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Muhammad Ali

Floating, stinging, punching, prophesying, he transformed his sport and became the world's most adored athlete
By GEORGE PLIMPTON for Time Magazine


Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that every profession is great that is greatly pursued. Boxing in the early '60s, largely controlled by the Mob, was in a moribund state until Muhammad Ali — Cassius Clay, in those days — appeared on the scene. "Just when the sweet science appears to lie like a painted ship upon a painted ocean," wrote A.J. Liebling, "a new Hero...comes along like a Moran tug to pull it out of the ocean."

Though Ali won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, at the time the experts didn't think much of his boxing skills. His head, eyes wide, seemed to float above the action. Rather than slip a punch, the traditional defensive move, it was his habit to sway back, bending at the waist — a tactic that appalled the experts. Lunacy.

Nor did they approve of his personal behavior: the self-promotions ("I am the greatest!"), his affiliation with the Muslims and giving up his "slave name" for Muhammad Ali ("I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want"), the poetry (his ability to compose rhymes on the run could very well qualify him as the first rapper) or the quips ("If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don't ask how. Hitch him up!"). At the press conferences, the reporters were sullen. Ali would turn on them. "Why ain't you taking notice?" or "Why ain't you laughing?"

It was odd that they weren't. He was an engaging combination of sass and sweetness and naivete. His girlfriend disclosed that the first time he was kissed, he fainted. Merriment always seemed to be bubbling just below the surface, even when the topics were somber. When reporters asked about his affiliation with Islam, he joked that he was going to have four wives: one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub oil on his muscles and one named Peaches. In his boyhood he was ever the prankster and the practical joker. His idea of fun was to frighten his parents — putting a sheet over his head and jumping out at them from a closet, or tying a string to a bedroom curtain and making it move after his parents had gone to bed.

The public as well had a hard time accepting him. His fight for the heavyweight championship in Miami against Sonny Liston was sparsely attended. Indeed, public sentiment was for Liston, a Mob-controlled thug, to take care of the lippy upstart. Liston concurred, saying he was going to put his fist so far down his opponent's throat, he was going to have trouble removing it.

Then, of course, three years after Ali defended the championship, there came the public vilification for his refusal to join the Army during the Vietnam War — "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" — one of the more telling remarks of the era. The government prosecuted him for draft dodging, and the boxing commissions took away his license. He was idle for 3 1/2 years at the peak of his career. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the government had acted improperly. But Ali bore the commissions no ill will. There were no lawsuits to get his title back through the courts. No need, he said, to punish them for doing what they thought was right. Quite properly, in his mind, he won back the title in the ring, knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round of their fight in Zaire — the "Rumble in the Jungle."

Ali was asked on a television show what he would have done with his life, given a choice. After an awkward pause — a rare thing, indeed — he admitted he couldn't think of anything other than boxing. That is all he had ever wanted or wished for. He couldn't imagine anything else. He defended boxing as a sport: "You don't have to be hit in boxing. People don't understand that."

He was wrong. Joe Frazier, speaking of their fight, said he had hit Ali with punches that would have brought down a building. Coaxed into fights by his managers long after he should have retired, and perhaps because he loved the sport too much to leave it, Ali ended up being punished by the likes of Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes, who took little pleasure in what they were doing.

Oscar Wilde once suggested that you kill the thing you love. In Ali's case, it was the reverse: what he loved, in a sense, killed him. The man who was the most loquacious of athletes ("I am the onliest of boxing's poet laureates") now says almost nothing: he moves slowly through the crowds and signs autographs. He has probably signed more autographs than any other athlete ever, living or dead. It is his principal activity at home, working at his desk. He was once denied an autograph by his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson ("Hello, kid, how ya doin'? I ain't got time"), and vowed he would never turn anyone down. The volume of mail is enormous.

The ceremonial leave-taking of great athletes can impart indelible memories, even if one remembers them from the scratchy newsreels of time — Babe Ruth with the doffed cap at home plate, Lou Gehrig's voice echoing in the vast hollows of Yankee Stadium. Muhammad Ali's was not exactly a leave-taking, but it may have seemed so to the estimated 3 billion or so television viewers who saw him open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Outfitted in a white gym suit that eerily made him seem to glisten against a dark night sky, he approached the unlit saucer with his flaming torch, his free arm trembling visibly from the effects of Parkinson's.

