Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, Muhammad Ali became a heavyweight boxing champion who changed history forever — both inside and outside of the ring.
Muhammad Ali was one of the most iconic American figures of the 20th century. He wasn’t just a groundbreaking athlete whose boxing prowess mesmerized the country — he was also an outspoken activist who denounced the wrongs he saw in the world.
While many are familiar with the man through iconic photos, his legendary showmanship, and the biographical feature film about him, Ali’s life is an endless treasure trove of historical significance.
The heavyweight champ famously changed his birth name, Cassius Clay, to Muhammad Ali after being educated on the Islamic faith. He publicly questioned why Americans, particularly those whose civil rights were being trampled on at home, should go kill people in another country.
Ali put his entire career at risk, threatening to tarnish his legacy forever. What met him instead was unbelievable public support, a victory in court, and a decades-long continuation of his activist efforts. Even throughout his battle with Parkinson’s disease, Ali fought for those less fortunate.
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His goodwill tour to North Korea did not end well. During the international "Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace" in Pyongyang, one of the North Koreans bragged about how easy they could wipe out Japan or the U.S. Ali's response?
"No wonder we hate these motherf--kers!"Focus on Sport/Getty Images
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The "Rumble in the Jungle" took place at 4 a.m. local time in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Shockingly, this was to give American viewers the opportunity to catch the fight live at a more reasonable hour.Ken Regan/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images
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His book weighed 75 pounds and cost as much as $7,500.
GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, is one of the most impressive of its kind. It boasts 792 pages, 600,000 words, and 3,000 images. The first 1,000 copies were signed and sold for $7,500.THOMAS LOHNES/DDP/AFP/Getty Images
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He helped free 15 American hostages in the run-up to the Gulf War. Ali flew to Baghdad and met with Saddam Hussein without the U.S. government's approval.
He managed to free the captive Americans in 1990, and flew back home with them.MARIA BASTONE/AFP/Getty Images
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In 1978, Ali said women shouldn't be allowed to box: "Women are not made to be hit in the breast, and face like that."
However, Ali ended up supporting his own daughter Laila when she became a professional boxer. She ended her career with an impressive 21 knockouts.Ed Mulholland/WireImage
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He sold the rights to his name and image for $50 million in 2006.Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images
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He was a recording artist with a couple of Grammy nominations under his belt. In 1963, he released a spoken word album, fittingly titled I Am The Greatest.Bettmann/Getty Images
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When Ali was 32 years old, he had an extramarital relationship with a 16-year-old and fathered a child with her.Getty Images
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Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Former President George W. Bush personally draped the medal around Ali's neck on Nov. 9, 2005.Image: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
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Ali started boxing at age 12 after his bike was stolen. Policeman Joe Martin told him he better learn how to fight.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. taught each other a lot. Ali was against desegregation, while King was obviously very much in favor.
The two friends learned invaluable lessons from one another before King's assassination.Paul Harris/Getty Images
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One of the hardest punches Ali ever received was from a cop. His first professional fight was against Fayetteville, West Virginia police chief Tunney Hunsaker in 1960. Though Ali won, the two later became friends.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Muhammad Ali is related to Robert E. Lee, George Patton, and Katie Couric.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Ali and George Foreman each made $5 million from the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao made $180 million and $120 million, respectively, for their 2015 bout. George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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He was just 22 years old when he took a title from Sonny Liston. Stanley Weston/Getty Images
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He was so afraid of flying that he reportedly brought a parachute aboard every flight. He once told a reporter, "I'm not afraid of the fight. I'm afraid of the flight."Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
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Though Ali renounced his birth name Cassius Clay as his "slave name," he was named after a white abolitionist. The 1832 Yale graduate was a staunch opponent of slavery.
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Ali learned to dodge punches by dodging rocks. "He used to ask me to throw rocks at him," said his younger brother, Rudy. "I thought he was crazy, but he'd dodge every one. No matter how many I threw, I could never hit him."
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Muhammad Ali almost reunited The Beatles after they split up. Businessman Alan Amron approached Ali in a Miami restaurant in 1976 and asked if he'd like to help bring the band back together. "The Beatles? I love the Beatles!" Ali replied.
Together they developed a plan for an event that could raise $200 million to create a permanent agency aimed at "feeding and clothing the poor people of the world." Sadly, it didn't work out.Bettmann/Getty Images
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The FBI and the NSA spied on Muhammad Ali. Alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., he was surveilled for his bold activism.George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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He turned his back on Malcolm X and called it his greatest regret. They grew apart after Malcolm X criticized Elijah Muhammad, the prophet leader of the Nation of Islam, for being ignorant of the religion and fathering children out of wedlock.
