes.
Adding to the atmosphere were the considerable pre-fight theatrics and name calling. Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment”. “Frazier is too ugly to be champ”, Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” Ali also frequently called Frazier an “Uncle Tom”. Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp, recalled that, “Ali was saying ‘the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’ Joe was sitting there, smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?'”
Ali began training at a farm near Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and, finding the country setting to his liking, sought to develop a real training camp in the countryside. He found a five-acre site on a Pennsylvania country road in the village of Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. On this site, Ali carved out what was to become his training camp, the camp where he lived and trained for all the many fights he had from 1972 on to the end of his career in the 1980s.
The Monday night fight lived up to its billing. In a preview of their two other fights, a crouching, bobbing and weaving Frazier constantly pressured Ali, getting hit regularly by Ali jabs and combinations, but relentlessly attacking and scoring repeatedly, especially to Ali’s body. The fight was even in the early rounds, but Ali was taking more punishment than ever in his career. On several occasions in the early rounds he played to the crowd and shook his head “no” after he was hit. In the later rounds—in what was the first appearance of the “rope-a-dope strategy”—Ali leaned against the ropes and absorbed punishment from Frazier, hoping to tire him. In the 11th round, Frazier connected with a left hook that wobbled Ali, but because it appeared that Ali might be clowning as he staggered backwards across the ring, Frazier hesitated to press his advantage, fearing an Ali counter-attack. In the final round, Frazier knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook, which referee Arthur Mercante said was as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was back on his feet in three seconds. Nevertheless, Ali lost by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat.
Ali’s characterizations of Frazier during the lead-up to the fight cemented a personal animosity toward Ali by Frazier that lasted until Frazier’s death. Frazier and his camp always considered Ali’s words cruel and unfair, far beyond what was necessary to sell tickets. Shortly after the bout, in the TV studios of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during a nationally televised interview with the two boxers, Frazier rose from his chair and wrestled Ali to the floor after Ali called him ignorant.
In the same year basketball star Wilt Chamberlain challenged Ali, and a fight was scheduled for July 26. Although the seven foot two inch tall Chamberlain had formidable physical advantages over Ali, weighing 60 pounds more and able to reach 14 inches further, Ali was able to intimidate Chamberlain into calling off the bout. This happened during a shared press conference with Chamberlain in which Ali repeatedly responded to reporters with the traditional lumberjack warning, “Timber”, and said, “The tree will fall!” With these statements of confidence, Ali was able to unsettle his taller opponent into calling off the bout.
After the loss to Frazier, Ali fought Jerry Quarry, had a second bout with Floyd Patterson and faced Bob Foster in 1972, winning a total of six fights that year. In 1973, Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw while giving him the second loss of his career. After initially seeking retirement, Ali won a controversial decision against Norton in their second bout, leading to a rematch at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974, with Joe Frazier who had recently lost his title to George Foreman.
Ali was strong in the early rounds of the fight, and staggered Frazier in the second round (referee Tony Perez mistakenly thought he heard the bell ending the round and stepped between the two fighters as Ali was pressing his attack, giving Frazier time to recover). However, Frazier came on in the middle rounds, snapping Ali’s head in round seven and driving him to the ropes at the end of round eight. The last four rounds saw round-to-round shifts in momentum between the two fighters. Throughout most of the bout, however, Ali was able to circle away from Frazier’s dangerous left hook and to tie Frazier up when he was cornered, the latter a tactic that Frazier’s camp complained of bitterly. Judges awarded Ali a unanimous decision.
The defeat of Frazier set the stage for a title fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974—a bout nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Foreman was considered one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. In assessing the fight, analysts pointed out that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—who had given Ali four tough battles and won two of them—had been both devastated by Foreman in second round knockouts. Ali was 32 years old, and had clearly lost speed and reflexes since his twenties. Contrary to his later persona, Foreman was at the time a brooding and intimidating presence. Almost no one associated with the sport, not even Ali’s long-time supporter Howard Cosell, gave the former champion a chance of winning.
As usual, Ali was confident and colorful before the fight. He told interviewer David Frost, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!” He told the press, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Ali was wildly popular in Zaire, with crowds chanting “Ali, Bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) wherever he went.
