The Greatest: Muhammad Ali

by Bernard Frei on March 27, 2019

“I am the greatest.” These are the words that immortalized Muhammad Ali in the sporting world. Spoken at the onset of his fame and glory in the sport of boxing, Muhammad Ali feared none and commanded the respect and attention of all who dared face him in the ring. The product of a Kentucky family and a descendant of American slaves, Cassius Clay Jr. was introduced to the sport of boxing at a young age. According to legend, his prized bike was stolen by a neighboring kid. Heartbroken, a young Cassius burst into the sheriff’s office to report the crime, vowing to pummel the culprit if found. The officer on duty at the time, Joe Martin, who was also a boxing trainer, suggested the young man first learn to fight before pummeling anyone. Less than two months later, the young Clay won his first bout in the ring.

Dominating Amateurism

From the moment Ali won his first match, the sport of boxing was evidently meant for him. Ali continued to thrive in local and eventually national matches during his high school years under the tutelage of Fred Stoner, who Ali credited with “giving me real training” and “molding my style and stamina.” By the time Ali was 18 years old, he had already captured two national golden gloves titles, two AAU national titles, and boasted an incredible 100-8 record. Ali sought one last major challenge in the amateur sporting world before he moved into the professional boxing arena; an Olympic title. Leaving for Rome before he turned 19, Ali competed in the light heavyweight divisions, and dominated the international competition, winning all four of his matches with ease. Ali faced off against three time European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski for the gold medal match, and won the hotly contested match with a relentless fighting style that was beginning to catch the world’s attention.

 

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Taking the Professional World by Storm

By October of 1960, Ali had opened his professional boxing career with a six round victory. As the year came to a close, Ali had caught the attention of national promoters and major media outlets, all of which were attracted to the young, charismatic, and outlandishly confident fighter. Working his way through the ranks over the next 3 years, Ali would open his pro career with 19 victories, 15 of which were won by Knockout. Ali was catching fire, and the world was there to witness his rise.

On February 25, 1964 Ali would get his coveted chance at the world heavyweight title, taking on Sonny Liston as the challenger. Leading up to the fight, Ali was clearly the underdog, as many metrics and experts gave him no chance against the seasoned Liston. However, leading up to the fight, Ali refused to back down, predicting a knockout against his opponent, saying he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” As the match began, Ali backed up his bold words, as his quick, relentless barrage of jabs worn down Liston defense. By the seventh round, Liston did not answer the bell, crowning Ali heavyweight champion of the world. It was in this moment the 22 year old fighter from Kentucky began to scream, “I am the greatest.”

After his famed fight against Sonny Liston, Ali began to take a major place in the public eye and media spotlight with his out of the ring behavior. The day after his title win, Ali confirmed rumors that he had converted to Islam, praising the work of Malcom X in American communities. On March 4th, 1964, The Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad gave then Cassius Clay Jr. the name Muhammad Ali, and it stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Controversy Outside the Ring

Re-matching Liston the next year, Ali once again defeated his rival and retained his title. He would go on to retain his heavyweight title eight more times against challengers before 1967 ended. However, on April 28, 1967 Ali’s career would take a sharp turn as the Vietnam War began. Citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused to to serve in the armed forces. He was subsequently arrested, and his boxing license was immediately revoked. Eventually convicted of draft dodging, Ali appealed his sentence of five years in prison, and continued to be outspoken on what he deemed the injustices of the Vietnam War. Thought initially falling out of the public’s favor for his views, Ali was just as relentless in his public and political life as he was inside the ring. Traveling across the country and speaking at a bevy of college campuses, Ali set the country on fire with his outspoken and sincere words. As public favor turned away from the war, Ali began to gain public traction once again, and in 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction and returned his boxing license.

After his prolonged exodus from the sport Ali returned in 1970 to reclaim his world title. Winning his first few matches back, Ali looked as if he had not missed a beat in the three year hiatus. However, early in 1971, Ali would face reigning champ Joe Frazier for the title. Perhaps Ali was unprepared due to his time away from the sport, or perhaps his arrogant style finally got the best of him. Nonetheless, with a hard left hook in the seventh round, Frazier sent Ali sprawling, and although no knockout was recorded, Frazier was unanimously awarded the title at the matches’ conclusion, effectively giving Muhammad Ali his first defeat as a professional boxer.

At this point in his career, many believed Ali had passed the torch to a new generation of boxers. However, Ali was determined to win back his coveted world title. Over the next few years, Ali trained relentlessly to improve his skills in areas Frazier was able to expose weaknesses. Ali went on to win 10 straight bouts over that span, before eventually returning to the ring against Frazier in a non-title rematch. In what surely was a moment of sweet revenge, Ali defeated Frazier and reset his sight on to the world title, which was currently being held by a young but uberly talented George Foreman. In what was dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, Ali employed a new strategy against the younger, more mobile Foreman, which he called the “rope-a-dope.” Absorbing a barrage of jabs from Foreman against the rope, Ali successfully wore down the world champion and unleashed his on arsenal of hits later in the match to secure the victory and once again be crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

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By 1978, Muhammad Ali had lost and re won his title to Leon Spinks in the same year, becoming the first fighter to win the title on three different occasions. By 1980, age began to finally overtake Ali’s career, limiting him to few matches with little success. In 1981, the 39 year old Ali retired for good, leaving in his wake not only a legacy of glorious boxing moments and titles, but also a career of political impact and social stewardship.

A Legacy

To many, Muhammad Ali sits atop sports' most important and impactful competitors. His unequivocal determination and outspoken nature broke boundaries in the professional sporting world in terms of an athlete’s platform and place in society. Not content to merely compete and live a quiet, uncontroversial lifestyle, Muhammad Ali sought to create change in his community and sport. By living a life marked by unapologetic commitment to his principles and choices, Ali has inspired decades of athletes to do the same.

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Capture a piece of Muhammad Ali's iconic history with this throwback print at VintageSports.com.

Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.

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