Muhammad Ali during training at the Royal Artillery Gymnasium in London for his 1966 fight with British champion Henry Cooper. (Trevor Humphries/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali turns 65
By Chris Iorfida, CBC Sports
Muhammad Ali’s 65th birthday, on Jan. 17, is at once a cause for celebration, a chance to wax nostalgic and a reminder of mortality, in light of his struggle with Parkinson's disease.
While it’s hard to believe there is an entire generation of sports fans who never saw Muhammad Ali fight, in a contemporary sense, it's heartening to know that his exploits are more available than ever with the growth of the web and classic sports channels. Still, Ali had a staggering global reach in the pre-wired world (only Pelé came close).
Here's a taste of the evolution of the man, the fighter and the legend.
Jan. 17, 1942: The first of two sons is born in Louisville, Ky., to Cassius and Odessa Clay, named, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Rudolph Valentino Clay follows two years later.
October 1954: The theft of young Clay’s bike leads him to policeman Joe Martin, who also helps out at the Columbia boxing gym in Louisville. He encourages Clay to take up the sport.
February 1957: Clay meets Angelo Dundee, in Louisville. Dundee would eventually become head trainer, beginning with Clay’s second pro bout. (Fred Stoner is the obscure trivia answer for fight No. 1.)
Sept. 5, 1960: Clay caps an off a 100-8 amateur career by winning Olympic gold in the light-heavyweight division in Rome.
Oct. 29, 1960: The Louisville Sponsoring Group, a consortium of white businessmen is created to handle Clay’s career, which begins with a six-round win over Tunney Hunsaker.
Ali with longtime trainer Angelo Dundee in 1964. (Harry Benson/Getty Images)
March 1961: Curious about the Black Muslims for some time, Clay meets member Sam Saxon in Miami, gradually increasing his involvement with the group. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad finds boxing distasteful, but Clay would form a close relationship with the Nation's Malcolm X for a time.
Nov. 15, 1962: Clay fights his biggest name yet, legend Archie Moore, who briefly trained him two years earlier before Dundee joined. “Moore will fall in four,” the burgeoning poet predicts, and he does.
March 1963: Clay is befriended by the colourful Drew (Bundini) Brown, who would join the fighter’s entourage and help pen lines such as: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble young man, rumble.”
September 1963: On the verge of a title shot, the first major media reports of Clay’s involvement with the Black Muslims surface.
Feb. 25, 1964: Clay stuns the boxing world by forcing menacing heavyweight champ Sonny Liston to quit on his stool after six rounds in Miami. Liston’s team cites a shoulder injury; skeptics cast a wary eye on Liston’s Mob ties and Ali's link to the Nation.
March 6, 1964: With Malcolm X in tow at the UN, the new heavyweight champion of the world announces he is changing his name to Cassius X. The same day in Chicago, Elijah Muhammad tells a radio host Muhammad Ali is a more appropriate, divine name and the fighter ultimately agreed. Ali gets caught in the growing rift within the Nation between Elijah and Malcolm X for leadership of the Nation of Islam.
Feb. 21, 1965: Malcolm X is shot to death in New York City.
Perhaps Ali's most iconic photo: he stands over a fallen Sonny Liston during their 1965 rematch. (John Rooney/Associated Press)
May 25, 1965: Another fight with Liston, another controversy. Ali knocks out his opponent in just over two minutes on what many call “the phantom punch.” Ali’s spin is it was an “anchor punch” he learned from Stepin Fetchit, actor and one-time entourage member of brash champion Jack Johnson.
February 1966: Originally rejected by the U.S. Army two years earlier, Ali is reclassified as eligible for service. He opposes the Vietnam War and seeks a draft deferment.
March 29, 1966: Ali beats George Chuvalo by 15-round decision at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Chuvalo, whom Ali dubs “Washerwoman” for his awkward punching style, was a replacement for Ernie Terrell. Toronto is the site after the Illinois commission nixes a bout due to comments by Ali about the war.
Fall, 1966: The Louisville Group's contract expires. Elijah’s son, Herbert, takes over as manager.
April 25, 1967: Ali refuses induction into the U.S. Army and is immediately stripped of his title by the New York State Athletic Commission, then a major power broker in the sport.
Oct. 26, 1970: With the tide of Vietnam opinion turning, state commissions begin relicensing Ali. He returns with a three-round win over Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.
Ali is knocked to the canvas in the 15th round by a Joe Frazier left hook during the 1971 "Fight of the Century." Ali would avenge the loss in 1973, and in 1975 win the Thrilla in Manila" rubber match. (Keystone/Getty Images)
March. 8, 1971: In the one of the biggest events in sports history, dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” Ali is knocked down in the 15th by Joe Frazier en route to losing a decision and the heavyweight title, the first defeat of his pro career.
