The National Security Agency was tracking him, he had a big mouth, was drafted by the Army and then convicted of refusing to serve, loved boxing, kids and the limelight, spouted poetry, signed autographs endlessly, married four times, was a philanthropist, rode around in limos and at one time was probably the most famous man in the world.
Who else could that be but Muhammad Ali — born Cassius Clay. Many say he was the greatest world heavyweight boxing champion.
He thought so.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was,” he often boasted, adding “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
Then he set out to prove it.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky., in 1942, with an African, Irish and English ancestry. Both father and son were named after a prominent Kentucky politician and slave owner who freed his slaves and became an outspoken abolitionist long before the Civil War.
Cassius started taking boxing lessons at age 12, turned amateur, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and then turned pro.
At the Memorial Sports Area in Los Angeles on April 23, 1962, Cassius Clay TKO’d George Logan from Boise in Round 4 because of deep cuts over his left eye.
Clay’s big moment came on Feb. 25, 1964, at Madison Square Garden in New York when he fought Sonny Liston for the World’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship.
He taunted Liston with “He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!” — and that’s what happened.
As the day of the big fight drew near, the promoters grew increasingly nervous because of bad publicity. The champ was no poster child — he was a brute of an ex-con with ties to the Mafia, and served time for armed robbery.
And Clay was cozying up with Malcolm X, his mentor from the Nation of Islam (NOI) led by Elijah Muhammad, whose Black Muslims were considered by white America and some blacks as religious extremists.
For a while, Clay changed his name to Cassius X, honoring Malcolm X. “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said. “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
Then Malcolm X said that the JFK murder was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost,” adding, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never made me sad; they always made me glad.”
In a power struggle between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, Cassius X became trapped in it. Both rivals knew that Cassius would be a great recruiter for the group.
This brought bad publicity and the fight promoters feared it might make the fight a box office bust.
Almost everyone was betting on Liston — a 7-to-1 favorite.
While training for the big fight, Clay continued taunting his opponent, calling him a “big ugly bear,” and that “after the fight, I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup himn…”
Round One saw Liston charging like a bull and Clay ducking and weaving like a gazelle. Round Three saw Clay hit the champion with a flurry of blows causing a bruise under his right eye and a cut under the left, which later took eight stitches to close.
ABC broadcaster Les Keiter at ringside, shouted, “This could be the upset of the century!”
In Round Five, Clay’s eyes began to sting and blur. Some said Liston’s handlers used a substance on his eye cuts that got into Clay’s eyes, blinding him.
When the bell rang starting Round Seven, it was over. With both eyes cut and a torn shoulder tendon, Liston couldn’t continue.
At age 22, Cassius Clay was the new world champion by TKO.
At a news conference the day after the fight, Clay was pressured about his Islamic ties, but he didn’t say much.
A week later, Elijah Muhammad publicly announced that Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. That ended his relationship with Malcolm X, his brother, friend and mentor.
“This Clay name has no meaning,” Elijah Muhammad said in a radio address. “Muhammad Ali is what I will give him as long as he believes in Allah and follows me.”
An ESPN source “The Undefeated” said, “When he accepted the name Muhammad Ali, he also accepted Elijah Muhammad’s authority over his life. He was no longer free to make decisions about his career or his friendships.”
Then in 1967 when Ali blared his opposition to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted into the military claiming he was a minister in the religion of Islam, his popularity started plummeting.
“I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger,” he said.
Then the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and withdrew its recognition of him as champion. He was then exiled from boxing for the next three and a half years.
The government went after him for draft dodging and he was convicted and sentenced, but stayed out of jail pending appeal. By 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and at age 29 he returned to the ring.
It took six years for the new name “Muhammad Ali” to stick with the press and public. Then as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, Ali’s popularity went up because of his opposition to it.
Meanwhile, undefeated Joe Frazier had become the new heavyweight champion, and Ali wanted the title back. Given the chance, he immediately started his signature taunting campaign, calling Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” and “too dumb to be champ.”
“I should be a postage stamp,” Ali said. “That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.”
On March 8, 1971, the two undefeated heavyweight champions met in a 15-round title “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. Hollywood glitterati were there — Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Burt Lancaster and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner.
Ali was on the canvas repeatedly and after 15 rounds, Frazier won a unanimous decision. It was Ali’s first pro defeat.
The braggadocio challenger became a “postage stamp” — but he kept on fighting.
In 1974, Ali regained the title, knocking out George Foreman in the 8th round of “The Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire.
The following year, Ali converted from the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam, and later to Sufism like Malcolm X — supporting racial integration.
“Hating people because of their color is wrong,” Ali said. “And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
Seriously out of shape, Ali lost his title against Leon Spinks in a split decision at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas in 1978. In a rematch in New Orleans Ali won on points and became the first to win the world heavyweight title three times.
Ali wasn’t all mouth. He knew what he was doing — and saying. When alone with him, he was quiet, thoughtful and the kind of guy you’d want to have a cup of coffee with.
“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”
And he was wiser than might be apparent, and his quotes are worth attention — even if some of them might have originated from someone else:
“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.”
For 30 years, Ali battled his toughest opponent — Parkinson’s Disease. On June 2, 2016, he was taken to a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a respiratory illness. He died the next day of septic shock at age 74.
He’d often say, “Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.”
He took his own advice.
• • •
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
L.A. Times guesses wrong…
Just before the title fight with Sonny Liston, legendary L.A. Times sports writer Jim Murray quipped that Cassius Clay’s only asset was “that he clots easily,” and that “If I were Cassius Clay, I would fight him at such long range he would have to reach me through Western Union.”
The Champ’s good works…
Muhammad Ali was always a winner. At age 19, before he turned pro, he had won six Kentucky Golden Gloves, two National Golden Gloves, two National AAU Titles and an Olympic gold medal.
He also had a kind and generous heart, supporting 20 charities and foundations, and a similar number of causes, including:
Abuse, AIDS & HIV, ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease, Bullying, Cancer, Children, Family/Parent Support, Health, Homelessness, Human Rights, Hunger, Literacy, Mental Challenges, Miscellaneous, Parkinson’s Disease, Physical Challenges, Poverty, Slavery & Human Trafficking and Sports.
Before the Sonny Liston fight…
“The fight is the truth,” Malcolm X prophesied to Cassius Clay. “It’s the Cross and the Crescent — a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off Telstar for the whole world to see what happens!
“Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?”
Boise’s George Logan…
Idaho heavyweight boxer George Logan won 25 fights as a pro, lost nine and had two draws. Then he spent 33 years as a truant officer for the Boise School District, and today operates Riverpond Campground in Garden Valley, Idaho.
Ali’s boxing record…
• Won Olympic light-heavyweight gold in 1960.
• Turned professional that year and was world heavyweight champion from 1964 to 1967, 1974 to 1978, and 1978 to 1979.
• Had 61 professional bouts, winning 56 (37 knockouts, 19 decisions) and losing five.
Words to inspire…
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
— Muhammad Ali
Cassius Clay eponym…
Cassius Marcellus Clay (1819-1903) was a name of an American hero whose name was adopted for Muhammad Ali’s father and himself to honor one of the early founders of the Republican Party and a staunch abolitionist who freed his own slaves long before the Civil War and demanded that Lincoln free the rest of them.