Muhammad Ali And Floyd Patterson

29 Facts About Muhammad Ali That Reveal The Truth About ‘The Greatest’

Published February 19, 2020
Published February 19, 2020

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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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.

Muhammad Ali Becomes The Heavyweight Champion

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.

Muhammad Ali And The Black Panthers

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.

Muhammad Ali In 2011

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.


After taking a look at Muhammad Ali's remarkable life, relive the civil rights movement in 55 powerful photos. Next, check out 44 declassified Vietnam War photos taken by U.S. Army photographers.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.