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“The Greatest of All Time” Had Some Dark Moments

Without a doubt, Muhammad Ali transformed the world of boxing. He took home the heavyweight title a total of three times, beginning with his shocking win in 1964 over Sonny Liston, making him the youngest boxer ever to beat a heavyweight champion.
Muhammad Ali / Laila Ali / Muhammad Ali / Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali is considered one of the best boxers of all time, and even though his style was quite unorthodox, his incredible combination of power and speed revolutionized the sport. Nowadays, most people agree that Ali was truly “The Greatest of All Time.” Here’s everything you need to know about this outstanding boxer.

 

America Wasn’t Ready for His “Arrogant” Manners

Apart from Ali’s achievements in the ring, the boxer’s appeal outside the arena got people interested in him. He gradually became one of the most beloved people on the planet. He spoke truth to power and said some confrontational things along the way.

A dated portrait of Muhammad Ali in the street.

To some, Muhammad Ali seemed arrogant, and not all of America was prepared to hear what he had to say. He expressed himself with forthrightness and a lot of charisma, so, whether you liked him or not, there’s no doubt you were captivated by the man.

 

He Introduced “Black Power” to America

Before James Brown recorded “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), and before Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Stokely Carmichael mentioned the term “Black Power” in the spring of 1966, Muhammad Ali had already become living proof of that phrase.

Muhammad Ali walks through the streets with members of the Black Panther Party.

Shortly after he beat Liston in the winter of 1964, the new champion said that he was changing his “slave name” of Cassius Clay to an almighty one – Muhammad Ali. Many sportswriters refused to call him that name, but he insisted.

 

Free to Be What He Wants to Be

“I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” the boxer said at his first press conference; “I’m free to be what I want.” In the following years, Muhammad Ali turned from a boxing champion to a champion of his people.

Muhammad Ali at a press conference.

He spoke up about racial inequality, his own experiences with injustice, and a better world for all. The champion was frequently misunderstood by the press, which, at the time, consisted of mainly white people.

 

Probably the Most Famous Muslim American in History

Muhammad Ali’s embrace of Islam’s rejection of racial integration was viewed by many as just another form of racism. Throughout the rest of the boxer’s career, he had to act as somewhat of an ambassador for his religion.

A studio portrait of Muhammad Ali wearing his boxing gloves.

Ali is arguably the most famous Muslim American in history. After the horrific 9/11 attack, the boxer spoke out against terrorism. “That really hurt me, because Islam is peace and is not violent,” he said. “The few that do these things make the religion as a whole look bad.”

 

He Jumpstarted the 1960s Antiwar Movement

In the spring of 1966, after it was decided that Ali could serve in the military, the boxing champion made headlines all over the world when he refused his induction into the army. At the time, the Vietnam War was still supported by many Americans, and Muhammad Ali’s decision to go against it was hugely controversial.

Muhammad Ali walks the street.

He was demonized by the press and treated by the media as a traitor and a coward. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” the boxer explained. “How can I shoot those poor people? Just take me to jail.” Ali wasn’t afraid; he was actually very strong-minded.

 

He Paid a Heavy Price

Ali’s decision to go against the grain cost him a lot. In the spring of 1967, the boxer was stripped of his heavyweight title, and after refusing to go to the army, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail.

A photo of Muhammad Ali in court.

Not only that, but he was banned from boxing for nearly four years; his passport was taken away from him, and he couldn’t obtain a license to box anywhere else. He sacrificed the prime years of his career which, unfortunately, cost him millions and left him in debt.

 

He Fought Years After He Should Have Retired

Due to the unfortunate financial situation Ali found himself in, he kept on boxing well past the point of retirement, suffering damaging blows that a lot of people believe eventually led to the Parkinson’s disease he lived with for the final three decades of his life.

A portrait of Muhammad Ali.

However, Ali’s decision wasn’t for nothing. It pretty much jumpstarted the ’60s anti-war movement, which in turn encouraged Martin Luther King to raise the issue in 1967. During his exile from the ring, he ventured around campuses and spoke publicly about the Vietnam war.

