The Most Influential
People in History
(originally Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.)
1942 – 2016
American Boxer, Heavyweight Division; 6' 3", 220 pounds
Sports Ranking 2nd of 12
Austrian stamp from 2006.
Image of Ali taken on May 25, 1965 when he stood over Sonny Liston
in the first round with a knockout victory. The full picture is considered
the greatest sports picture of the 20th century.
According to Thomas Hauser, the world's preeminent biographer of Muhammad Ali: "There have been more words written about, more photographs taken of, and more attention lavished upon Ali than any athlete ever. With the exception of Martin Luther King, no black man in America had more influence than Ali during the years when Ali was in his prime."(1) Ali was the first three time world heavyweight boxing champion (1964 - over Sonny Liston; 1974 - over George Foreman; and 1978 - over Leon Spinks) and the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight winner.
Muhammad Ali was not just the greatest boxer of his generation, he was one of the greatest athletes of all time. As a boxer, he displayed a great, sublime talent, but he also transcended the sport's world. Strong conviction, outspoken views, courage, wit, style, all came together to create a legend. Even in retirement, Ali remained an iconic figure who lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and spoke poignantly about non-violent Islam in the post-9/11 world.
Named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was Ali's name at birth. The family traced itself back to the white statesman and abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who freed his slaves. Ali started boxing as a twelve-year-old. He had an amazing amateur career, winning 134 bouts and losing only seven. He went to the Rome Olympics in 1960 and won a gold medal at light heavy weight, impressing with his speed and lightning reflexes. The Miami boxing trainer Angelo Dundee took Clay on as a young professional and had little to do to improve his bold style. He kept a low guard, relying on his speed to dance around opponents. Early in life he would announce himself "the greatest."
In 1963 at age 22 Ali's life changed dramatically when he challenged Sonny Liston for the world heavy-weight crown. Liston was widely regarded as the most intimidating ferocious powerful fighter of his era. Clay was a prohibitive underdog with 7-1 odds against him.When he destroyed the great heavyweight Liston in two fights – the second a severe pounding in May 1965 – it seemed that he was set to fulfill his own prophecy.
Outside the ring, Clay was undergoing a transformation that would shape the rest of his life. He became involved with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam – a radical black Islamic movement. It appealed to Clay because of the racism he had experienced growing up in the Southern states of the United States. Soon the outspoken young man changed his name to Muhammad Ali which was given to him by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. By the time of the rematch against Liston and a subsequent beating of another big-name heavyweight, Floyd Patterson, Ali was as divisive outside the ring as he was brilliant in it. Ali became a lighting rod for dissent in America. His message of black pride and black resistance to white domination was on the cutting edge of the era.(2)
The combination of Ali's extravagant fighting style, his forthright talk and his refusal to join the U.S. Army in 1966 ("Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," he explained at the time) quickly made him a hated figure for white America.(3) He declared himself a conscientious objector which his local draft board rejected, and in 1967, he was stripped of his world title and banned from boxing in America for three years and a half years. Undeterred, Ali delivered more than 200 anti-war speeches condemning the actions of the United States in Southeast Asia.
Ali's impact was growing–among black Americans, among those who opposed the war in Vietnam, among all people with grievances against "The System." "it's hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people," observed Julian Bond, a black civil rights leader. (4) "The nature of the controversy," football great Jim Brown said later, "was that white folks could not stand free black folks. White America could not stand to think that a sports hero that it was allowing to make big dollars could embrace something like the Nation of Islam. But this young man had the courage to stand up like no one else and risk, not only his life, but everything else that he had."(5)
From veteran fight promoter and attorney Bob Arum, who helped set up a promotional firm to market rights to Ali’s fights, handling twenty six in all:
"It's hard for people fifty or younger to realize what this country was like in the 1950s and '60s, how bad it was for African Americans in this country–how they fought just to eat at a lunch counter or stay at a hotel. There was no opportunity. Ali spoke out against that in a way that really connected with people, even more than the melodic and philosophical way that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out. Because Ali was a great sportsman and boxer, he was able to reach people and, I think, had a tremendous effect on bringing change to this country. No act was more principled than giving up massive boxing purses to defy the draft. Once people saw that he sacrificed his livelihood for what he believed in, that really elevated him in the minds of people to be almost saintlike. Everybody, myself included, counseled him not to take that step that led him to not fight for three and a half years, but he felt he was doing the right thing. And it ended up that it was the right thing–for him, the world and the country."(6)
From Nelson Mandela who became the president of South Africa, "Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and the reasons he gave made him an international hero. The news could not be shut out even by prison walls. He became a real legend to us in prison."(7)
Ali v. United States - the Supreme Court Decision
In the end, Ali's 1967 conviction for refusing to report for induction into the United States military forces during the Vietnam War was appealed and ultimately reversed on June 28, 1971 by unanimous decision of the eight white men of the U.S. Supreme Court in Clay v. United States (Thurgood Marshall recused himself because he was U.S. Solicitor General when the case began). Ali filed for conscientious objector status to avoid serving in the military. It was protected by statute rather than constitutional right. To make a valid claim under existing statutes and Supreme Court precedents interpreting them, Ali was required to demonstrate: (1) that he objected to all wars; (2) that his beliefs were sincere; and (3) that his objections were based on religious beliefs (or at least moral convictions equivalent to such beliefs). In submissions to his local board in Louisville, Ali argued that he met these standards because the principles of the Nation of Islam forbade him from participating in any war "when not ordered by Allah."(8)
The Louisville board rejected Ali's initial request for a conscientious objector exemption and he appealed. At the next stage in the administrative proceedings, retired Kentucky state court judge Lawrence Grauman conducted Ali's board of appeal hearing, concluding that Ali had sincere religious scruples against participating in all wars. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice recommended in a detailed letter that the board reject Ali's appeal arguing that Ali failed all three of the conscientious objector criteria. Flawed legal analysis in the letter ultimately provided the basis for overturning Ali's conviction.
