Ali, Muhammad (Cassius Clay)

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ALI, Muhammad (Cassius Clay)

(b. 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky), three-time heavyweight champion boxer, Olympic gold medalist, and outspoken champion of African-American rights who risked jail for his antiwar beliefs and brought the political controversies of the 1960s into the sporting arena.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., one of two sons of Cassius Clay, a sign painter, and Odessa Grady, a household domestic worker, Ali grew up amid the racial discrimination then ubiquitous in the southern United States. Ali graduated from DuValle Junior High School and Central High School in Louisville. A poor student, he began boxing as a teenager and found in the sport an outlet for his physical energy as well as an arena for his extrovert personality. Ali won 100 bouts as an amateur, two National Golden Gloves championships, and two American Athletic Union championships. At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, he won the gold medal in the Light Heavyweight Division and turned professional soon thereafter.

Between 1960 and 1964, under the training of Angelo Dundee, Ali barnstormed the United States, winning a reputation as an agile, if unorthodox, fighter and a boastful big-mouth who ballyhooed his matches with predictions and rhymes. Inspired by the professional wrestler Gorgeous George, he dubbed himself "The Greatest." Ali's verbal wit, vibrant personality, and clean-cut good looks made him ideal television material, and at this stage he was welcomed by members of the boxing establishment concerned with the sport's sleazy, old-fashioned image.

Unbeknownst to them, this promising heavyweight contender was growing more impatient with American racism. As Ali later explained, "I won a gold medal representing the United States at the Olympic Games, and when I came home to Louisville, I still got treated like a nigger."

In 1961 or 1962, Ali came into contact with the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the "Black Muslims," the longest-established and most well-known Black Nationalist organization in the United States. As a separatist group that rejected white society, the Nation of Islam was reviled by whites and many African Americans, including the leadership of the civil rights movement. The young boxer kept his links to the organization secret for more than two years. During this period he formed a friendship with Malcolm X, who was among the first to grasp that Ali was more than a clown, that he represented a new type of African-American sports star with a new relationship to his people.

Ali's antics helped win him a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship, then held by the fearsome Sonny Liston. In the run-up to the fight, the underdog Ali spent time in private with Malcolm X, then under suspension by Elijah Muhammad, the Nation's Supreme Minister, for his caustic remarks on the Kennedy assassination. Rumors of Ali's association with Malcolm X and the Nation nearly led to the cancellation of the fight, which was held in Miami on 25 February 1964. In the end, Ali shocked the pundits by dominating Liston from the outset, dancing and jabbing his way to the title at the age of twenty-two. That night he spent a quiet evening with a select group of friends—including Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke, and the football player Jim Brown—and the following day informed the press that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Citing the violence unleashed against African-American civil rights protesters in the South, Ali announced: "I'm not a Christian anymore. 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." This announcement was a ground-breaking declaration of independence, personal and political, by a young African-American sports star, and it was greeted with nearly universal hostility by the mainstream media and the political and boxing establishments, a hostility that was to endure throughout the decade.

In the week following his victory over Liston, Ali and Malcolm X toured Harlem and visited the United Nations, where they made plans for a visit to Africa. On 6 March 1964 Elijah Muhammad awarded the new champion an "original name"—a great honor in the Nation of Islam—announcing that from now on he would be known as Muhammad Ali. Two days later, when Malcolm X made his public break with the Nation of Islam, the new heavyweight champion chose to remain with Elijah Muhammad, and denounced his former mentor and friend.

In 1964 it was considered provocative and eccentric for African Americans to adopt Islamic or African names, and Ali had to battle for many years to force the media to accept it. His commitment to the name and the identity it represented was deepened by his first trip to Africa in May and June 1964. Ali met Kwame Nkrumah, the anticolonialist revolutionary and president of Ghana, and Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, both stalwarts of the Non-Aligned Movement, and thus deeply suspect in the eyes of the U.S. State Department. For the first time, Ali heard his new name chanted by large crowds of poor people.

Back home, however, Ali was still regarded as a bad example to his people and his generation, and was regularly upbraided for his religious and political views. His second fight with Sonny Liston, held in Lewiston, Maine, on 25 May 1965, did little to improve his image. There was much controversy over the "phantom punch" that put Liston out in the first round. Ali's next fight, against former world champion Floyd Patterson, took on a highly politicized coloring after Patterson declared that he wanted to beat Ali in order to "take the title back for America." When the two met in the ring on 22 November 1965, a supremely confident Ali toyed with and taunted Patterson, shouting at him, "Come on, white America!" Sportswriters decried Ali's performance as mean-spirited.

These criticisms were merely a prelude to the avalanche of condemnation that was to break over Ali's head in 1966. Early that year, the Pentagon had expanded the draft, and as a result Ali was reclassified from "1-Y" to "1-A," thus becoming eligible for military service. Pressed by reporters for his response to the news, Ali declared on 17 February 1966: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." Later that day, he explained his feelings to Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times: "I'm no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I'll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money."

Ali was denounced as a traitor and a coward, and under pressure from politicians and newspapers, promoters in state after state refused to stage his fights. He was forced to travel abroad—fighting in London (twice), Toronto, and Frankfurt over the next few months—and in the process expanding his fan base outside the U.S. borders. Indeed, for most of his career, and certainly throughout the second half of the 1960s, Ali was far more popular abroad than at home.

In the seven title bouts he fought between February 1966 and his banishment from the ring in March 1967, Ali was at the peak of his form, combining speed, strength, power, and tactical guile. In this period he reached his height as a stylist in the ring, although his most dramatic and heroic fights were to come years later.