 

A Politically Conscious Athlete

In 1971, after a unanimous vote over Ali’s conviction, the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. Speaking his truth turned Ali into a perfect example of a politically conscious athlete.

Muhammad Ali talks to a crowd of students.

His behavior was infectious and influenced people like Tommy Smith and John Carlos who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics on the medal stand. To this day, Ali’s courage remains an inspiration to people. His example encourages them to act on principle and to fight against public opinion if it doesn’t seem right to them.

 

The Athlete as Brand-Name Entertainer

Muhammad Ali also had a huge impact on the entertainment industry. He recorded his very first album in 1963 under the name of Cassius Clay. The project is a spoken word record titled I Am the Greatest! It includes his cover of the song Stand by Me.

An image of Muhammad Ali at a recording studio.

His album peaked at No. 61 on the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. But because of the situation, Ali had to wait until 1976 to earn the nomination for “Best Recording for Children.”

 

Numerous Films About His Life

Muhammad Ali’s exceptional life has inspired about 10 movies thus far: great documentaries including When We Were Kings (which won the 1996 Oscar for Best Documentary) as well as The Trials of Muhammad Ali (discussing his Vietnam stance).

A photo of Muhammad Ali at the screening of When We Were Kings.

Other works include dramatic films like the ABC TV film King of the World (2000) where he is portrayed by Terrence Howard, the 2001 movie Ali where he is portrayed by Will Smith (and which won Smith his first Academy Award nomination), and finally, 1977’s The Greatest where he portrays himself.

 

His Fight Against the Bayonne Bleeder

One of Ali’s most long-lasting contributions to the entertainment business stems from his fight in 1975 against Chuck Wepner, also known as The Bayonne Bleeder. The fight, in which Wepner, the underdog, knocked Ali down, inspired Sylvester Stallone (who was a struggling actor at the time) to write the script for the movie Rocky.

Chuck Wepner takes a wild swing at Muhammad Ali.

Stallone denied any direct connection to the event and finally settled the lawsuit by Wepner in 2006. In honor of his work, Ali was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Fun fact: His star is displayed on the wall instead of the sidewalk because of his name (Muhammad is a holy prophet).

 

Rap’s Spiritual Father

Despite finding fame about a decade before hip-hop music emerged in the South Bronx, one of the boxer’s most enduring legacies remains as rap’s “spiritual father.” He was dubbed “The Louisville Lip,” and brought African American traditions like “the Dozens” into the mainstream.

A studio portrait of Muhammad Ali.

With pretty sick freestyle skills, the boxer’s early media performances feature him rhyming, flowing, and spitting lines that would one day be considered as good as old-school MC rap like Run DMC and LL Cool J.

 

Whimsical Poetry

Some footage of Ali shows him singing these lines: “Who would have thought when they came to the fight,” went one metered missive, “That they’d witness the launching of a black satellite? / Yes, the crowd did not dream / When they put up the money / That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Muhammad Ali smirks for the camera.

With impeccable wit, Ali was able to move even the toughest athlete in the game. And over the years, his words began to take on a different feel, for example: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

 

A Powerful Example for Future Rappers

Despite the fact that Parkinson’s disease robbed Ali of his sharp tongue, the boxer remained an inspiration for future rappers. His brutal honesty, strong opinions, and reputable behavior inspired the likes of Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay-Z.

A picture of a much older Muhammad Ali on stage.

It has been over five decades since the boxer first shook up the world, yet he remains at the heart of both sports and hip-hop, inspiring many people all over the world to live their truth and remain unwavering in the face of adversity.

 

He Became a Boxer Because His Bike Was Stolen!

It’s funny to look back at little Cassius Clay’s life and wonder whether it could have turned out any differently. In fact, what led him to box in the first place was just some thug who stole his bike. As it turned out, the young guy owned a bike, which was then shamelessly stolen!

A portrait of Muhammad Ali smiling at the camera.

In 1954, Cassius Clay’s bike was robbed from outside an auditorium. Understandably, he got really mad. He found the first policeman he saw and told him that he wanted to “whup up” whoever was responsible for the crime. As it turns out, the policeman, a guy named Joe Martin, was also a boxing trainer. He took young Ali under his wing and from that point on… the rest is history.