June 1971: Ali's draft evasion conviction is overturned by the Supreme Court, 8-0.
March 31, 1973: Ali’s days as a relevant fighter appear over after his jaw is broken in a decision loss against unheralded Ken Norton.
Oct. 30, 1974: After avenging the defeats to Frazier and Norton, Ali pulls off the upset in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, stopping George Foreman, thought invincible, in eight rounds to regain the heavyweight crown.
March 24, 1975: Ali beats iron-chinned journeyman Chuck Wepner, who is credited with a knockdown of Ali in the fight. Fledgling actor Sylvester Stallone takes full notice while penning the screenplay for Rocky.
Oct. 1, 1975: Ali and Frazier engage in the brutal “Thrilla in Manila,” with Frazier kept on his stool after the 14th round by trainer Eddie Futch to spare further punishment.
Sept. 15, 1978: Ali becomes the first man to hold the heavyweight title a third time after winning over the man who beat him six months earlier, the young and unpredictable Leon Spinks.
Oct. 2, 1980: In the first of two ill-advised comeback bouts, Ali absorbs a frightening beating in an 11th-round loss to champion Larry Holmes.
September 1984: It is first revealed that Ali is suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome, a neurological condition that causes loss of muscle control and tremors.
November 1986: Ali marries his fourth and present wife, Lonnie Williams.
Ali and his wife Lonnie, left, share a laugh with President George W. Bush after the legendary boxer received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
1988 – 1994: Several people close to Ali pass away: both his parents and entourage members Drew (Bundini) Brown and Lana Shabazz.
July 19, 1996: Despite his advancing Parkinson's, Ali lights the Olympic torch to open the Summer Games in Atlanta.
Oct. 8, 1999: Laila Ali, daughter with third wife Veronica, makes her pro boxing debut and seven years later remains an undefeated champion.
Nov. 19, 2005: Ten days after he is awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Muhammad Ali Center opens in Louisville.
The makings of the greatest: The five gut-check fights that made Ali a champion.
Capturing Ali: The greatest Ali movies and books.
From the Lip
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”
Feb. 27, 1964, the day after defeating Sonny Liston for the title, when asked of his involvement with the Black Muslims. He would soon announce a name change to Cassius X then Muhammad Ali.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
Feb. 17, 1966, responding to reporters after his request for a draft deferment was denied; (Some sources have the quote as “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Vietcong.”)
“You may have seen the last of Ali. I want to get out of it …what you saw tonight was next to death.”
After the brutal "Thrilla in Manila" with Joe Frazier in Oct. 1975. Ali would fight 10 more times.
They said it
Time softens opinions, but Ali was regarded with any and all descriptors in his heyday, from awe to revulsion.
“I’d like a return [bout], but only if you put a 50-pound weight on each ankle.”
British challenger Brian London, blasted in three rounds by Ali in 1966.
“I dislike what Clay stands for, using boxing to further an extremist cause. But it’s not against the law to be a clown.”
Ernie Terrell, who refused to use his opponent’s Muslim name and would be punished and taunted in a 15-round loss in 1967.
“We shouldn’t let him fight for money if he won’t fight for his country.”
Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox before Ali’s scheduled comeback fight in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry in October 1970.
Did you know?
- With Ali’s ban in the U.S. still in effect in 1970, the idea of holding the anticipated Ali-Frazier fight in Toronto was floated. The Frazier camp was never enthusiastic about the possibility and a U.S. Federal Court rejected a request from Ali’s legal team for him to temporarily leave the country.
- Warren Beatty considered Ali to star in the remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, entitled Heaven Can Wait. Beatty said the timing never worked, though others say Ali’s Nation of Islam advisers weren’t keen on a plot involving life after death.
There is no shortage of bizarre and lamentable moments in Ali’s long, strange trip. Here’s a sample:
- In 1976, someone has the brilliant idea of pitting boxer against wrestler. Because of rule compromises, Ali lands few punches and Antonio Inoki sits on his butt and kicks at Ali’s shins for a full 15 rounds in Tokyo. Ali later has to seek medical attention for blood clots resulting from the kicking.
- At Jimmy Carter’s behest, Ali visited African countries to try and gain support for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Never well-versed in geopolitical nuances and relationships between countries, Ali proves ill-equipped for the task and the trip is cut short.
- Ali makes a series of calls to Washington lawmakers in the mid-80s regarding pieces of legislation. Smelling something amiss, sportswriter Dave Kindred digs in. It is believed a controversial attorney of Ali’s, Richard Hirschfeld, is impersonating the fighter, though he denies it. Years later, Ali would sue Hirschfeld, who committed suicide in prison in 2005.
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