Ali opened the fight moving and scoring with right crosses to Foreman’s head. Then, beginning in the second round—and to the consternation of his corner—Ali retreated to the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him while covering up, clinching and counter-punching, all while verbally taunting Foreman. (“Is that all you got, George? They told me you could hit.”) The move, which would later become known as the “Rope-A-Dope”, so violated conventional boxing wisdom—letting one of the hardest hitters in boxing strike at will—that at ringside writer George Plimpton thought the fight had to be fixed. Foreman, increasingly angered, threw punches that were deflected and did not land squarely. Midway through the fight, as Foreman began tiring, Ali countered more frequently and effectively with punches and flurries, which electrified the pro-Ali crowd. In the eighth round, Ali dropped an exhausted Foreman with a combination at center ring; Foreman failed to make the count. Against the odds, and amidst pandemonium in the ring, Ali had regained the title by knockout. In reflecting on the fight, George Foreman later said: “I’ll admit it. Muhammad outthought me and outfought me.”
Ali’s next opponents included Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, and Joe Bugner. Wepner, a journeyman known as “The Bayonne Bleeder”, stunned Ali with a knockdown in the ninth round; Ali would later say he tripped on Wepner’s foot. It was a bout that would inspire Sylvester Stallone to create the acclaimed film, Rocky.
Ali then agreed to a third match with Joe Frazier in Manila. The bout, known as the “Thrilla in Manila”, was held on October 1, 1975, in temperatures approaching 100 °F (38 °C). In the first rounds, Ali was aggressive, moving and exchanging blows with Frazier. However, Ali soon appeared to tire and adopted the “rope-a-dope” strategy, frequently resorting to clinches. During this part of the bout Ali did some effective counter-punching, but for the most part absorbed punishment from a relentlessly attacking Frazier. In the 12th round, Frazier began to tire, and Ali scored several sharp blows that closed Frazier’s left eye and opened a cut over his right eye. With Frazier’s vision now diminished, Ali dominated the 13th and 14th rounds, at times conducting what boxing historian Mike Silver called “target practice” on Frazier’s head. The fight was stopped when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to allow Frazier to answer the bell for the 15th and final round, despite Frazier’s protests. Frazier’s eyes were both swollen shut. Ali, in his corner, winner by TKO, slumped on his stool, clearly spent.
An ailing Ali said afterwards that the fight “was the closest thing to dying that I know”, and, when later asked if he had viewed the fight on videotape, reportedly said, “Why would I want to go back and see Hell?” After the fight he cited Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all times next to me”.
Following the Manila bout, Ali fought Jean-Pierre Coopman, Jimmy Young, and Richard Dunn, winning the last by knockout. Later in 1976, he participated in an exhibition bout in Tokyo against Japanese professional wrestler and martial artist Antonio Inoki (Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki). Though the fight was a publicity stunt, Inoki’s kicks caused bruises, two blood clots and an infection in Ali’s legs. The fight was ultimately declared a draw. He fought Ken Norton for the third time at the Yankee Stadium in September 1976, where Ali won by a heavily contested decision, which was loudly booed by the audience. Afterwards, he announced he was retiring from boxing to practice his faith, having converted to Sunni Islam after falling out with the Nation of Islam the previous year.
After winning against Alfredo Evangelista in May 1977, Ali struggled in his next fight against Earnie Shavers that September, who pummeled him a few times with punches to the head. Ali won the fight by another unanimous decision, but the bout caused his longtime doctor Ferdie Pacheco to quit after he was rebuffed for telling Ali he should retire. Pacheco was quoted as saying, “the New York State Athletic Commission gave me a report that showed Ali’s kidneys were falling apart. I wrote to Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, his wife and Ali himself. I got nothing back in response. That’s when I decided enough is enough.”
In February 1978, Ali faced Leon Spinks at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. At the time, Spinks had only seven professional fights to his credit, and had recently fought a draw with journeyman Scott LeDoux. Ali sparred less than two dozen rounds in preparation for the fight, and was seriously out of shape by the opening bell. He lost the title by split decision. A rematch followed shortly thereafter in New Orleans, which broke attendance records. Ali won a unanimous decision in an uninspiring fight, making him the first heavyweight champion to win the belt three times.
Following this win, on July 27, 1979, Ali announced his retirement from boxing. His retirement was short-lived, however; Ali announced his comeback to face Larry Holmes for the WBC belt in an attempt to win the heavyweight championship an unprecedented fourth time. The fight was largely motivated by Ali’s need for money. Boxing writer Richie Giachetti said, “Larry didn’t want to fight Ali. He knew Ali had nothing left; he knew it would be a horror.”
It was around this time that Ali started struggling with vocal stutters and trembling hands. The Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) ordered that he undergo a complete physical in Las Vegas before being allowed to fight again. Ali chose instead to check into the Mayo Clinic, who declared him fit to fight. Their opinion was accepted by the NAC on July 31, 1980, paving the way for Ali’s return to the ring.