 

How He Got So Incredibly Fast

There’s a host of impressive things about Muhammad Ali’s boxing technique, but one of them is definitely his speed, which really got people’s jaws dropping. And the boxer’s method of getting so quick was, let’s just say, interesting…
An illustration sketch of Muhammad Ali during a fight in the ring.
According to Muhammad Ali’s younger brother Rudy, the boxer used to ask him to throw rocks his way. “I thought he was crazy, but he’d dodge everyone. No matter how many I threw, I could never hit him,” Rudy revealed.

 

He Once Punched a Cop

In the fall of 1960, Muhammad Ali won his first-ever professional match when he beat Tunney Hunsaker. As it turns out, Tunney Hunsaker was also the police chief of Fayetteville in West Virginia. So, actually, his first match was against a cop.
A photo of Muhammad Ali during a press conference.
The newbie boxer stunned the crowd and rose triumphant after six savage rounds. The two boxers remained good friends for years and would often look back at that fight and reminisce about those naïve times.

 

He Was Scared of Flying

In 1960, to attend the Olympics in Rome, Muhammad Ali traveled all the way to Europe for the very first time. As it turns out (and quite surprisingly I must say), the boxer was absolutely terrified.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali at the time.
Muhammad Ali was so scared that he insisted on wearing an actual parachute on his body for the whole ride. Ali’s venture across the Atlantic was definitely worth the fright, as he boxed his way and headed back home with a light-heavyweight gold medal.

 

Winning an Olympic Gold Didn’t Transcend Racism

Being as successful in his field and famous as he was, you would expect Muhammad Ali to have experienced some sort of “easing” or relief when it came to racism. But no, apparently, winning an Olympic Gold doesn’t shield you from people’s idiotic beliefs.
An image of Muhammad Ali holding the Olympic torch.
As Muhammad Ali entered a diner in Kentucky, proudly wearing the gold medal he rightfully earned in Rome, the waitress shamelessly told him, “Sorry, we don’t serve Negroes.” Ali responded, “Well that’s okay – I don’t eat ‘em either.”

 

People Expected Him to Lose

When Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston at the start of 1964, it upset many people. Sonny Liston had just crushed the former champion, Floyd Patterson, knocking him out in the first round. Moreover, Ali (at the time Cassius Clay) was just a 22-year-old newbie.

An image of Muhammad Ali after winning the Olympic medal.
Clearly, he was the underdog in the fateful battle. As the two threw punches, the crowd cheered for Sonny Liston, and every blow that Ali gave was accompanied by “oohs” and “booos.” Ultimately, he won and proved everyone wrong.

 

He Was Part Irish

Fun fact: Muhammad Ali’s great-grandfather, Abe Grady, was an Irishman who emigrated to Kentucky sometime in the mid-1800s. He then met a freed slave named Odessa Lee Grady Clay, fell in love, and asked for her hand.
An image of Muhammad Ali holding an award on stage.
Years later, after Cassius Clay was born, he ditched his “slave name” the moment he beat Sonny Liston in their 1964 battle. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by the movement’s leader, a man named Elijah Muhammad.

 

Frank Sinatra Worked Hard to See Ali’s Comeback Fight

After three and a half years of suspension from the ring (due to his draft evasion during the Vietnam war), Muhammad Ali came back to the ring. His legendary comeback fight was against Joe Frazier, and it went down at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
A photo of Muhammad Ali after the fight.
It was crowned “The Fight of the Century.” Such a battle was in high demand, and tickets were sold out. The demand to see Ali in action again was so high that Frank Sinatra worked his way in as a photographer for Life Magazine.

 

He Convinced Saddam Hussein to Free Hostages

Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein held 2,000 foreigners hostage after invading Kuwait. Upon hearing the devastating news, Muhammad Ali flew all the way to Baghdad to meet with the Hussein in the hopes that his status in the world might aid in negotiating a release.
A picture of Muhammad Ali during a press conference.<
Muhammad Ali was welcomed by Saddam, who accompanied him to his home and agreed to spend a few hours with “The Most Famous American Muslim in the World.” After less than an hour, Ali managed to successfully negotiate the release of 15 captives.

