Ali, Muhammad (1942–)

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Muhammad Ali (1942–)

On three separate occasions, Muhammad Ali won the title of heavyweight boxing champ. He was more than a fighter, however; he was one of the most beloved and one of the most despised public figures of his time. Ali earned his first fame in 1960 (when he was still known by his birth name, Cassius Clay), winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics (see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1), and secured his initial title by beating Sonny Liston (1932–1970) in 1964.

Ali was not the first African American boxing champ, but like Jack Johnson (1878–1946; see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1) before him, Ali courted controversy on several fronts. He was a spirited soul who said and did as he pleased. He was a master of self-promotion, declaring "I am the greatest" for all to hear. This attitude rankled those white people who felt that the young champ did not "know his place" as a Negro (the accepted term for African Americans in the 1960s). They were bothered further when the boxer announced that he had become a Black Muslim and changed his name from Clay to Ali. Then he refused to submit to the military draft and was convicted of draft evasion. For this final offense, he was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association in 1967. He was condemned on editorial pages and over dinner tables across America.

Ali's conviction was overturned, however, and he returned to the ring in 1971. Before retiring a decade later, he participated in several classic ring battles with Joe Frazier (1944–) and George Foreman (1949–). Back in the late 1960s, Ali—despite his controversy—arguably was the most famous human on earth, a hero in Africa, in third-world nations, and in the ghettos of America. In dramatic fashion, the Parkinson's Disease–afflicted Ali lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. As he aged, and his old enemies died out, Ali became one of the world's most respected and beloved sports legends.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Bockris, Victor. Muhammad Ali. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Early, Gerald, ed. The Muhammad Ali Reader. New York: R. Weisbach Books, 1999.

Hook, Jason. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 2001.

Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. Muhammad Ali. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.

Tessitore, John. Muhammad Ali: The World's Champion. New York: F. Watts, 1998.