In late March 1967 Ali returned to Louisville to support a campaign for housing desegregation led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had backed Ali's stand on the draft and cited him as a model for American youth. On 29 March 1967 Ali explained to reporters why he would not serve in the armed forces: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? … [T]he real enemy of my people is right here."

On 28 April 1967, in Houston, Ali refused induction into the U.S. armed forces and was charged with violation of the Federal Selective Service Act. Boxing authorities immediately stripped Ali of his title and his license to fight. On 25 June he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the maximum of five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Ali was released on bail pending appeal and never served his jail sentence, but his passport was confiscated. Unable to travel abroad, unable to fight at home, Ali began a three-and-a-half-year exile from the ring, while his lawyers mounted a prolonged legal appeal.

During this period Ali supported his family by undertaking speaking engagements at colleges across the country. Bemused by his conservative homilies on sex and drugs, young people responded enthusiastically to his jokes and his denunciations of white racism and the war. Through the years of official opprobrium, Ali had been acquiring a huge army of grassroots supporters, both black and white. His symbolic centrality in the black insurgency of the era was illustrated in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where African-American sprinters greeted the U.S. national anthem with Black Power salutes. Foremost among their demands—even before a boycott of apartheid South Africa—was the restoration of Ali's heavyweight title.

The rising tide of antiwar protest made it more difficult to jail Ali, who had become an icon of both the black and youth revolts. On 28 September 1970 a New York State court ordered the State Athletic Commission to restore Ali's boxing license. His conviction was finally quashed by the U.S. Supreme Court on 28 June 1971. In Atlanta, on 26 October 1970, in his first comeback fight, Ali defeated Jerry Quarry in front of a glittering audience of African-American celebrities. But on 8 March 1971 Ali suffered his first-ever professional defeat at the hands of the reigning heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. He then set about an arduous climb back to the top. Over the next three years he fought thirteen times (losing once, to Ken Norton), before his rematch with Frazier on 28 January 1974. This time Ali emerged the victor, setting up the classic confrontation with the new heavyweight champion George Foreman.

Known as the "Rumble in the Jungle," the fight was staged in Kinshasa, then Zaire (now once again the Democratic Republic of the Congo), under the aegis of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and the promoter Don King. Ali's return to Africa after his years of persecution and exile was emotionally charged, both for the fighter and his global legion of fans. Few gave the now thirty-two-year-old Ali any chance against the young power-puncher Foreman. But on 30 October 1974, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of modern sport, Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round to reclaim the heavyweight title of the world, seven and a half years after it had been taken away from him because of his political and religious beliefs.

Vindicated in the ring, Ali basked in a new popularity and respectability. With the end of the Vietnam War, and the retreat of African-American political activism, he seemed a less threatening figure. In 1975, in what was widely reported as a gesture of political, racial, and generational reconciliation, a laying to rest of the ghosts of the 1960s, Ali was finally invited to the White House by President Gerald R. Ford. Also that year, Ali was selected as the 1974 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Ali triumphed again in his third and final bout with Frazier, a punishing encounter on 30 September 1975 dubbed the "Thrilla' in Manila," but after that his powers declined. Ali lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks on 15 February 1978 and then regained the title for the third time in a rematch with Spinks in 1979. His attempted comebacks in 1980 and 1981 were disastrous, and took a heavy toll on his physique. Ali retired with a 56-5 record; his final bout was a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981.

In the 1980s, Ali became ill with Parkinson's disease, which some speculate was induced by head trauma in the ring. He broke his remaining links with the family of Elijah Muhammad and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam. He reemerged as a public figure in the 1990s, disabled but still active in a variety of humanitarian causes. Ali is a United Nations Messenger of Peace and a spokesperson for the National Parkinson's Foundation, and has also worked for the Sisters of the Poor, UNICEF, and the campaign to cancel Third World debt. He lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where he was presented with a replacement of his 1960 gold medal. When We Were Kings: The True Story of the "Rumble in the Jungle, " a documentary film of the Kinshasa fight, won an Academy Award for best feature documentary in 1997. In 2001 Ali's career was the subject of a big-budget Hollywood feature, Ali, starring Will Smith. Ali was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1987, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He remains one of the world's most widely known and well-liked celebrities.

Ali has been married four times: first to Sonji Roi (1964 to 1965), then to Belinda Boyd (1967 to 1976), Veronica Porche (1977 to 1986), and Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams (19 November 1986 to the present). Ali and Williams live at Ali Farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He has six children by his four marriages, as well as two other children whom he recognizes as his own.

In fusing the personal with the political, surreal humor with moral earnestness, popular culture with social criticism, Ali proved an archetypal 1960s figure. Adept at exploiting the electronic media, he projected to a mass audience radical ideas about African-American identity, about war and the role of the United States abroad, that only a few years before had been considered the preserve of an extremist minority.

Ali's official autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (1975), by Ali and Richard Durham, has inaccuracies, gaps, and some inventions; Ali's actual involvement in it was minimal. Biographies include Robert Lipsyte, Free to be Muhammad Ali (1978); David Remnick, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1998); and Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1991), which remains the most comprehensive and reliable biography. Gerald Early, ed., The Muhammad Ali Reader (1998), collects articles by prominent writers from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s. Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999), analyzes Ali's political context and global impact.

Mike Marqusee

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Ali, Muhammad (Cassius Clay)

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