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Muhammad Ali is born on Jan. 17, in Louisville. He’s named Cassius Marcellus Clay after his father.
Clay begins training as a boxer at age 11 in Louisville.
Clay wins six Kentucky Golden Glove championships, two national Golden Glove championships and two AAU titles from 1954 to 1960, becoming one of the most anticipated amateur athletes in the country.
Ali, then Cassius Clay, wins gold at the Olympics
Clay wins the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome on Sept. 5. He defeats Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in a 5-0 decision.
The 18-year-old fighter turns professional soon after the Games and wins his first pro fight on Oct. 29. He wins 19 total bouts between 1960 and 1963, setting up his first title shot against Sonny Liston in 1964.
“Clay vs. Liston I”
For the first time in his career, Clay challenges for the WBA world heavyweight title, held by Sonny Liston. Ahead of the fight, Liston says he didn’t believe Clay deserved a title shot and the man who would become ” the Greatest” was considered a heavy underdog. Clay was undeterred, acting as if he were the favorite, and the beginnings of the fast-talking, charismatic “people’s champion” were evident in Clay’s pre-fight antics.
On Feb. 25, Clay defeats Liston by technical knockout when the defending champion failed to answer the bell for the seventh round in Miami Beach. It’s called one of the biggest upsets in boxing history at the time.
Clay joins the Nation of Islam the following day and begins going by the name Cassius X.
In March, he again changes his name, this time to Muhammad Ali.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said at the time. “I’m free to be what I want.”
“Ali vs. Liston II”
In the 15 months that pass between his first and second meeting with Liston, Ali makes wholesale changes, banking the credibility forged from the upset in Miami Beach and basking in the validation of all his bold predictions.
But Ali has not had another chance to prove his prowess in the ring. In hindsight it sounds foolish to levy doubt on “The Greatest,” but Ali requires another match with Liston to prove his preeminence.
On May 25, Ali becomes the first man to defeat Liston by knockout, defending his title with a controversial right hand in the first round. Liston goes down so quickly, critics assert the match was fixed.
Tex Maule, who covers the fight for Sports Illustrated, writes that the punch is real, but Liston’s debts and connections to organized crime cause questions to persist.
“The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw. The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas. It was also powerful enough to drop him instantly—first to his hands and knees and then over on his back. More than 17 seconds elapsed before Liston could flounder to his feet, still only partly conscious. Even some 30 seconds later, when Jersey Joe Walcott, the referee, finally stopped the fight after a wild flurry of inaccurate punches by the almost-hysterical Clay, Liston was staggering drunkenly and had to be led to his corner by Trainer Willie Reddish.” — Maule, Sports Illustrated, 1965
1966-70: Lost years
In 1966, as President Johnson is increasing U.S. troop deployments to Vietnam, Ali is classified “1-A” by selective service board in Louisville. He refuses to serve in the military and files for draft exemption as a conscientious objector due to his non-violent Muslim faith. Ali petitions for an exemption from conscription as a minister of the Nation of Islam. In January 1967, Ali’s conscientious objector claim is denied.
Ali wins seven fights from 1966 to 1967, five by knockout, including the infamous “What’s my name?” fight against Ernie Terrell in February 1967.
His record stands at 29-0, with 21 knockouts.
On April 28, Ali reports for — but declines induction into — the U.S. Armed Forces. The WBA immediately strips Ali of the heavyweight title, and the New York State Athletic Commission revokes Ali’s boxing license.
In July, a jury returns a verdict of guilty against Ali on the charge of violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act because of his refusal to be inducted. Ali is sentenced to a term of five years imprisonment and a fine of $10,000.
Ali begins what will become a nearly four-year appeals process; meanwhile, he is unable to make money in his chosen profession.
He is called a draft-dodger and derided in public and in the chambers of Congress. Ever outspoken, he continues to voice his objections on college campuses and on television, most notably in interviews with sportscaster Howard Cosell, while campaigning to be reinstated and allowed to box again.
In January 1970, Ali wins an appeal to have his boxing license reinstated by the New York Athletic Commission. After more than three years, only Irish boxer Jerry Quarry agrees to fight Ali.
“People are coming from Pakistan and China. From Philadelphia, from Detroit, from Watts. Satellites are flying around the sky just to take this fight to Africa and Asia and Russia,” Ali said pre-fight. “Millions and millions of people, watching and waiting just to see me jump around a ring. I’d better win, because as much hell as I catch when I’m winning, I hate to think of what would happen if I lost.”
