Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky.
At the age of 12, a thief stole his bike. Clay told police officer, Joe Martin, who trained young boxers at the local gym, that he wanted to 'whup' the thief. "Well, you better learn how to fight," Martin said. Ali's boxing apprenticeship had begun.
Clay was a Golden Gloves middleweight champion in 1959 and 1960 and he won an Olympic gold medal in Rome the following year.
In February 1964, Clay beat Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion and then beat him again a year later, knocking him down in the first round. Ali towered over Liston and yelled, "Get up and fight, sucker!" The picture is one of boxing's most enduring images.
In the same year, Clay was befriended by Malcolm X and became a member of the radical Nation of Islam. He took the name Muhammad Ali.
Ali sung his own praises with rap poetry and a stream of consciousness commentary. He told reporters that he was "the greatest!" and that in the ring he would, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." It was good PR and played an important part in the psych-war against his opponents.
In 1967, Ali said his religious beliefs prevented him from fighting in Vietnam. He told reporters, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong", becoming a hero to young conscientious objectors but alienating the white establishment.
He was arrested, fined $10,000 for draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail, which was later quashed on appeal. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and his licence to fight.
During his three-year suspension, Ali toured university campuses and spoke to students about fighting racism and the injustice of the Vietnam War.
He had dyslexia and rarely used speaking notes, preferring simple and powerful language such as, "Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated, can reach down to the bottom of his soul, and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."
In 1970, Ali returned to the ring. He fought Joe Frazier twice. On losing the first fight, it was reported that President Nixon ecstatically jumped up and down and cheered the defeat of "that draft-dodger asshole". Ali won the second fight.
He fought George Foreman in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) in October 1974 - billed as the 'Rumble in the Jungle'. Foreman at that time was a brooding, intimidating fighter. Almost no one gave the former champion any chance of winning. They were worried he'd get killed.
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