Happy birthday to Muhammad Ali, the spiritual, charismatic sports hero who once told his fans “live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.”
Muhammad Ali would be 79 today if the world still was blessed to have him in it. Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., died in 2016 of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. We can still see him with that cheeky smile, declaring himself the original GOAT.
Muhammad Ali sometimes would go further. “I’m not the greatest,” Ali said. “I’m the double greatest.”
Let’s look back at all the Muhammad Ali greatness. We take you to his first win to his three world titles to a hot night in Atlanta when the nation honored Ali for being himself.
Muhammad Ali Gets His First Win and First Flash of Fame
The superstar fighter picked up his first win in 1954. Who was the guy he beat? Ronny O’Keefe. Remember the name, it could be an answer to a trivia question. It also was a split decision. Ali’s dad was so thrilled, he proclaimed: “My son is going to be another Joe Louis. The World Heavyweight Champion, Cassius Clay!”
In 1960, Ali earned a spot on the U.S. boxing team or the Rome Olympics. He won the gold medal with a unanimous decision over Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, who won the bronze medal in 1956. That was the end to Ali’s amateur days. He made his professional debut in late October. For the first three years of his career, Ali was 19-0, with 15 wins via knockout.
Ali also began his playful, yet hyperbolic, ranting, although he did so with a twinkle in his eye. He met the famous wrestler, “Gorgeous” George Wagner, in Las Vegas in 1961. Ali noted Wagner’s charisma, his cocky banter and how all his bouts were sell outs. Ali told Thomas Hauser, his biographer, “that’s when I decided if I talked more, there was no telling how much people would pay to see me.”
Muhammad Ali and His First Fight For The World Title
Boxing fans know the date — Feb. 24, 1964. That’s when Muhammad Ali beat heavy favorite Sonny Liston for the world title. Despite being such an underdog, Ali kept up the pre-bout yapping. He called Liston a “big, ugly bear.” He said, “After I beat him, I’m going to donate him to the zoo.”[ During the pre-fight weigh in, Ali told Liston, “Someone is going to die at ringside tonight.”
Liston’s ego might’ve died that night. Ali earned the technical knockout after the sixth round. Ali proclaimed “I am the greatest. I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
There was an Ali-Liston rematch in 1965. The bout lasted less than two minutes, with Ali notching the knockout. Ali beat former world champion Floyd Patterson later in the year. It took him 12 rounds to win in a TKO.
Stripped Of License, Goes Into Sporting Exile
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to show up for induction in the Army. He said he objected to the Vietnam War because of his religious faith. On June 20, Ali was convicted of draft evasion. A judge sentenced him to five years in prison and fined him $10,000. Ali stayed out of jail as he appealed the verdict. He was banned from boxing for three years. On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction.
But as he appealed, every state denied Ali a boxing license and the U.S. stripped Ali of his passport. He did not fight again until 1970. During this time, he was based out of Chicago. He spoke to colleges across the country about racial justice issues.
Ali Suffers His First Loss
Joe Frazier is an answer to a trivia question – as in who was the first fighter to beat Ali in a pro bout. It took Frazier 15 rounds to take away Ali’s crown. The fight was March 8, 1971. And because it was an Ali fight, folks promoted it as “the fight of the century.”
But Ali got his revenge three years later, taking a decision after 12 rounds over Frazier. The rematch was at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Then the boxing world hit peak Muhammad Ali. On Oct. 30, 1974, Ali, the underdog, beat George Foreman. Promoters billed the fight as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The bout was in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali scored the knockout in the eighth round.
There also was another Ali-Frazier fight — the “Thrilla in Manila” in the Philippines. Ali won in 15 rounds. Ali lost the world title title to Leon Spinks in 1978. It was a split decision. However, seven months later, Ali won back the belt.
Ali announced his retirement in June, 1979. But he didn’t go away. In 1980. Larry Holmes beat Ali, his former sparring partner, with a knockout in the 11th round. Ali lost another fight, this time to Trevor Berbick. That’s when Ali said his retirement was permanent. His pro record was 56-5.
In 1984, Ali revealed he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Ali Lights Torch at 1996 Olympics
Atlanta played host to the world with the 1996 Olympics. It’s tradition that former medalists from the host country play a part in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony. Host cities go to great lengths to wow fans, who crowd into the stadium to watch competitors march in the parade of nations.
Billy Payne, the head of the Atlanta Olympic organizing committee, wanted boxer Evander Holyfield, who won a bronze medal in 1984, to light the cauldron. Holyfield lived in the Atlanta area. Payne said Ali was considered a “draft dodger’ in the south. But Dick Ebersol, a former NBC executive, said the only choice should be Ali.
“Muhammad Ali may be, outside of perhaps the Pope, the most beloved figure in the world,” Ebersol said. “In the third world, he’s a hero. In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and fellow traveler. To anybody young — just about — in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison.”
Janet Evans, the gold-medal winning swimmer, ran the final leg towards the cauldron. Then Ali stepped from the shadows into the spotlight to take the torch. He acknowledged the crowd for several seconds. It possibly is one of the most moving moments in U.S. Olympic history.