Muhammad Ali, The Greatest Showman Boxing Has Ever Seen
January 1963 - Pittsburgh: Boxing heavyweight contender Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) reclining bare-chested in hotel room and pointing finger while expounding on boxing. (Photo by Marvin Lichtner/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Was Muhammad Ali the greatest showman? Sure -- just ask Muhammad Ali. "I am the greatest" was his mantra and, for entertainment value and cinematic charisma, he was right. Muhammad Ali was a very good boxer, but he was not unbeatable. But in terms of sports personalities -- or celebrity personalities -- he was on the highest plane. Muhammad Ali was charmingly cocky, he was an entertaining braggart, he was an entrancing presence whether you liked boxing or not.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., in 1942. Throughout his spectacular career, Ali boxed under the names of Cassius Clay and later Muhammad Ali, after converting from Baptist to Muslim. He passed away in 2016 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was one of the most celebrated athletes of our time -- for both his skill in the boxing ring and his larger-than-life charisma.
Young Cassius Clay expressed an interest in the sport of boxing as early as 1954 at the tender age of 12 years old. As the story goes, young Cassius, who'd had his bicycle stolen, told local police he would find and "whup" the thief. The police advised him to learn to box first, and he took them up on their offer. Clay trained with a local Louisville police officer and began his amateur boxing career. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves titles, and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title. In 1960, Clay traveled to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, and won the gold medal in the light heavyweight class. When he concluded his amateur career, Cassius Clay's record was 100 wins against just five losses.
Following the Olympics, Ali began fighting professionally, and within a few years had established himself as the top contender for the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles held by Sonny Liston. In a match held on February 25, 1964, in Miami, Clay defeated Liston to become the new champion. Within two weeks, on March 6, the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay had been accepted into the organization and would henceforth be known as Muhammad Ali.
Throughout his time in the ring, Ali had many noteworthy opponents, almost too many to list. In addition to Sonny Liston, some of his best-known contests were against Joe Frazier (the "Thrilla in Manila"), Sonny Banks, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman (the "Rumble in the Jungle") and Leon Spinks.
Much has been made of Muhammad Ali's persona -- that of a loumouthed, loquacious braggart -- which earned him the early nickname of the "Louisville Lip." Ali brought a flair to the normally sober and somber environment of boxing that he'd learned firsthand from professional wrestler "Gorgeous" George Wagner. Among other things, he called himself"the greatest" and "the prettiest." Ali's taunting and self-aggrandizement was a part of his strategy; it was meant to distract and annoy his opponents, to break their concentration and throw them off their game. He belittled them by calling them everything from ugly and stupid to smelly. Here are some of his better-known quotes:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
“I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat!”
“It’s hard to be humble when you are as great as I am!”
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
“I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.”
“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
“I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest!”
As an anti-war activist, Ali was known for his anti-establishment views as a member of the counterculture generation, which fueled his fame during that time. He was arrested and charged with draft evasion in opposition to the Vietnam War. As a result, he was convicted and stripped of his boxing licenses and titles, leaving him unable to box professionally for four years; until he was eventually vindicated by winning his appeal. Ironically, one of his most notable opponents, Joe Frazier, advocated in his defense to clear his name. Ali and Frazier first met in 1968 and considered themselves friends, outside of the ring.
Muhammad Ali was much more than just a professional boxer. He was a husband, four times over, a father, an anti-establishment sympathizer, a civil rights activist and a Muslim; following in the footsteps of his mentor, Malcolm X. He recorded two “spoken word” albums and a rhythm and blues song. Being a man of many talents, Ali also performed in several films and even a Broadway musical. After he finally retired from his boxing career, in 1981, he devoted himself to his religion and charity work.
Aside from being a larger-than-life boxer, Muhammad Ali was a proud man and strived to be a positive role model as an athlete, an African American and a civil rights activist. He used his celebrity influence to bring attention to civil rights and anti-establishment issues. Ali was not undefeated but boasts an impressive boxing career. Out of 61 professional bouts, he had a whopping 56 wins with only 5 losses. Ali was decorated and celebrated throughout his career by the sport of boxing, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and countless other periodicals, The BBC, and even Presidents. Ali’s many celebrated contributions to the sport of boxing and to society live on as a testimony and a legacy he left for all of us!
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