The Supreme Court held that, since the appeal board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to the petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, Ali's 1967 conviction must be reversed. The Eugene Register-Guard, reporting on the Court's record, cited ". . .the boxer's beliefs 'are surely no less religiously based' than those in previous cases. The Court incorporated Welsh v. United States, in which the Court "had ruled that moral and ethical objection to war was as valid as religious objection, thus broadening the qualifications."
The decision shocked many and demonstrated the power of Ali's influence. It also put into question the government's power to draft people into the military. Two U.S. Congressman explained the significance of legally allowing Ali not to serve in the military.
Congressman Nichols of Alabama: "The United States Supreme Court has given another black eye to the United States Armed Forces. The decision overturning the draft evasion conviction of Cassius Clay is a stinging rebuke to the 240,000 Americans still serving in Vietnam and the 50,000 Americans who lost their lives there. I wish the members of the Supreme Court would assist me when I try to explain to a father why his son must serve in Vietnam or when I attempt to console a widow or the parents of a young man who has died in a war that Cassius Clay was exempted from."(9)
Congressman Waggonner of Louisania: "The United States Supreme Court has issued the edict that Cassius Clay does not have to be inducted because he does not believe in war. No draft-age young man believes in a war that he will have to fight, nor does any parent of a draft-age son believe in a war that their own flesh and blood will have to fight and possibly give his life in so doing. But our people have always heeded the call of their country when asked, not because they love war, but because their country has asked them to do so. I feel strongly about this. If Cassius Clay does not have to be drafted because of questionable religious beliefs or punished for refusing induction simply because he is black or because he is a prizefighter–and I can see no other real justification for the Court's action–then all other young men who wish it should also be allowed a draft exemption. Cassius Clay is a phony. He knows it, the Supreme Court knows it, and everyone else knows it."(10)
Ali's Three Famous Fights
When Ali returned to the ring, he took part in three of the most famous fights of all time: the Fight of the Century (1971), which he lost to Joe Frazier; the Rumble in the Jungle (1974), in which he reclaimed the heavyweight crown then held by George Foreman; and the Thriller in Manila (1975); which represented redemption against Frazier. In the Foreman fight, held in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Ali used his 'rope-a-dope' tactics, hanging back for seven rounds and allowing Foreman to punch himself out, then countering in the eighth to knock out his younger opponent.
A quote from Ali before his first fight against Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971: “Fifteen referees. I want fifteen referees to be at this fight because there ain’t no one man who can keep up with the pace I’m gonna set except me. There’s not a man alive who can whup me. I’m too fast. I’m too smart. I’m too pretty. I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.”(11)
The Thriller in Manila is probably the most celebrated of all Ali's fights. In the buildup to the contest he taunted Frazier with various slurs and poems.
The two men battered each other for fourteen rounds, Frazier landed 440 punches on Ali, many of them to Ali's head while Ali punished Frazier perhaps a little more because finally, Frazier's corner threw in the towel. Afterwards Ali said of his own heroic efforts: "That must be what death feels like." He had thrown everything into an incredible victory, and – history having vindicated his stance on Vietnam – he had earned redemption in the eyes of the world.
On December 10, 1974, Ali was invited to the White House by President Gerald Ford. It was an occasion that would have been unthinkable several years earlier and marked a turning point in the country's embrace of Ali.(12)
Ali fought on until the early 1980s, by which time his powers had visibly declined. However, in spite of the sad end to his career, he is rightly remembered as one of history's greatest ever athletes. Only the soccer player Pelé and a very few others can be said to have dominated their sports in the same manner.
But Ali was more than just a superb sportsman. He was a principled man who stuck by his beliefs even when threatened. Though his pronouncements on race were not always well judged and he could be cruel to his opponents, Ali transcended such indiscretions and won over almost all his critics with his bravery and charisma.