"I wish I'd been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance."YouTube/Sons of Malcolm TV
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Ali was so angry about racial injustice that he threw his Olympic gold medal in a river. The boxer won the award at 18, and tossed it in the water after being denied refused services at a soda fountain counter.Wikimedia Commons
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Ali failed his IQ test for the Vietnam War draft with a score of 78.
He said, "I said I was the greatest, not the smartest."
Library of Congress/New York World-Telegram & Sun
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For a brief moment, Muhammad Ali was a Broadway actor. Ali played the title role in "Buck White," for seven performances across four nights in 1969.Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Before becoming Muhammad Ali, he was briefly known as Cassius X. His friendship with Malcolm X partly inspired this temporary change before he became the renowned Muhammad Ali.George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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He once talked a would-be suicide victim off the ledge. It was 1981 when he spotted a 21-year-old, and apparently convinced him not to jump.YouTube
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Ali almost fought Wilt Chamberlain — before the NBA legend backed out.
At a pre-fight press conference, the boxer reportedly yelled, "Timber!" when Chamberlain walked in. Before long, the fight was off.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Ali had Irish roots. His great-grandfather Abe Grady emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Kentucky in the 1860s. Mayor Neylon awarded Ali the Freedom of Ennis award upon visiting the town in County Clare in 2009. Julien Behal/PA Images/Getty Images
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A pair of Ali's gloves once sold for $836,500. The mitts he used in his first fight against Sonny Liston were auctioned off in 2014.Focus on Sport/Getty Images
29 Facts About Muhammad Ali That Reveal The Truth About ‘The Greatest’
He was emblematic of fighting for what you believe in. He transcended race and religion, defied governmental decrees on moral stances, and never let anybody compromise his beliefs. According to NBC News, his presence burst onto the scene in the early 1960s — when it truly mattered.
Heavyweight Champion Of The World
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started boxing at 12 years old. He reported his bike stolen, after which a policeman named Joe Martin suggested he learn how to fight.
After breezing through the amateur ranks, Ali rather quickly made a name for himself before participating in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
The 18-year-old won the gold medal as a light heavyweight, and returned to Louisville to turn professional. This is when his infamous smack-talk began, earning him the nickname "the Louisville Lip." A move to Miami prepared him to tackle the heavyweight title.
It also sparked his virulent anger against racial injustice.
Getty ImagesMuhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston and taunts him to get up during their title fight.
Ali said that he was denied service at a soda fountain counter, and he later threw his Olympic gold medal into a river out of rage.
While his career blossomed — he took the heavyweight champion title from Sonny Liston in 1964, became a celebrity, and the self-proclaimed "greatest" — his need to advocate against oppression did, too.
Ali The Activist: America's Anti-Vietnam Icon
The Nation of Islam showed Ali a new path. The American Muslim sect advocated for racial separation and against the pacifism of most civil rights activism.
Ali converted in 1963. Inspired by his newfound friend Malcolm X, he changed his "slave name" of Cassius Clay into the renowned Muhammad Ali we've known ever since.
He was 22 years old when he made this decision, which received mixed reactions from the public at the time.
David Fenton/Getty ImagesMuhammad Ali and the Black Panthers. 1970. New York, New York.
After defending his title six times, Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in 1967. He famously refused, saying that the war did not align with his faith.
"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?" Ali bravely asked. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."
The consequences were dire: Ali was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to five years in prison. Released on appeal but unable to fight, he instead turned to public speaking, debates, and voicing his disgust at the American war effort.
His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court — a lifetime in the boxing world.
Ali speaks about racial integration on a BBC talk show in 1971.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally reversed his conviction in 1971, allowing the fighter to get back to work.
Though his return to the ring saw legendary matches like "The Rumble in the Jungle" and "The Thrilla in Manila," it was his eventual retirement and Parkinson's diagnosis that truly marked his third act.
The Later Years: Parkinson's And Humanitarianism
Ali retired in 1981, after losing against Trevor Berbick. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's the following year.
"I'm in no pain," he said. "A slight slurring of my speech, a little tremor. Nothing critical. If I was in perfect health — if I had won my last two fights — if I had no problem, people would be afraid of me. Now they feel sorry for me. They thought I was Superman. Now they can go, 'He's human, like us. He has problems.'"
Nonetheless, Ali traveled to Lebanon in 1985 on a humanitarian mission, and helped negotiate the release of American hostages in Iraq in 1990. He lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, despite his trembling arms.
Wikimedia CommonsMuhammad Ali, five years before his death in 2016 at 74 years old.
Ali regularly met with presidents, heads of state, and even the Pope. He was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
At one point, he told People magazine that he regretted not spending more time with his children, but that he did not regret boxing.
"If I wasn't a boxer, I wouldn't be famous," he said. "If I wasn't famous, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now."
Ultimately, Ali left behind nine children and his wife, Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams. He also left behind very clear credos that can never crumble: do the right thing, speak your mind, and fight for what you believe in.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.