The fight took place on October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas Valley, with Holmes easily dominating Ali, who was weakened from thyroid medication he had taken to lose weight. Giachetti called the fight “awful … the worst sports event I ever had to cover”. Actor Sylvester Stallone at ringside said it was like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive. Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee finally stopped the fight in the eleventh round, the only fight Ali lost by knockout. The Holmes fight is said to have contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome. Despite pleas to definitively retire, Ali fought one last time on December 11, 1981 in Nassau, Bahamas against Trevor Berbick, losing a ten-round decision.
On January 19, 1981, in Los Angeles, Ali talked a man down from jumping off a ninth-floor ledge, an event that made national news.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, a disease that sometimes results from head trauma from activities such as boxing. Ali still remained active during this time, however, later participating as a guest referee at WrestleMania I.
In 1984, Ali announced his support for the re-election, 1984 of United States President Ronald Reagan, when asked to elaborate on his endorsement of Reagan, Ali told reporters, “He’s keeping God in schools and that’s enough.”
Around 1987, the California Bicentennial Foundation for the U.S. Constitution selected Ali to personify the vitality of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Ali rode on a float at the following year’s Tournament of Roses Parade, launching the U.S. Constitution’s 200th birthday commemoration.
Ali published an oral history, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, in 1991. That same year, Ali traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War, and met with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages. In 1996, he had the honor of lighting the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ali’s bout with Parkinson’s led to a gradual decline in Ali’s health though he was still active into the early years of the millennium, even promoting his own biopic, Ali, in 2001. Ali also contributed an on-camera segment to the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert.
Ali in his later years
On November 17, 2002, Muhammad Ali went to Afghanistan as the “U.N. Messenger of Peace”. He was in Kabul for a three-day goodwill mission as a special guest of the UN.
On September 1, 2009, Ali visited Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, the home of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady, who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1860s, eventually settling in Kentucky. A crowd of 10,000 turned out for a civic reception, where Ali was made the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis.
On July 27, 2012, Ali was a titular bearer of the Olympic Flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He was helped to his feet by his wife Lonnie to stand before the flag due to his Parkinson’s rendering him unable to carry it into the stadium.
In February 2013, Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali, said Muhammad could no longer speak and could be dead within days. Ali’s daughter, May May Ali, responded to the rumors, stating that she had talked to him on the phone the morning of February 3 and he was fine. On December 20, 2014, Ali was hospitalized for a mild case of pneumonia. Ali was once again hospitalized on January 15, 2015, for a urinary tract infection after being found unresponsive at a guest house in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was released the next day. Ali was hospitalized in Scottsdale in June 2016, with a respiratory illness. Though his condition was initially described as “fair”, his condition worsened and he died the following day, aged 74. His death was attributed to septic shock.
Muhammad Ali defeated every top heavyweight in his era, which has been called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. Ali was named “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazine more times than any other fighter, and was involved in more Ring Magazine “Fight of the Year” bouts than any other fighter. He was an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and held wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees. He was one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.
In 1978, three years before Ali’s permanent retirement, the Louisville Board of Aldermen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, voted 6–5 to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard. This was controversial at the time, as within a week 12 of the 70 street signs were stolen. Earlier that year, a committee of the Jefferson County Public Schools (Kentucky) considered renaming Central High School (Louisville, Kentucky) in his honor, but the motion failed to pass. At any rate, in time, Muhammad Ali Boulevard—and Ali himself—came to be well accepted in his hometown. In 1993, the Associated Press reported that Ali was tied with Babe Ruth as the most recognized athlete, out of over 800 dead or alive athletes, in America. The study found that over 97% of Americans over 12 years of age identified both Ali and Ruth. He was the recipient of the 1997 Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
In 1999, Time magazine named Ali one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. He was crowned Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. Named Sports Personality of the Century in a BBC poll, he received more votes than the other contenders (which included Pelé, Jesse Owens and Jack Nicklaus) combined. On September 13, 1999, Ali was named “Kentucky Athlete of the Century” by the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Galt House East.
On January 8, 2001, Muhammad Ali was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton. In November 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, followed by the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the UN Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for his work with the U.S. civil rights movement and the United Nations (December 17, 2005).
On November 19, 2005 (Ali’s 19th wedding anniversary), the $60 million non-profit Muhammad Ali Center opened in downtown Louisville. In addition to displaying his boxing memorabilia, the center focuses on core themes of peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth. On June 5, 2007, he received an honorary doctorate of humanities at Princeton University’s 260th graduation ceremony.
Ali Mall, located in Araneta Center, Quezon City, Philippines, is named after him. Construction of the mall, the first of its kind in the Philippines, began shortly after Ali’s victory in a match with Joe Frazier in nearby Araneta Coliseum in 1975. The mall opened in 1976 with Ali attending its opening.