“I Am America”: 44 Stirring Photos Of Muhammad Ali’s Heroism Inside And Outside The Ring

Published April 13, 2017
Updated September 13, 2021

From his iconic boxing matches to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, take a closer look at the life of "The Greatest" in these 44 stunning photographs of Muhammad Ali.

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“I Am America”: 44 Stirring Photos Of Muhammad Ali’s Heroism Inside And Outside The Ring
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Muhammad Ali was a legendary boxing champion, but he was just as famous for his battles that took place outside of the ring. These iconic pictures of Muhammad Ali are all the proof you need.

Most of the world first learned who Ali was after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964. But that was just the beginning of a breathtaking career that would ultimately transcend sports.

He was, among other things, a Black Muslim, a friend to Malcolm X, and a civil rights activist. He dubbed himself "The Greatest," fought tirelessly for the downtrodden, and never hesitated to speak his mind.

From his conversion to Islam to his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, Ali was emblematic of fighting for one's beliefs. He did so until the very end — when he died at age 74 after his final battle with Parkinson's disease.

After his tragic death in 2016, his daughter Rasheda described him as "my best friend and hero," and said he was "the greatest man that ever lived."

Some may argue that describing him as the greatest is an exaggeration, or, at least, an extremely subjective claim. But the Muhammad Ali pictures in the gallery above certainly make a powerful case for his famous nickname.

How Cassius Clay Became Muhammad Ali

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started boxing at 12 years old. He earned several titles before he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight during the Olympics in Rome in 1960.

At the time, he was 18 years old.

He became a professional soon after, with his showmanship earning him the nickname "Louisville Lip." After he moved to Miami, he showed dismissive onlookers that he was a fighter to reckon with — and not just in the ring.

Muhammad Ali Pictures

Wikimedia CommonsMuhammad Ali and Zbigniew Pietrzykowski at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

After he was refused service at a soda fountain counter due to his race, Ali famously threw his Olympic gold medal into a river. Fed up with American racism, he avoided opportunistic agents who refused to acknowledge civil rights issues. Around the same time, he found solace in the Nation of Islam.

With guidance from Malcolm X, he converted to Islam in 1963. The man formerly known as Cassius Clay soon stripped himself of his "slave name" and adopted a new one: Muhammad Ali. He was 22 years old.

The next year, he would become the heavyweight champion. His famous fight with Sonny Liston introduced the world to his showmanship in the run-up to the bout, and his legendary skills inside the ring.

Muhammad Ali's Activism Of The 1960s

Although Muhammad Ali successfully defended his title six times, the ensuing years were full of strife and controversy for him — especially after he received a draft notice calling him to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967.

Not only did Ali vehemently refuse, but he also called the U.S. government hypocritical for asking Black Americans — who were still fighting for equal rights at home — to go and fight for their country overseas.

"I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," Ali famously said. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

His objection to serving would nearly cost him everything.

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, barred from boxing matches, and sentenced to five years in prison. Though he managed to avoid time behind bars, it took him a few years to get back to work as a professional boxer. So in the meantime, he used his platform to speak out against the war.

Photos Of Muhammad Ali

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the most famous pictures of Muhammad Ali, taken in 1967.

"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 said in an interview. "They never called me n***er. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."

Ali took his case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971 amid revelations that the FBI had been spying on him. And he wasn't the only one with a target on his back. Other famous civil rights activists had also been surveilled — and in some cases callously threatened — by the FBI.

After the Supreme Court gave Ali his right to box back, he quickly returned to work — eager to make up for the lost time. After fighting Joe Frazier in 1974, he once again became the lead challenger for the heavyweight title.

He won that title in the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman that year, and once again beat Frazier in the 1975 fight "Thrilla in Manila." He continued to defend his crown until 1978 when he lost against Leon Spinks.

Through it all, he never stopped fighting for the voiceless outside of the ring. Keeping his eye on conflicts in the Middle East, Ali would garner a unique role to play as a Muslim, a Black American, and a public figure. He retired from boxing in 1981 and dedicated the rest of his life to activism.

The Final Chapter Of "The Greatest"

Just a few years after he retired, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's — a battle that he would fight for more than 30 years until the end of his life.

"I'm in no pain," Ali said of his symptoms. "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.'"

But just because he had health issues didn't mean that he had given up on his activism. In fact, he was more devoted than ever.

Muhammad Ali With His Wife

Wikimedia Commons Muhammad Ali with his wife Lonnie at a benefit in Washington, D.C. in 2001.

The 1980s and '90s saw Ali engage in a slew of humanitarian acts, like traveling to Iraq in 1990 during the run-up to the Gulf War. At the time, Saddam Hussein had taken 15 Americans hostage.

Muhammad Ali flew to Baghdad — without permission from the U.S. government — and negotiated the freedom of the hostages with Hussein. It worked, and Ali brought the Americans back home safely.

Despite Ali's worsening health, he famously lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996. But after his appearance at the Olympics, he became increasingly feeble because of his Parkinson's disease. Tragically, this was one fight that he wouldn't be able to win or overcome. Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 — but not before helping change the face of America forever.

Ali showed the world what he meant when he said: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me."


After looking through these Muhammad Ali pictures, check out these Muhammad Ali quotes. Then, learn 29 facts about Muhammad Ali.

Marco Margaritoff
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.