On January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and by the time he was 12 years old, he took up boxing so that he could defend himself in his neighborhood. He became so good at his craft that he entered the Golden Gloves and won the title. That led him to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy where he won the Gold Medal for which he was truly proud. That is until he returned to Kentucky and was refused service in a white restaurant. It upset him so much that he threw his gold medal into the nearby Ohio River.
But that episode didn't discourage him nor diminish his confidence in his boxing abilities, and on February 25, 1964, the now 22 year old boxer took on the current heavyweight champion at that time, Sonny Liston. Predicting victory over the “big ugly bear” as he called Liston, was a taste of what was to come from this brash young fighter, and some figured that it was just high spirited talk. That “talk” proved to be a prophecy of what was to come as he defeated Sonny Liston in 8 rounds. As Liston laid on the canvas, the new champ, Cassius Clay, looked down upon him, as shown in the now famous photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year, as to say “it’s my time.” As he ran around the ring, he started shouting the headline that would be quoted in newspapers around the globe, “I shook up the world.”
Shortly after winning the title, he joined the religion, Nation Of Islam, and their leader, Elijah Muhammad gave Cassius Clay a new name, and he was now to be called Muhammad Ali. In 1966, he refused to be drafted into military service during the Vietnam war because of his religious beliefs, and after losing his appeal June 20, 1967, he was stripped of his title, and banned from boxing for three and a half years. His reason for not going to war raised a few eyebrows when he said that he “will not go 10,000 miles to fight other brown people to further promote white slavery when brown people in the United States are treated like dogs.” He returned to the ring in 1971, but lost to then champion Joe Frazier in the first of 3 championship bouts. He regained the title from Frazier in the 1974 rematch.
With his colorful quotes, bold predictions and his undeniable boxing talent, Ali revolutionized the sport of boxing with sheer power and the magnetism of his personality. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman Of The Century, and when he retired in 1981, his record stood at 56 wins and 5 losses. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and now at 71, he is in his third decade doing battle with his most formidable foe. And while we may not see it, in his mind he still floats like a butterfly, and I for one will always call him “Champ.”