Since his diagnosis in 1984, Ali was progressively affected by the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The sight of his quavering hand lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 touched the world. The transition from angry young man to symbol of world unity was complete. In 1999, he was voted Sports Personality of the Century. Despite his frailty, he travelled the world supporting a range of humanitarian causes for as long as he was able before his death in 2016.
He redefined the image of a professional athlete. The lone black athlete, like Ali, once ostracized by the media, would come to be emblematic of the "new" era in which, following Ali's example, athletes like Reggie Jackson (the first major-league baseball player to sport a mustache since 1914) could express themselves in essentially playful, stylistic, and theatrical gestures that had little to do with their utilitarian function as athletes.
From Bob Arum, an attorney who helped set up a promotional firm to market rights to Ali’s fights: “Ali revolutionized the business of boxing. He was the greatest promoter who ever lived. Fighting or not fighting, champion or not champion, he dominated the business for twenty years.”(13) He carried heavyweight championship boxing beyond the confines of the United States and popularized the sport around the globe.(14)
His influence could be felt for decades in music, where rap soared to prominence and in the scathingly funny comic routines of performers like Richard Pryor. In sports, his influence was evident where end-zone dances and home-run trots took on new stylistic embellishments; and above all in basketball, where players like Julius Erving (and later, Michael Jordan) combined extraordinary skill, like Ali, with a personal sense of style. Compare the modest, constrained public personae of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson of an earlier era in which the black athlete was given to know that his presence was provisional and not a right; his very career was a privilege that might be taken away at any time. Even some of Ali's contemporaries and antagonists, like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, spent some, if not all of their careers, hewing to these unwritten rules. The phenomenon of media attention–and hype–accorded every turn of Ali's career was unlike any that preceded him, just as the ever-increasing purses paid to professional athletes in our time is a consequence of Ali's role in the public consciousness.
Finally, Ali was the Muslim pioneer, through whose unwavering example such athletes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) were allowed to change their names and present themselves explicitly as members of a distinctly non-Christian and non-traditional religion. Muhammad Ali's influence on an entire nation, black and white, and a whole world of nations has been incalculable. Ali's power in the third world grew precisely because he was a symbol of defiance against racism and the use of United States military power abroad.(15)
He encouraged millions of people to believe in themselves, raise their aspirations, and accomplish things that might not have been done without him. For millions of people, the experience of being black changed because of Muhammad Ali. From Bryant Gumble: "One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage."(16) Arthur Ashe, the black tennis pro: "Ali didn't just change the image that African-Americans have of themselves. He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African-Americans; who we are and what we can be."(17)
From Reggie Jackson the baseball star: "Do you have any idea what Ali meant to black people?" He was the leader of a nation; the leader of black America. As a young black, at times I was ashamed of my color; I was ashamed of my hair. And Ali made me proud. I'm just as happy being black now as somebody else is being white, and Ali was part of that growing process. Think about it! Do you understand what it did for black Americans to know that the most physically gifted, possibly the most handsome, and one of the most charismatic men in the world was black? Ali helped raise black people in this country out of mental slavery. The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali."(18)
(1) Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York, 1991), pgs 9, 14.
(2) Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York, 1991), p. 5.
(3) Simon Sebag Montefiore, Titans of History - The Giants Who Made Our World (London, 2012), p. 639.
(4) Hauser, p. 5.
(5) Ibid., p. 8.
(6) Lance Pugmire, "World Warrior - Boxing mourns Ali, who transcended the sport and was beloved around globe," Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2016, p. D10.
(7) Hauser, p. 45.
(8) Winston Bowman, United States v. Clay: Muhammad Ali's fight Against the Vietnam Draft (Washington, D. C., 2018), pgs. 11-12. Prepared for inclusion in the project Federal Trials and Great Debates in United States History.
(9) Hauser., p. 27.
(10) Ibid., p. 28.
(11) Ibid., p. 223.
(12) Ibid., p. 208.
(13) Ibid, p. 152.
(14) Ibid., p. 22.
(15) Ibid., p. 213.
(16) Ibid., p. 8-9.
(17) Ibid., p. 9.
(18) Ibid., p. 46.
1. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, 1991.
2. Muhammad Ali - A Tribute To The Greatest by Thomas Hauser, 2016 (companion volume to Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times containing all of the essays and articles Hauser had written on Ali with Ali's complete ring record in the back; professional record 56 wins, 5 losses, 37 KOs, 1 KO By).
1. The Greatest starring Ali, 1977, 101 min.
2.When We Were Kings, 1997, about Ali’s fight against George Foreman in Zaire.
Episode with Muhammad Ali of “This Is Your Life,” available on YouTube. A British show where Ali, age 37, has an amazing reunion of family and significant figures in his life. His mother, father, brother, former wife, police officer who introduced him to boxing, first person he fought against when he was a young teen, Wilma Rudolph who went to the 1960 Rome Olympics with Ali, Ali’s opponent from Poland who he fought for the gold medal in the Olympics, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. 44 minutes. December 25, 1978.