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Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions. He also stands as a powerful symbol of social and cultural change in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. He began boxing at an early age and had a distinguished amateur career that culminated in winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He then turned professional, and on February 25, 1964, he defeated Sonny Liston (1932?–1970) to become heavyweight champion at the age of twenty-two.
Already at this point in his career Ali demonstrated the outspoken demeanor that reflected the changing racial climate of the times. The civil rights movement that had begun in the United States in the years following World War II (1939–1945) was coming to a climax, with widespread activism, the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), and the passage of landmark federal legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The more violently confrontational Black Power movement was about to begin. The history of the heavyweight championship and Ali’s role in it serves to reflect these elements of change. Following a controversial black champion, Jack Johnson (1878–1946), in the early years of the century, no African American was allowed to fight for the heavyweight championship until the arrival of Joe Louis (1914–1981) in the 1930s. Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949, and other black champions who followed, most notably Floyd Patterson (1935–2006) during the late 1950s and early 1960s, were submissive and noncontroversial. The young Cassius Clay, however, was brash and outspoken. Shortly after becoming heavyweight champion, the aura of controversy surrounding him grew when he announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam and was officially changing his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, as U.S. military involvement in Vietnam became an increasingly divisive national issue, Ali announced that he was seeking exemption from military service as a conscientious objector. As a result of this, and his subsequent refusal of induction when his draft board failed to grant the exemption, he was formally stripped of his boxing title early the following year.
Ali was kept out of the sport for next three years. In 1970, however, he was again able to obtain a boxing license, and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for refusing induction. Returning to the ring at the age of twenty-eight, he went on to fight some of his most memorable bouts, including his stunning victory over George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974 in which he regained the heavyweight title. He continued to fight through the rest of the decade, losing and regaining the title a third time in 1978. He fought his last fight and left the ring for good in 1981.
In the latter part of his fighting career, Ali began to display the effects of his many years in boxing. In the early 1980s he was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome. Despite deteriorating health following his retirement, he continued to make public appearances and to serve as a spokesperson for anti-imperialist and anticolonial movements throughout the world. During this period also, his reputation in the United States gradually underwent a transformation, from a figure of controversy to a national icon. In 1980 he was sent to Africa by President Jimmy Carter in an unsuccessful effort to gain African support for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics. A diplomatic effort in Iraq in 1990 secured the release of several of the U.S. hostages being held by Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) in the period immediately preceding the 1991 Gulf War. As the 1990s progressed, Ali’s rise to iconic status continued. In 1996, with an estimated three billion people around the world watching on television, he lit the Olympic flame to open the Atlanta Summer Olympics, and nine years later, in 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House.
It is extremely difficult to separate the real from the mythic Ali. His stature, clearly, extends far beyond his skill in the boxing ring, and is attributable to the natural charisma and sincerity of the man, to the work of the many journalists and publicists who wrote about him, and finally to the times in which he lived. Never a profound or original thinker, Ali’s activities and pronouncements on various issues—his support, for example, of Republican presidential candidates Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) and George H. W. Bush in the 1980s—often appeared inconsistent and contradictory. In the end, however, it is in the transition from a figure of controversy to a national icon, and the manner in which it serves to symbolize the social and cultural change occurring in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, that his greatest significance lies.
- Hauser, Thomas. 1991. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Marqusee, Mike. 2005. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. 2nd ed. London: Verso.
- Remnick, David. 1998. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. New York: Random House.
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