Muhammad Ali, the charismatic three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, who declared himself “the greatest” and proved it with his fists, the force of his personality and his magnetic charisma, and who transcended the world of sports to become a symbol of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and a global ambassador for cross-cultural understanding, died June 3 at a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was living. He was 74.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a sign-painter, and his mother was a domestic houseworker.
Ali played few sports as a child, but he began boxing at age 12 to exact revenge on a thief who had stolen his bicycle. He quickly became enamored of the sport, and he won several national amateur boxing championships before he graduated from high school in 1960.
That year, he went to the Summer Olympics in Rome and came back with the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, defeating a three-time European champion from Poland. He was only 18.
“He’s too ugly to be the world champ, The world champ should be pretty like me.”
-Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world
Ali then became a professional fighter, signing a contract with 12 wealthy supporters who called themselves the Louisville sponsoring group, or syndicate. After working briefly with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, Ali joined forces with trainer Angelo Dundee, whom he had met several years earlier. Dundee took Ali to Miami Beach, Florida, to train at the fabled Fifth Street Gym on a then-run-down street corner.
At the time, greater Miami was as segregated as any city in the South, and Ali could not try on clothes at white-owned department stores. The police sometimes stopped to question him when he was doing his road work, running several miles over a causeway from Miami to Miami Beach while wearing high-topped boots.
In the ring, Ali had an unconventional, almost casual style, lightly bouncing on his feet while keeping his hands low at his sides. Some sportswriters considered it an almost suicidal approach, but Dundee trusted in Ali’s foot speed and quick reflexes, which enabled him to evade punches.
Because of his unusual stance and constant movement, Ali’s punches arrived from unexpected angles, carrying devastating power. As other fighters hunkered in the center of the ring, with their fists doubled in front of their faces, Ali danced around them, seemingly at play.
Still known by his original name of Cassius Clay, he began to develop a mass following soon after his first professional fight in 1960. He vanquished one opponent after another, often predicting the round in which he would claim victory. He wore flashy white boxing boots and attracted attention with his comical verse.
From the beginning, Ali had a flair for showmanship. At 19, he was the subject of a multi-page spread of photographs in Life magazine after he convinced the photographer, Flip Schulke, that he had long trained underwater to improve his endurance and strength. In fact, Ali had never been in a swimming pool before he posed for the eye-catching pictures.
As the Feb. 25, 1964, title bout with Liston approached, Ali was a 7-to-1 underdog, and few gave him a chance against the champion, a menacing ex-convict with devastating power. But Ali, then 22, had filled out to a well-proportioned 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He was proudly aware of his physical beauty, especially in contrast to the glowering, silent Liston, whom he taunted as “a big, ugly bear.”
Engaging in a campaign of psychological warfare, Ali drove to Liston’s training camp at the wheel of a bus, with the slogan “World’s Most Colorful Fighter” painted on the side, challenging the champion to come out and fight him in the street.
“He’s too ugly to be the world champ,” Ali said. “The world champ should be pretty like me.”
He recited rhymes that reduced Liston to a comic punch line:
“Who would have thought when they came to the fight
“That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite?
“Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they put up their money,
“That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
At the weigh-in the day of the fight, Ali appeared to lose control, shouting at Liston and staging an out-of-control performance unlike anything seen in boxing before. He was fined $2,500 on the spot.
A doctor measured his heart rate at 120 beats per minute and said if Ali’s elevated blood pressure didn’t return to normal, the fight would be called off. The boxing commission’s physician offered this summary of Ali’s condition: “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring.”
In fact, it was an elaborate ruse on the part of Ali and his camp, and within an hour his heart rate and blood pressure were back to normal. Ali said his plan was to appear deranged, to make Liston think that he was in the ring with an opponent who might actually be crazy.
During the fight itself, Ali controlled the pace until late in the fourth round, when a burning substance somehow got in his eyes. He could barely see and, after the round, pleaded with Dundee to stop the fight. To this day, no one is sure whether the caustic substance in his eyes was a liniment applied to Liston’s face to stanch bleeding from cuts or whether it was something more nefarious.
Dundee, calling on his years of experience, splashed water in Ali’s eyes with a sponge and pushed him back in the ring for the fifth round, telling him to keep moving to avoid Liston’s onslaught.
“You can’t quit now,” Dundee said. “This is the big one, Daddy! Run!”
Ali kept on the move, and his eyes gradually cleared by the end of the fifth round. He resumed his attack in the sixth, pummeling Liston and opening a deep cut under his left eye. As the bell rang to open the seventh round, the demoralized Liston sat on his stool, refusing to continue the fight.
When it was apparent that Ali was the new champion, he shouted to the sportswriters at ringside, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I shook up the world!”