 

Why Did Muhammad Ali Change His Name?

Muhammad Ali was named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th-century farmer and an anti-slavery crusader who released 40 slaves he inherited from his father. The abolitionist was a second cousin of Kentucky’s Senator, Henry Clay, who worked for an anti-slavery newspaper.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali.

He also commanded troops in the Mexican-American war and was involved as a minister to Russia when Abraham Lincoln was President. In defying the racist conventions of the time, Clay faced numerous death threats. Despite being threatened, beaten, and even stabbed by political opponents, Clay lived until the age of 92.

 

Before Muhammad Ali, He Called Himself Cassius X

After defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, the new champion told the press that he had officially become a member of the Nation of Islam. With American minister Malcolm X by his side, the boxer announced that he would now be known as Cassius X.
Muhammad Ali points at the camera from an open car door as he takes part in a parade.
He called himself that until, as mentioned before, the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, thought it would be more suitable to grant him a holy name. This led to the name he was most famous for – Muhammad Ali, which was bestowed upon him on March 6, 1964.

 

He Starred in a Broadway Musical

Throughout Ali’s three and half year of forced exile from the boxing ring, he had time to dive into different fields, including musicals. Ali took the stage by storm when he starred in a title role in the Broadway musical “Buck White.”
A photo of Muhammad Ali wearing pinstripe trousers, suit jacket, spats and bowler hat in New York.
It premiered on December 2, 1969, at New York’s George Abbot Theater. However, Ali’s stage career was short-lived. “Buck White” drew its curtains just four nights and seven performances later. As for Ali’s performance, reviews read: “He sings with a pleasant, slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity… He does himself proud.”

 

One of His Famous Battles Went Down at 4 A.M.

In 1974, then 32-year-old Ali earned a shot to battle the undefeated 25-year-old champion, George Foreman. Hoping to generate some positive publicity for his country, the dictatorial president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, gave each fighter $5 million to fight it out in the capital of Kinshasa.
Muhammad Ali strikes an aggressive pose at a press conference.
Due to the time difference, and in order for Americans to watch the match live in prime time, the battle began in the early hours of the morning, a little before the sun rose in Africa. The bout was dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Muhammad Ali won after eight rounds and regained the title that had been taken from him seven years prior.

 

His Olympic Gold Medal May Be Somewhere on a River Bottom

After high school, the then-18-year-old boxer flew all the way to Rome to win the light heavyweight gold medal in the Summer Olympics of 1960. The boxer wrote in his 1975 memoir that after returning to his hometown of Louisville, he tossed his gold medal off a bridge and into the Ohio River.
A picture of Muhammad Ali wearing his gold medal.
The reason he did so was in order to protest the racism he had experienced throughout the course of his life. This account has been disputed though; it’s believed that the boxer actually lost the medal. In the 1996 Summer Olympics, Muhammad Ali received a replacement Gold Medal.

 

His Gloves Earned Him More Cash Than the Bout

It’s been nearly five decades since Muhammad Ali beat the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, and this battle is still being referenced and praised. Years later, an anonymous buyer bought the gloves Ali wore to defeat him.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali wearing his boxing gloves.
Those gloves were apparently so precious to whoever bought them that they were willing to pay a hefty sum for them – $836,000. Fun fact: The gloves earned Ali more money than the fight itself. His victory won him $630,000.

 

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali impacted show biz so much that in 1978, DC Comics decided to publish an oversize comic titled Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, in which the boxer knocks out Superman and saves the world!
A view of the comic.

Interestingly, Muhammad Ali was kind of a superman himself. As it turns out, the boxer saved a man from committing suicide. In 1981, a man was about to jump from a nine-story building in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile neighborhood. Muhammad Ali’s friend Howard Bingham spotted the guy and immediately called Ali who lived nearby. Ali came running and successfully convinced the guy to step down from the ledge.

 

Muhammad Ali’s Dark Side

Most of this article is filled with praise for Ali. However, just like any human being on this planet, Muhammad Ali had his dark side. And when it came to romantic relationships, this unfavorable side tended to shine.
A photo of Khalilah Ali during a press conference.

