By: E.Z. Money
Muhammad Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay. Marcellus was a “hard drinking, skirt chasing dandy” according to his friends, who painted billboards and other signs for a living. He also played piano, danced and wrote music.
His mother was Odessa Grady Clay. She had a major impact on her son. Ali stated:
“My mother is a Baptist, and when I was growing up, she taught me all she knew about God. Every Sunday, she dressed me up, took me and my brother to church, and taught us the way she thought was right. She taught us to love people and treat everybody with kindness. She taught us it was wrong to be prejudiced or hate. I’ve changed my religion and some of my beliefs since then, but her God is still God; I just call him by a different name. And my mother, I’ll tell you what I’ve told people for a long time. She’s a sweet, fat, wonderful woman, who loves to cook, eat, make clothes, and be with family. She doesn’t drink, smoke, meddle in other people’s business, or bother anyone, and there’s no one who’s been better to me my whole life.”
Odessa was always at ringside and had a major influence on Ali’s career. She traveled with him, and sat ringside at almost every fight. He nicknamed her “Bird”.
Ali decided to learn how to fight after having his bike stolen at age 12, on the recommendation of a police officer, Joe Martin. Martin trained young boxers at a local gym. In 1954 Ali won a split decision on his first bout. In 1956 he won the Golden Gloves Tournament for novices in the light-heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light heavyweight division.
In 1960, Ali won the Gold Medal at the Olympics in Rome. He was heralded as an American hero and entered the world of professional boxing. In 1964, he knocked out Sonny Listen and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Like his spiritual mentor, Malcolm X , Ali decided to join the Nation of Islam, a black segregationist organization that desired to build their own black nation within a nation. It was here that Cassius Clay became Cassius X and later Muhammad Ali.
When he joined the Nation of Islam, he was criticized by black integrationists, like baseball hero Jackie Robinson. According to the author of “Blood Brothers,” which cataloged the friendship of Ali and Malcolm X,
“Here you have the most famous mainstream civil rights leaders, heroes — King, [Jackie] Robinson, Floyd Patterson — who were criticizing Clay for joining the Nation of Islam.” Robinson, who had retired from Major League Baseball by then, even went public with his dislike. “He quarreled with Malcolm in the press, criticized him,” Smith says. “He believed that Malcolm’s approach set back the civil rights movement.” The Nation, with its stridently anti-white ideology, was the exact opposite of the peaceful integration mainstream civil rights leaders had been working for.”
Although Malcolm X fell from grace and was allegedly assassinated by his fellow members of the Nation of Islam, Ali seemed to rise as his vocal legacy. Ali became a counter-culture hero during the turbulant 60s when Civil Rights marches were replaced with inner-city riots and violent black activism.
Ali enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the American public. In 1967, he refused to serve in the military because of his religious beliefs. In one of his most famous quotes, Ali stated:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
In 1967, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to report for military service. He was also stripped of his boxing crown and banned from boxing for the next three years. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1970 and he returned to the ring, having missed three years of fighting in his prime.
Upon his return, Ali took on the flamboyant personality and outrageous persona that most remember him for. Millions watched to see the “Greatest” succeed, or to hope for his failure. Howard Cosell, who backed Ali’s decision to refuse military service stated:
“I was right to back Muhammad Ali, but it caused me major enmity in many areas of this nation.”
Ever the heel, Ali relished in tormenting his critics with his famous one-liners, like “”I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.” or “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” Yet, few would argue he could back up his words in the ring.
In 1970, at the “Fight of the Century,” Ali lost to Joe Frazier after being leveled by Frasier’s left hook. The fight had gone a brutal fourteen rounds and was decided by decision. It was Ali’s first loss after 31 fights.
He lost a second fight to Ken Norton and his critics bragged his career was over and that the “Greatest” was “washed up”. Ever determined to overcome, Ali persevered, and prevailed.
In 1974, at the “Rumble in the Jungle”, Ali let his younger opponent land body blows until he was exhausted. His “Rope a Dope” strategy wore out his opponent and led to Ali knocking out the undefeated George Foreman in the eighth round.
In 1975, Ali wore down Joe Frazier in the 14th round and his trainer threw in the towel. Dubbed the “Thrilla in Manilla”, Ali was back on top. He retained the crown until his defeat by Leon Spinks in 1978.
Ali tried a brief comeback but age and battles had taken their toll. His official record stands at 56 Wins, 5 Losses and 37 Knock outs. As we mourn his passing, we must pay tribute to what can only be called the “True Heart of a Champion.”