It was a kind of epiphany that those who watched realized how much they missed him and how much he had contributed to the world of sport. Students of boxing will pore over the trio of Ali-Frazier fights, which rank among the greatest in fistic history, as one might read three acts of a great drama. They would remember the shenanigans, the Ali Shuffle, the Rope-a-Dope, the fact that Ali had brought beauty and grace to the most uncompromising of sports. And they would marvel that through the wonderful excesses of skill and character, he had become the most famous athlete, indeed, the best-known personage in the world.






Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, 1942) was the only professional boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times. With his outspoken political and religious views he has provided leadership and an example for African American men and women around the world.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, at Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali began boxing at the age of 12. A white policeman named Joe Martin featured Ali on his early television show, "Tomorrow's Champions," and started him working out at Louisville's Columbia Gym. An African American trainer named Fred Stoner taught Ali the science of boxing, instructing him to move with the grace and subtlety of a dancer.

"Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee"

Ali built an impressive amateur record which led him to both the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and Golden Gloves championships. At the age of 18 he competed in the 1960 Olympic games held at Rome, Italy, and won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. This led to a contract with a twelve member group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsors Group, the most lucrative contract negotiated by a professional in the history of boxing. He worked his way through a string of professional victories, employing a style that combined speed with devastating punching power, described by one of his handlers as the ability to "float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee."

Ali's flamboyant style of boasting and rhyming and out-spoken self-promotion garnered considerable media attention as he moved toward a chance to contend for the world heavyweight boxing championship. When he began to write poems predicting the outcome of his many bouts he became known by the another name: "The Louisville Lip." Both the attention and his skill as a fighter paid off, and on February 15, 1964, at Miami, Florida, when he was only 22 years old, he fought and defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

"Beloved of Allah"

Meanwhile Ali, inspired by human rights activist Malcolm X, embraced the Black Muslim faith and announced that he had changed his name to Cassius X. This was at a time when the struggle for civil rights was at a peak and the Muslims had emerged as a controversial but major force in the African American community. Later he was given the name Muhammad Ali, meaning "beloved of Allah," by the Muslim patriarch Elijah Muhammad.

In his first title defense, held at Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965, he defeated the now challenger Sonny Liston with a first round knockout that many called a phantom punch because it was so fast and powerful that few in attendance saw it. Ali successfully defended his title eight more times.

On April 28, 1967, Ali was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. As a Muslim and a conscientious objector he refused to serve, claiming an exemption as a minister of the Black Muslim religion. The press turned against him, calling him "unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic." Although he had not been charged or convicted for violating the Selective Service Act, the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title in May of 1967. Ali's comment to Sports Illustrated at the time was, "I'm giving up my title, my wealth, may be my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever." Eventually Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, released on appeal, and his conviction overturned three years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vindication and Victory

The vindicated Ali returned to the ring in a victorious bout with Jerry Quary in Atlanta in 1971. Four months later he was defeated by Joe Frazier in Manila, who had replaced him as heavyweight champion when the title had been vacated. He regained the championship for the first time when he defeated George Forman (who had beaten Frazier for the title) in a bout held in Zaire in 1974. Ali fought Frazier again in the same year, and in 1975 won both matches and secured his title as the world heavyweight champion. In that year, to welcome Ali back, Sports Illustrated magazine named him their "Sportsman of the Year."

Ali began to employ a new style of boxing, one that he called his "rope-a-dope." He would let his opponents wear themselves down while he rested, often against the ropes; then he would lash out in the later rounds. During his ensuing reign Ali successfully defended his title ten more times. Ali held the championship until he was defeated by Leon Spinks on February 16, 1978, in a bout held in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seven months later, on September 15, 1978, Ali regained the heavyweight title by defeating Spinks in a bout held at New Orleans. Ali thus became the first boxer in history to win the heavyweight championship three times. At the end of his boxing career he was slowed by a neurological condition related to Parkinson's disease. His last fight, the 61st, took place in 1981.

Role as Statesman

As his career wound to a close, Ali became increasingly involved in social causes, diplomacy and politics. He has campaigned for Jimmy Carter and other Democratic political candidates and taken part in the promotion of a variety of political causes addressing poverty and children. He even played the role of diplomat, attempting to secure the release of four kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in 1985. As a result, his image changed from gadfly to highly respected statesman.

At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the world and his country honored Ali by choosing him to light the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.











This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008