“Don’t count the days. Make the days count,” profound words spoken by one of the greatest sports figures of all time, heavyweight champion boxer and activist, Muhammad Ali. Universally regarded as “The Greatest,” he is the only fighter to win the heavyweight championship three times. His professional career spanned more than 2 decades, with 56 successful wins out of 61 total fights. The heavyweight champion and Olympic Gold medalist was known for his charm, invincible attitude, and boastfulness, in which he often expressed in rhyme. As an activist, he was extremely outspoken on issues of race, politics and religion which made him a controversial figure. He boldly spoke out against racial oppression towards blacks living in America, against the war in Vietnam, as well as standing up for his religious freedoms, having converted to being a Muslim and a member of the the Nation of Islam led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. In 1990, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky he grew up in the segregated south. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. was a sign and billboard painter, who himself was named in honor of the abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, was a domestic helper.
When Muhammad was 12 years old, he took up boxing under the training of Joe Martin, a Louisville policeman. By age 18, he had earned two national Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union national titles and 100 victories against eight losses. After graduating high school, he traveled to Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.
On October 29, 1960, Muhammad won his professional boxing debut in a six-round decision. From the start of his career, the heavyweight overwhelmed his opponents with a combination of quick, powerful jabs and foot speed. His braggadocios attitude and self-promotion earned him the nickname “Louisville Lip.”
After winning his first 19 fights, Muhammad received his first title shot on February 25, 1964, against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. The fight was held in Miami Beach, Florida. Although Muhammad was determined an underdog, the 22-year-old relentlessly taunted Sonny Liston before the fight, promising to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and predicting a knockout. When Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round, Muhammad was indeed crowned heavyweight champion of the world. In the ring after the fight, the new champ roared, “I am the greatest!”
At a press conference the next morning, Muhammad, who had been seen around Miami with Malcolm X (National Spokesman for Nation of Islam) confirmed the rumors of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. On March 6, 1964, Nation of Islam leader The Honorable Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon Cassius Clay the name of Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship by knocking out Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch on May 25, 1965, and he defended his title eight more times.
On April 28, 1967, as the U.S. war in Vietnam continued to heightened, Muhammad refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Having cited religious reasons for his decision not to serve, he was arrested and immediately stripped of his heavyweight title. The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and he was precluded from fighting by every state athletic commission in the United States.
On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years although he remained free on bail, while the conviction was appealed. Banned from boxing for three years, Muhammad spoke out against the Vietnam War on college campuses. As public attitudes shifted against the war, support for Muhammad grew. In 1970, the New York State ordered his boxing license reinstated, and the following year the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court overturned his conviction in unanimous decision.
After 43 months in exile, he returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round. On March 8, 1971, he fought Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” and lost after 15 rounds, the first loss of his professional boxing career.
Muhammad would go on to win his next 10 bouts, 8 of them against world-class opponents. Then, on March 31, 1973, a little-known fighter named Ken Norton broke Muhammad’s jaw in the second round. Muhammad defeated Ken Norton in a rematch six months later in a split decision. After that he fought Joe Frazier a second time and won a unanimous 12-round decision.
On October 30, 1974. Muhammad challenged George Foreman, who had dethroned Joe Frazier in 1973 to become heavyweight champion of the world. The fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, was titled the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Muhammad executed his “rope-a-dope” strategy, fighting for extended periods of time leaning back into the ropes in order to avoid many of his opponent’s heaviest blows. The strategy worked, and Muhammad won in an 8 round knockout to regain the title stripped from him seven years prior.
On October 1, 1975, Muhammad met Joe Frazier for a third time at the “Thrilla in Manila” in the Philippines and defeated him in 14 rounds. On February 15,1978 he lost his title to Leon Spinks, a novice boxer with an Olympic gold medal but only seven professional fights to his credit. However, seven months later, on September 15, Muhammad won it back. He defeated Leon Spinks in a unanimous 15-round decision to reclaim the heavyweight crown. He became the first and only fighter to win the world heavyweight boxing title three times.
Then he briefly retired from boxing in 1979. Two years after announcing his retirement, Muhammad launched a brief, unsuccessful comeback. In 1980, he suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Larry Holmes in a bout that was stopped after 11 rounds. After losing to Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981, the boxing great retired from the sport for the final time, with a 56-5 record.
In 1984, Muhammad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s syndrome severely impaired his motor skills, movement and speech. However, Muhammad remained active as a humanitarian and goodwill ambassador traveling the world. He met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990 to negotiate the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Muhammad had the honor of lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremonies. In 1999, he was voted the BBC’s “Sporting Personality of the Century,” and Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century.” In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony, and in the same year the $60 million Muhammad Ali Center, a nonprofit museum and cultural center focusing on peace and social responsibility, opened in Louisville. Ring Magazine named Ali “Fighter of the Year” five times, more than any other boxer, and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
On June 3, 2016, after being hospitalized for what was reportedly a respiratory issue, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74 in Phoenix, Arizona, The champ’s memorial service was held at the KFC Yum Center arena with close to 20,000 people in attendance. Speakers included religious leaders from various faiths, Attallah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s eldest daughter) broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Muhammad Ali’s daughters Maryum and Rasheda and his widow Lonnie.
“Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”
“Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.”
“It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you down. It’s the pebble in your shoe.”
“The will must be stronger than the skill.”
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest.”
“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
“A man who has no imagination has no wings.”
“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
“I shook up the world. Me!”
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
“I should be a postage stamp, because that’s the only way I’ll ever get licked. I’m beautiful. I’m fast. I’m so mean I make medicine sick. I can’t possibly be beat.”
“My principles are more important than the money or my title.”
“The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God.”
“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”
Recreate Model: Javyon McKinzie
Photographer of Recreated Photograph: Jasmine Mallory
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