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Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was a professional and Olympic boxer and civil rights activist from the United States. He caused much controversy throughout his career with his strong advocacy of the black civil rights movement, refusal to be drafted in the Vietnam War, and his general outspoken and aggressive behavior. He converted to Islam following the teaching of Malcolm X and raised money for Parkinson’s research after contracting the disease.

Early Years and Amateur Boxing

Muhammad Ali, sometimes misspelled Muhammed Ali or Mohamed Ali, was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, into a middle-class family with five siblings. Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., his father, painted signs and billboards. Odessa O’Grady Clay, his mother, worked as a housekeeper and cook for wealthy families. He studied at Louisville’s Central High School and experienced racial discrimination from a young age, including a store not allowing him to drink from a fountain.[1] Clay felt angered by the racial segregation and defaced a local rail yard with a friend after Emmett Till’s murder in 1955.[2]

The racial discrimination Muhammad Ali witnessed throughout his youth greatly contributed to his later activism in the black civil rights movement.

Muhammad received a bicycle for his 12th birthday in 1954 and it was stolen from a local fair. He reported the theft to police officer Joe E. Martin and threatened to beat up the thief. Martin also coached boxing and encouraged Clay to learn how to fight before starting a fight.[3] Mohammed Ali won his first amateur boxing match against Ronnie O’Keefe in 1954 by split decision.[4] During his amateur career, he won six Golden Gloves titles in Kentucky, a national title with the Amateur Athletic Union, two Golden Gloves national titles, and the Light Heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics.[5] Muhammed Ali won a total of 100 fights and lost five times during his amateur boxing days.[6]

Professional Boxing and Becoming Muhammad Ali

On October 29, 1960, Clay beat Tunney Hunsaker in his first profession fight. He had a 19-0 record until 1963, besting some of the best boxers of the time.[7] He earned a reputation for bad mouthing his opponents similar to “Gorgeous George” Wagner, a professional wrestler.[8] On February 25, 1964, he faced the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, in Miami Beach. Clay employed his aggressive taunting prior to the fight even with his odds 7-1 against. “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” quotes Muhammad Ali after winning the intense, 6-round fight in which something on Liston’s gloves impaired his vision.[9][10]

Public interest in Clay’s relationship with Malcolm X, the Islamic, black civil rights leader, grew after his defeat of Liston. In March 1964, he openly acknowledged his belief in Islam and his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad, gave Clay the new name, Muhammad Ali.[11] Mohamed Ali faced Liston again in May 1965 and won, though some speculate Liston threw the fight. He defended the Heavyweight Champion title against Floyd Patterson on November 22, 1965, but was criticized for his racist remarks and accused of toying with the injured Patterson.[12]

Resisting the Draft and Exile

Ernie Terrel, the WBA Heavyweight Champion, scheduled a fight with Ali for March 29, 1966, but the Louisville draft board changed Ali’s draft classification from 1-Y to 1-A. Muhammad Ali informed the press he had no intention of serving and The Harvard Crimson quotes him as saying, "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger."[13] The Illinois Athletic Commission refused to sanction the fight after his comments, but cited technicalities instead.[14]

Muhammad Ali’s outspoken advocacy of black civil rights and refusal to compromise made him an inspiration to other black athletes both then and today.

On April 28, 1967, Ali showed up for the induction ceremony and refused to acknowledge his name being called by stepping forward four times. They arrested him and the New York States Athletic Association stripped his championship title and banned him from boxing. Other associations soon did the same. He could not obtain a license for over three years anywhere in the U.S.[15]

A trial found Muhammad guilty on June 20, 1967, and he began speaking as a black civil rights activist at universities and colleges throughout the U.S.[16] The Supreme Court overturned this ruling by unanimous decision on June 28, 1971, stating the previous decision did not provide evidence for denying his conscientious objector claims.[17]

Later Life, Illness, and Death

Muhammad Ali traveled often throughout his career and well into his later life. He participated in many humanitarian movements and became a vocal advocate of civil rights and freedoms across the world. He joined Stevie Wonder and Marlon Brandon for “The Longest Walk” march to support Native American rights in 1978.[18] He helped gather support for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 led by President Jimmy Carter. He met with Saddam Hussain in 1990 and successfully negotiated the release of U.S. hostages, but not without condemnation from U.S. diplomats and The New York Times.

In 1984, Mohammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and helped raise millions of donations for research through his Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center.[19] He participated in world events for the next 30 years and even tweeted his support of the Black Lives Matter movement and outrage at the death of Trayvon Martin in 2014.[20]

From late 2014 until June 2016, Ali was hospitalized and released for a number of illnesses and other medical issues. On June 3, 2016, he died from septic shock after entering the hospital for a respiratory infection. Muhammad Ali is buried in the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky and survived by nine children.[21]



Hauser, T. (2004). Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. London: Robson Books. 
The BBC. (2016, June). Muhammad Ali: The Ultimate Fighter. BBC iWonder.


  1. Hauser, 2004
  2. Gorn, E. J. (1998). Muhammad Ali, The People’s Champ. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  3. The BBC, 2016
  4. Gray, G. (2016, June 4). How Muhammad Ali Became a Boxer. New York Magazine.
  5. Ward, N. (2006, October). A Total Eclipse of the Sonny. American Heritage Magazine.
  6. Hauser, 2004
  7. Hauser, 2004
  8. Capouya, J. (2005, December 12). King Strut. Sports Illustrated.
  9. Hauser, 2004
  10. The BBC, 2016
  11. The BBC, 2016
  12. Hauser, 2004
  13. Shalit, N. I. (1980, July 15). Muhammad Ali: Losing the Real Title. The Harvard Crimson.
  14. Hauser, 2004
  15. Reemstsma, J. (1999). More Than a Champion: The Style of Muhammad Ali. New York: Vintage.
  16. Hauser, 2004
  17. Cassius Marsellus CLAY, Jr. Also known as Muhammad Ali, petitioner, v. UNITED STATES, Cornell Univeristy Law School (1971)
  18. Schilling, V. (2016, June 4). “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali Walks On. Indian Country Today Media Network.
  19. The BBC, 2016
  20. Grewal, Z. (2016, June 7). Remembering Muhammad Ali’s legacy as a radical, and peaceful, Muslim. Quartz.
  21. Find A Grave. (2016, June 3). Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016). Find A Grave Memorial.

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