How Muhammad Ali Became 'The Greatest'
Few athletes transcend their chosen sport the way Muhammad Ali did.
Given his success in the world of boxing, and his actions outside the ring, it can be argued that he is the most important athlete of the 20th century. He gave the sweet science a marketable superstar and used the platform he earned to advance social causes he believed in.
There’s no shortage of spectacular anecdotes when it comes to Ali. We’ve compiled 15 stories about the man who called himself "the greatest of all time" and then did everything possible to live up to that moniker.
1. It began with a bicycle.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942. A trip to a local auditorium in his early years proved pivotal. Young Cassius rode in on his bicycle, but at some point during the evening, the bike was stolen.
Sgt. Joe Martin was the police officer who handled the case, and he just so happened to run a boxing gym in the theater’s basement. When Clay promised to beat up the thief, Martin offered to teach him to box.
Had that bicycle not been stolen, the world may have been robbed of one of its most significant sports icons.
2. His Olympic journey included a gold medal.
Clay traveled to Rome in 1960 in search of an Olympic gold medal. He was just 18 years old, but he already had accomplished plenty as an amateur boxer. He’d won the national AAU light heavyweight championship in both 1959 and 1960, and also captured several important regional titles as well.
Clay was expected to dominate in his weight class, and he did just that. He cruised to victories in all four of his matches, including the gold medal bout against three-time Olympian Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.
3. He had a secret crush in Rome.
The other American darling of the 1960 Olympic Games was sprinter Wilma Rudolph. An inspirational figure in her own right, Rudolph won three gold medals in Rome, taking first place in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4x100-meter relay after overcoming pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child.
Clay was smitten with Rudolph, but while the boisterous up-and-coming boxer had a silver tongue in certain situations, he did not inform her of his feelings during the games. In a funny postscript, according to an article published in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2010, after he turned pro, Clay showed up at Tennessee State (where Rudolph attended college) in a pink Cadillac to "give her a holler."
4. A professional wrestler inspired his behavior.
Clay admitted to borrowing much of his on-camera personality from one of the preeminent entertainers of the 1950s. "Gorgeous" George Wagner was a professional wrestler who inspired such hatred among wrestling fans that he became a top draw across the United States. On multiple occasions, his arrogance and bluster would create sellout crowds who paid their money to see him lose "hair vs. hair" matches and suffer hilarious humiliation.
Clay met "Gorgeous George" when he was 19 years old, and Wagner advised Clay to keep up his vocal antics. According to Clay, the wrestler told him, "keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous." The boxing legend in the making would, of course, heed that advice for the next several decades.
5. One of his first big wins came over a legendary former trainer.
After turning professional in 1960, Clay reeled off 15 wins in a row. For a brief time during that stretch, he was aligned with heavyweight boxing legend Archie Moore, who served as Clay’s trainer. However, Clay left Moore’s camp due to differences in how the prospect should fight moving forward and Moore’s ways of bringing Clay into the business (namely by doing menial chores).
The two fought on Nov. 15, 1962, in Los Angeles, Calif. Clay vowed that he would dispatch Moore in four rounds, and that’s what happened, as he knocked Moore down three times in the fourth. Moore was in his mid-40s, and Clay remarked that he didn’t think much of the victory, but that win gave him valuable momentum ahead of his first-ever title fight.
6. The first champion he beat was a bad man.
By February 1964, Charles "Sonny" Liston had emerged as one of the most dangerous men in boxing. He took up boxing while serving a prison sentence for robbery, and he turned professional shortly after being paroled in 1952.
Going into the first of two fights with Clay, he had won 35 of 36 fights, including back-to-back first-round knockouts of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. However, Liston may have been unprepared for the 22-year-old Clay’s psychological warfare. The challenger’s big mouth and evasive fighting style frustrated the champion so much that he did not answer the bell for the seventh round. Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world by technical knockout, but he had not seen the last of Liston.
7. He followed up his title win by changing his name.
One day after shocking the boxing world against Sonny Liston, Clay did it again. He announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and that he had changed his name to Cassius X. Members of the Nation of Islam adopted X as a surname on the premise of not wanting to go by names given to them by families who owned slaves.
The next week, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Cassius would go by the name Muhammad Ali. Muhammad translates to "worthy of all praises," while Ali translates to "most high."
8. The second Liston fight is still shrouded in controversy.
A year after their first fight, Ali and Liston squared off once again. The fight was supposed to take place in late 1964 at the Boston Garden, but after Ali suffered an injury and Massachusetts regulators insisted promoters were tied to organized crime, it was moved to May 25, 1965, and took place in Lewiston, Maine.
Only 2,434 fans were in attendance that night, and they didn’t see much of a fight. During the first round, Ali countered a jab with a quick punch, and Liston fell to the canvas. Ali failed to go to a neutral corner and instead posed over his fallen rival in a taunting fashion (one immortalized by a Neil Leifer photograph). Liston rose from the canvas after the delayed count, but the fight’s timekeeper had counted him out.
