Cassius Marcellus Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky in a Christian family. When he was twelve years old, his most prized possession, his bicycle, was stolen and he vowed to find and beat up the thief. That was the beginning of his preparation to be a boxer. Insight into the life of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) is given in the film through interviews with his brother Rahaman Ali, a former wife Belinda, and the current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Muhammad Ali - Wikimedia
After graduating from high school, Cassius won the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. He turned professional after that, and won every fight on his way to his first heavyweight championship title, including the fight against the one-time world champion, Floyd Patterson, whom Clay knocked out in the first round. He never had a doubt that he would be the world champion. In 1964, he joined the Nation of Islam just before fighting Sonny Liston that year in Miami Beach, Florida. He was 22 years old at the time, and taunted Liston before the fight even though Liston was at the time the World Heavyweight Champion. The odds were 7:1 in favor of Sonny Liston, and 55,000 people came to watch the fight.
Cassius Clay Takes a New Name
While preparing for the championship title, Cassius was seen in Miami in the company of Malcolm X, a member of the controversial Nation of Islam. The year was 1964 and he made the decision to convert to Islam, which made him a hero to many in the black community, although the country at large viewed Muslims as subversive. A belief in black separatism was dangerous and divisive, especially at a time when tensions surrounding the civil rights movement were already at a peak. Soon after winning the title in Miami, Cassius changed his name to Muhammad Ali, a name that was bestowed upon him by the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. He commented “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name; it means beloved of God, and I insist that people use it when they speak to me and of me.” When Malcolm X was shot to death in 1965, Muhammad Ali’s apartment was set on fire that same evening. In the 50s and 60s, the face of Muhammad Ali was probably the most recognizable face in the world.
Malcolm X - Wikimedia
Muhammad Ali’s Draft Notice
In 1967, at the peak of his boxing career, Muhammad Ali was drafted into the U. S. Army to fight in Vietnam. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused to be inducted into the army and claimed to be a conscientious objector. He was denied this claim and was convicted of evading the draft. He was banned from boxing for three years and was stripped of his heavyweight championship. Ali claimed that he had nothing against the Viet Cong. He said he was fighting for the government every day because his income was taxed at the rate of 91% at that time. He believed that the government went after him because he was a Muslim. He refused to go 10,000 miles to murder poor people who were just like himself. He was sentenced to prison for five years and was fined $10,000, though he never served a day in prison.
Ali Had to Make a Living
Ali made many personal and professional sacrifices in standing up for his beliefs. In order to provide for his family, he gave many speeches about himself and his conversion to Islam. His plain speaking on issues of race, religion and politics made him a controversial figure. He also starred in a Broadway musical in 1969 entitled “Buck White,” where he portrayed a man whose beliefs were exactly like his own. He claimed he was not acting; he was being himself.
Muhammad Ali’s Conviction is Reviewed
Some friends wanted Ali to be vindicated. It came to light that there had been some illegal wiretapping of a conversation between Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. The case was sent back to the trial judge, and the Supreme Court of the U. S. agreed to review the case. The African-American Associate Judge, Thurgood Marshall, recused himself from the case, leaving only eight justices to make the decision. If the decision was split, Ali would not be vindicated; he could serve five years in prison instead. It was taking a chance. The justices had to decide if Ali’s objection was selective, that is, referring only to the Vietnam War, and not any other war, such as a holy war involving Muslims which would obligate Ali to join. Justice Harlan’s aides uncovered the fact that Jehovah Witnesses were exempt from fighting. Justice Harlan concluded that Ali was wrongly convicted, and that his conviction must be reversed. The eight judges voted for the reversal. It was 1971.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Wikimedia
Back in the Ring
When the American people began to grow sour against the Vietnam War, Ali was back in the ring for a fight in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry. After a three-year layoff, he had to be ready in six weeks. Everybody who was somebody came to that fight. Muhammad Ali won the fight and regained his title when Quarry gave up in the third round.
Ali was finally regarded as a man willing to take a stand, even an unpopular one, for something that he believed in, and one with the courage to stand up for his convictions in the face of almost unimaginable pressures. He had chosen his faith and conscience over fame and fortune, which gave him remarkable stature. Ali was married four different times and had eight daughters plus a ninth adopted daughter.
Retirement from Boxing
Muhammad Ali was the first boxer to capture the heavyweight title three times. He won a total of 56 bouts in his 21-year professional career. His final retirement came in 1981 when he was 39 years old, after he had lost several high-profile matches.
Honors are Heaped on Muhammad Ali
Ali was chosen to light the Olympic torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia, a poetic moment for him and for the country. President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, and President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. This medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Presidential Medal of Freedom Wikimedia
The Death of Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74 on June 3, 2016 after battling Parkinson’s disease for several years. Actor Will Smith, who played the title role in the 2001 film “Ali,” was a pallbearer at his funeral which was held in Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. Celebrities from all walks of life attended his funeral.
Indeed, he was “the Greatest.”