Episode 26 (formerly 1702): Muhammad Ali


Boxer Muhammad Ali is one of the most notable American athletes in the world. When he died in 2016, he was considered one of the most influential people in the USA. He was known not only for his superior boxing ability, but also for his convictions and activities in the civil rights movement for African Americans.

When Muhammad Ali was born in 1942, his parents gave him the name Cassius Clay. He won his first professional boxing match in 1960. During the next three years, his boxing record was 19 wins and no losses, defeating well-known boxers of the time. Fifteen of those 19 wins were knockouts.

Cassius Clay was famous for an unusual boxing style, which consisted of avoiding punches instead of defending against them. He was also famous for being arrogant and vocal, and he often rhymed his speech, much like rappers do today. In 1964 during a pre-match weigh-in for a fight with Sonny Liston, he said he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”. This phrase is still famous in American English.

Other well-known quotes from him:

  • I am the greatest!
  • I’m so pretty!
  • Don’t count the days; make the days count.
  • I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
  • I’ve wrestled alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and throw thunder in jail.

In 1966, Clay was drafted to fight in the Vietnam war. However, Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, an extreme African-American political and religious group. When ordered to go to war, Clay refused as a conscientious objector on the grounds that it was forbidden by his religion.

It was during this time that he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He refused to respond to the name Cassius Clay and refused to allow other people to refer to him that way. Because of his refusal to go to war and his name change, he grew even more controversial than before.

Because of this controversy and many other reasons, Ali was banned from boxing in the USA for most of 1966. Instead, he fought abroad, continuing to win. In 1967, he was sentenced to five years in prison because of his refusal to go to war. That year, the professional boxing commission stripped Ali of his championship title and did not allow him to fight for more than three years afterward.

During the ban, Ali continued to speak out against racial injustice and to fight overseas. Although his conviction was overturned and he did not have to go to prison, his professional boxing career was permanently damaged. Many believe that Ali could have had an even greater boxing record if not for the ban.

He was again allowed to fight in the USA in 1970. In 1971, one of the most famous boxing matches was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Ali fought against Joe Frazier, who was the boxing champion at the time. Frazier beat Ali and remained champion.

Three years later, Ali boxed against George Foreman in another famous match called Rumble in the Jungle because it was held in Zaire, which is now the Congo, in Africa. Ali won this match, which gave him the right to fight Joe Frazier again.

The rematch with Frazier was held in Manila in the Philippines, and thus dubbed ‘The Thrilla (thriller) in Manila’. Ali won this fight and regained his world championship title.

Muhammad Ali retired in 1981 with an overall record of 56 wins and 5 losses. Thirty-seven of the wins were knockouts.

Doctors diagnosed Ali with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1980s, a chronic, degenerative nerve disease. It was caused by his boxing. However, Ali continued to be an active public figure and devoted himself to world humanitarian issues. In addition to his boxing awards, he earned dozens of other awards, both in the USA and abroad. They include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a non-military person in the United States; the BBC Sports Personality of the Century Award; and the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold from the United Nations Association of Germany. He also lit the Olympic torch for the games in Atlanta in 1996.

Filmmakers have produced numerous documentaries about Ali, and actor Will Smith played him in a 2001 biographical film.

Muhammad Ali died in 2016 of complications of his Parkinson’s. However, he continues to have influence through his non-profit Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, as well as through many other projects he supported during his life.

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