“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Muhammad Ali was an African-American descendent of slaves in the pre-Civil War South.
Ali grew up in a time of racial segregation and discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the south. His mother once recalled a time when he was denied a drink of water on account of his race: “They wouldn’t give him one because of his color. That really affected him.”
In addition to facing societal adversities in the America of his time, Ali also had personal struggles due to spelling and writing abilities far below average and learning disabilities that caused him graduate school at the bottom of his class.
He became interested in boxing at the age of 12 when a Louisville police officer and boxing coach encountered a young Clay fuming over having had his bicycle stolen. The officer encourages Clay to learn how to box.
He made his debut in amateur boxing in 1954 against a local amateur boxer and won by a split decision of the judges, then went on to win six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two National Golden Gloves, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
Clay’s amateur record was a solid 100 wins and just 5 losses. After winning a gold medal in the Olympics he made his professional debut in October 1960, winning his first match.
The winning streak would go on until the end of 1963 through 19 boxing matches with 15 wins by knockout!
He defeated many of the great boxers of the time, including Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper.
The Greatest of All Time
Clay developed a notorious and not always respected reputation for his trash talking of opponents, a strategy he would use his entire career to get in the other fighter’s head and provoke them to make mistakes in the ring out of anger or fear.
His brash confidence and pointed taunts were something he observed and borrowed from professional wrestling. He called Doug Jones “an ugly little man” and Henry Cooper “a bum.” He said he was embarrassed to even get in the ring with Alex Miteff.
By the end of 1963 Clay was the number one contender for Sonny Liston’s world heavyweight title. Clay was considered an underdog by bookies 7 to 1, but that didn’t stop him from taunting Liston before the fight, calling him “a big ugly bear,” and saying, “Liston even smells like a bear.”
Clay even joked, “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” During the pre-fight weigh in, he shouted at his opponent, “someone is going to die at ringside tonight!”
During the fight, Clay opened up a cut under Liston’s left eye, the first time he’d ever been cut in a boxing match. By the seventh round Liston did not answer the bell and Clay was declared the winner and world heavyweight champion by technical knockout.
He was the youngest boxer, at the age of 22, to ever win the heavyweight title from a reigning champion.
Muhammad Ali would go on to win many fights over an unusually long boxing career. His talents and personality always made for a great media spectacle. He died in 2016, one of the most beloved and admired professional athletes in history.