In Memorial: Muhammad Ali

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Muhammad Ali in 2011

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Image License: Creative Commons 2.0

At first, the man proclaimed himself “the Greatest!” but time would prove the rest of the world agreed, Muhammad Ali was indeed the greatest. Born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, and named Cassius Clay after his father, the young man began boxing at the age of 12. By the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, he was a gold medalist in the sport. Ali was super quick and had light feet. At 6 foot 3 inches, he was also imposing.

Liston – Ali Fight

He turned professional and in 1964 he fought Sonny Liston for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World. The match was held in Miami Beach, Florida, and was highly anticipated. Liston dominated his opponents and was considered one of the best heavyweight boxers of his day. However, he lost the match in the seventh round and Clay became champion.

Name Change

At this time, Clay had discovered Islam. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali to both show his new religious understanding and to disavow his “slave name.” This caused a lot of controversy and most media outlets refused to use his new name at the time.


Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam was ongoing. Ali refused to be drafted in April 1967 on religious grounds. The U.S. Department of Justice denied his claim as a conscientious objector and he was convicted  of violating the draft law, although he remained free on appeal. He was stripped of his title and unable to box in the U.S. In addition, his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to box outside the country. In his boxing prime, Ali had no outlet to box. He did not relent and remained a vocal objector to the war.

Return to Boxing

Ali returned to the ring in 1970 and the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. His first famous match was with Joe Frasier. Dubbed, “the Fight of the Century” the two men fought on March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Frazier won in 15 rounds on the judges’ decision. It was his first loss in 31 professional fights. Ali regained the heavyweight title against George Foreman in 1974 in the match known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali used his “rope-a-dope” technique by hanging on the ropes and taking punches to tire his opponent. In the 8th round he won by knockout. Ali and Frazier had a rematch in 1974 that Ali won.


Ali retired from boxing in 1981. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984. He used his fame and status to speak around the world and help those in need. He supported numerous organizations, including the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics. He famously lit the Olympic cauldron for the games in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2005 Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. He lived to see the first African-American elected U.S. president and was on hand for Obama’s inauguration.


Sadly, on June 6, 2016, the beloved sports hero and international icon died after a long battle with Parkinson’s. His skill and rank as one of the greatest boxers is in no doubt, but his convictions in his beliefs and his courage against the status quo are what perhaps leave the largest impression in his remarkable legacy and earn him the title “the Greatest.”


Inferring Why did the U.S. Department of Justice think it necessary to convict Ali when he refused the draft?
Identifying Word Meanings Using context clues, what does “disavow” mean? What does “revoked” mean?
Synthesizing In what ways was did Ali show conviction in his beliefs, and how did he show courage?
Providing an Opinion Was Muhammad Ali “the Greatest”?



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