To this day, some claim the fight was fixed. Sports Illustrated reporter Mark Kram claimed Liston told him he wanted nothing to do with Ali and went down without being hit. Whatever the case may have been, Liston never achieved such heights in boxing again. He won 15 of his last 16 fights before dying amid mysterious circumstances in 1970.
9. Ali’s prime was interrupted by a battle with the U.S. government.
After prevailing in the Liston rematch, Ali reeled off eight more victories, bringing his professional record to 29-0 through March 1967. However, his seventh-round knockout of Zora Folley would be his final bout for more than three years.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ali refused induction into the United States armed forces during an appearance in Texas. He was arrested and found guilty in an initial trial, setting up several years of appeals. During that time, public opinion of the war had shifted, and Ali’s popularity grew. He returned to the ring in 1970, and his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year.
10. The first Ali-Frazier fight was so big, Frank Sinatra couldn’t get a seat.
Waiting for Ali upon his return to the ring was Joe Frazier, who had emerged as the dominant heavyweight fighter in the former champion’s absence. The two met in 1971 at Madison Square Garden in an event dubbed "The Fight of the Century."
Demand for tickets was robust, and at least one A-list celebrity had to resort to alternative means to attend the fight. Legendary crooner Frank Sinatra’s attempts at a ringside seat were unsuccessful, and to ensure his attendance, he obtained a photographer’s credential and took pictures for Life magazine.
Frazier won the fight, handing Ali his first-ever professional loss. It was the first bout in a legendary trilogy, one where Ali took the final two meetings (including the famed "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975).
11. His second title win may have been a bigger upset than his first.
Ali was 32 years old in 1974, when he headed to Zaire for a title fight with champion George Foreman. Like Ali, Foreman was an Olympic gold medalist, and he had built up a fearsome reputation due to his immense punching power and the way he dispatched opponents in quick, brutal fashion. In 1973, Foreman demolished Joe Frazier in just two rounds to win the title, and few gave Ali much of a chance.
However, when Ali met Foreman in the event dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali, a 7-1 underdog, unveiled a brilliant strategy. Called the "Rope-a-Dope," Ali braced himself against the ropes and allowed Foreman to punch himself out. By the eighth round, the champion was out of gas, and Ali took advantage, knocking him out to regain his title.
12. He became the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.
Ali’s second reign lasted for more than three years. Among his notable title defenses were the "Thrilla in Manila," where he defeated Joe Frazier, and the conclusion of another trilogy against Ken Norton, which saw Ali prevail via unanimous decision in Yankee Stadium.
The reign came to an end on Feb. 15, 1978, when the 36-year-old Ali dropped a split decision to Leon Spinks. Spinks earned the distinction of being the first fighter to top Ali in a title match, but his reign was short-lived. Seven months later, Ali regained the crown with a victory via unanimous decision and became boxing’s first three-time heavyweight champion.
13. Ali’s struggles with Parkinson’s began before his career was over.
Ali retired after topping Leon Spinks, but he made the decision to return in 1980 to fight former training partner Larry Holmes. The Nevada Athletic Commission ordered Ali to undergo a battery of physical tests and accepted the findings of the Mayo Clinic, which deemed him fit to fight.
However, it quickly became clear that Ali was physically overmatched. He lost to Holmes in a one-sided fight and also fell via decision to Trevor Berbick before calling it a career in 1981, at nearly 40 years of age, with a 56-5 record.
14. Ali became a global ambassador after his retirement.
Despite the onset of Parkinson’s, Ali remained a visible face on the world stage. Most notably, he lit the torch to begin the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, which came 36 years after he won gold in Rome. The image of him holding the torch high while shaking due to his disease proved incredibly powerful, and it was watched by an estimated 3.5 billion people.
Ali also traveled to North Korea in 1995 as part of the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, where at least one witness saw Ali’s brash personality firsthand. In his autobiography, "To Be the Man," legendary wrestler Ric Flair (who was on hand to wrestle Japanese icon Antonio Inoki) recalled a meeting with senior North Korean officials where Ali got so fed up with what he heard that he quipped, clear as day, "No wonder we hate these m-----f-----s!”
15. His legacy lived on through his daughter, who may also have been the greatest.
Muhammad Ali had nine children, and the one best known to the public is his second-youngest child, daughter Laila. She opted to take up boxing at 18 years old, and she quickly showed an uncommon affinity for the sport.
Laila’s career lasted from 1999 to 2007. In that span, she won all 24 of her professional fights, with 21 victories coming by way of knockout. She won a total of six championships, and one of her victories came over Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, the daughter of her father’s longtime rival, Joe Frazier. That bout came on June 8, 2001, and marked the first time that a pay-per-view boxing card was headlined by women.