On Oct. 26, Ali defeats Quarry by TKO in Atlanta (the bout was stopped for a cut in the third round). He beats Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden later in the year, setting up a title shot against the new king of boxing, “Smokin’ ” Joe Frazier.
“The Fight of the Century”
In March, a still unbeaten Ali finally gets his opportunity to reclaim the world title that had been stripped during his legal troubles. In Ali’s absence, Joe Frazier had risen to the top of the boxing world with knockouts of Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis. The match was billed as “The Fight of the Century” with each fighter promised a $2.5 million purse.
Ali falls down in the 15th round on a hard left hook from Frazier. It is a decisive blow, and the bout is awarded to the reigning champ in a unanimous decision.
“I always knew who the champion was,” Frazier, his brow swollen above each eye, said later with a smile.
From Post writer Dave Brady:
“Joe Frazier spoke his piece with his fists tonight and clearly established himself as the undisputed champion of all creation with a unanimous decision over Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden.”
It is Ali’s first professional loss. He is 31-1.
Clay v. United States
As Ali recovers from his first defeat, he receives arguably the biggest victory of his career. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Ali’s favor, 8-0, overturning his 1967 draft-evasion conviction. Ali’s first words when he hears the decision are “Thanks to Allah.”
A second loss
In the hierarchy of Ali’s rivals, Ken Norton earns a place alongside Liston and Frazier on March 31, when the 5-to-1 underdog with the 44-inch chest breaks Ali’s jaw and wins a split decision. Many think Ali will retire, but “the greatest of all time” chooses to face Norton again in September.
“Ali vs. Frazier II”
On Jan. 28, no heavyweight title is claimed at Madison Square Garden. But the night in New York is essential to Ali’s legacy. A rematch with Joe Frazier is an opportunity for revenge. A victory by unanimous decision paves the road to a showdown with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, and a chance at reclaiming the heavyweight title.
“The Rumble in the Jungle”
On Oct. 30, in Kinshasa, Zaire, Ali seeks again to reclaim the world heavyweight title, this time from “Big George” Foreman. The bout is delayed six weeks, time Ali spends training in a remote village outside of the capital city.
For seven rounds, Foreman rains punches on his challenger, who absorbs the blows as he utilizes his rope-a-dope technique to perfection. By the eighth round, Foreman has exhausted himself trying to end the fight with haymakers, and Ali attacks with a left-right combination that floors Foreman. Ali has again regained the world title.
“Thrilla in Manila”
The bar for brutality is raised on a Pacific island on Oct. 1. Following the pattern of Ali’s late glories, the “Thrilla in Manila” is a testament to the champ’s tolerance. Ali rallies in the 14th round against nemesis Joe Frazier, winning the trilogy when the man he had verbally tormented for so long had been sufficiently bloodied.
“It was a war,” the Associated Press wrote, “and Ali fired the most accurate and telling shots as he pounded and pounded rights and lefts to Frazier’s head in the 13th and 14th rounds that closed the challenger’s eyes and had him reeling.”
On Feb. 15, Ali faces Leon Spinks, who many believe to be outmatched, in Las Vegas. It is Ali who underestimates Spinks. The younger fighter, just seven professional bouts under his belt entering, outmaneuvers Ali and wins a split decision to take the heavyweight title from the champ.
Ali gets a rematch against Spinks seven months later in New Orleans’s Superdome, where he earns an unanimous decision and becomes the first fighter to win the world title three times.
After two years out of the ring, Ali ends a brief retirement to take another shot at reclaiming the WBC title. The end scene is Ali, his face swollen and body battered, slumped on a stool, his corner asking the referee to end the fight.
Ali lasts through 10 rounds in Las Vegas, but served mostly as a punching bag for Larry Holmes.
“Ali was a great champion, but we all come and we all go,” Holmes says post-fight. “Now people all over the world will know me as champion.”
Ali’s final fight is against Trevor Berbick, 14 months after Holmes pummeled the three-time champ in the last title bout of his career. Ali loses a unanimous decision to the 28-year-old.
Ali finishes his professional career with a record of 56-5-0, with 37 knockouts. He was knocked out just once in a two-decades long professional career.
Ali is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Ahead of the Gulf War, Ali travels to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of U.S. citizens taken hostage after the invasion of Kuwait. Ali brings home 15 hostages.
Ali is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, by President George W. Bush.
Ali attends the inauguration of President Barack Obama.