He Paraded Them Around

According to a few excerpts from a book written by author Jonathan Eig, Muhammad Ali might have been admired by everyone for being incredible in the ring, but he had an “evil side” to him that shouldn’t be overlooked.

A picture of Muhammad Ali with his daughters.
Eig wrote in his memoir of the boxer called, Ali: A Life, that the champ had numerous affairs and countless one-night stands. In fact, he was so shameless about his affairs that he even walked around with one of his mistresses during a reception dinner with the President of the Philippines.

 

“You Have a Beautiful Wife”

It was 1975, and Muhammad Ali was in the Philippines at the time getting ready for the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final heavyweight battle against Joe Frazier. When the boxer complimented the President for having a gorgeous-looking wife, the President responded: “And so have you.”
A photo of Muhammad Ali after a fight.
However, the problem was that Muhammad Ali wasn’t there with his wife. He was there with 19-year-old Veronica Porche, an actress and model from California. Khalilah, his wife at the time, was back at home in the U.S.

 

She Boarded a Flight to Manila

Khalilah was supposed to join her husband, but just before boarding a flight to Manila, she read about Ali’s remarks in a news article. Understandably, she was furious and ready to give the boxer a piece of her mind.
A dated picture of Khalilah Ali and Muhammad Ali Jr.
She got to Manila, yelled her heart out, and stormed out of the hotel and right back to America. Ali and Khalilah’s marriage ended shortly after, and Ali went on to marry Porche, who became his third wife.

 

When Did Muhammad Ali Die?

Later in life, Muhammad Ali suffered from Parkinson’s. He eventually passed away from the disease on June 3rd, 2016, aged 74. But according to Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, the boxer began to show symptoms of cognitive decline as early as the age of 29! All in all, the former champion was likely punched around 200,000 times during his 61-year career, and many people believe the disease had something to do with it.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali.
“He absorbed way more blows than the average fighter because, as he got older and slower, part of his strategy was to allow his opponents to him,” author of Ali’s memoir Jonathan Eig stated. “He thought he could wear down his opponents by letting them punch him in the head, then wait until the late rounds when they’re tired and beat them.”

 

How Did Muhammad Ali Die?

As mentioned before, the boxer died of Parkinson’s disease. Muhammad Ali’s doctor Pacheco was so concerned about the boxer’s health that he strongly advised him to retire back in 1977. Muhammad Ali, who was way too concerned with his career and unwilling to back down, refused.
A photo of Muhammad Ali posing for the press.

Afterward, Pacheco resigned as the boxer’s doctor, saying that he was too concerned and wasn’t willing to stand back and look at his client deteriorate. The author of Ali’s memoir, Jonathan Eig wrote that he believes that the boxer began showing signs of cognitive decline in the early ’70s.

 

He Refused to Apologize for His Affairs

The whole world knew about Muhammad Ali’s affairs, yet the boxer never apologized, at least not publicly. In an interview he did in the ’70s, Muhammad Ali told The New York Times: “I got three or four lady friends here… I can see some controversy if she was white, but she’s not… This is going too far. They got me for the draft. They got on me for my religion. They got on me for all sorts of things. But they shouldn’t be able to get on me for having a girlfriend.”

A picture of Muhammad Ali and Laila Ali.
All in all, Muhammad Ali garnered a big family with a total of four marriages that led to nine children. But despite being a family man, he always made sure to be, well, pretty egotistical and care for his “steady stream of women.”

 

His Most Famous Child

Of all his nine children, the most famous one is arguably Laila Ali, who went on to develop her own impressive boxing career. She finished it with a perfect 24-record and 21 knockouts. In her career, she held the WIBA & WBC Super Middleweight titles, as well as the IWBF Light Heavyweight title.
Laila Ali attends an event.
In 2007, and after roughly eight years of professional boxing, she retired.

According to Laila and the rest of the children, even though Muhammad Ali wasn’t the best husband, he was a good father. All of them took care of their dad later in life as he lived with Parkinson’s Disease before passing away.

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