In 1964, a twenty-two-year-old boxer known by his birth name, Cassius Clay, Jr. entered the ring for a match with Sonny Liston, who had been the world heavyweight boxing champion since 1962. Clay had spent the weeks prior to the match trash-talking Liston’s fighting abilities, trying to get inside his opponent’s head. Clay won the fight in a major upset. He then changed his name from Cassius Clay, Jr., which he called his “slave name,” to Muhammad Ali.
Ali described his fighting style as “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eye can’t see.” He considered himself “The Greatest.”
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, he refused to be drafted into the United States military. He gave as reasons his religious beliefs and opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his boxing titles. He was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from boxing for three years. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Ali was provocative and outlandish and arrogant and fearsome. Before his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” match with George Foreman in 1974, Ali continued his pattern of verbal assault. “I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. I’m a bad man. . . last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Ali retired from boxing in 1981 at age 39. In 1984 at the age of 42, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Some reports attributed his condition to boxing-related injuries, but both Ali and his physician disputed this.
In 1998, Ali began working with actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, to raise awareness and fund research for a cure for Parkinson’s disease. In 2002, they made joint appearances before Congress to push the case. Ali worked with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease to raise awareness and encourage donations for research.
As his condition worsened, he made limited public appearances. He was cared for at his home by members of his family. Muhammed Ali died June 3, 2016 at age 74 after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
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—By Karen Centowski