Muhammad Ali: What Made “The Greatest” So Great?

"Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill."


Occupation: Boxer

Born: 17th January, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky

Best known for: World Heavyweight Champion

Nickname: The Greatest


A true boxing legend, the world mourns the loss of “The Greatest" heavyweight boxer who made history in, and out, of the ring with his magnificent boxing style, unpredictable humour, and gentle generosity – especially later in life.


A fighter all his life, Muhammad Ali was one of the world’s greatest sporting champions, who died at the age of 74 on Friday 3rd June at a hospital in the U.S. city of Phoenix, Arizona.


Muhammad Ali “the greatest”, as he was often referred to, boasted a career of 56–5 (wins V loses) and was best known for his “Ali Shuffle” and “rope-a-dope” tactics in the ring. He was both an Olympic, gold medallist and World Champion boxer who was also known to have a unique personality, whose quips will never be forgotten.


Muhammad Ali’s death leaves an air of emptiness in the sports world that’ll may never again be filled, alongside a legacy that exceeds it. He made himself a deep-rooted mark on social justice history, popular culture, politics, not to mention religion. 


Let’s take a look at some facts about Muhammad Ali and a few of the boxing pro’s highlights. Have a gander below for a brief Muhammad Ali biography...


17th January, 1942

Muhammad Ali Early Life: Where Was He Born?


His original birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Born in Louisville, Kentucky on 17th January, 1942, his father, Cassius Clay, Sr., worked as a sign painter, and his mother, Odessa, worked as a maid and he also had a little brother called Rudy.


The Clays were middle-class – neither rich, nor poor. At the time Cassius was growing up, southern states, such as Kentucky, were separated by race. This meant there were different facilities such as schools, restaurants, swimming pools, and bathrooms for black people and white people. Laws called Jim Crow Laws implemented this division, making life incredibly hard on African Americans like Cassius. 


17th January, 1954

From Bike Theft to Boxer


Ali began his boxing career aged just 12 years old, after someone stole his bike. He was extremely angry and informed a police officer he was going to beat up the thief. Luckily for Ali, it turned out the officer he told was a boxing coach called Joe Martin, who advised Cassius that he’d better learn how to fight before he tried beating anyone up.



His boxing career began after he took Joe’s advice and learnt how to box. Much to Cassius’s surprise, he discovered he had a real gift for boxing – he was incredibly fast and much better than other fighters of his size. He could throw a speedy punch, and then duck out the way before his opponent could retaliate.


Ali competed in 105 boxing matches as an amateur fighter, winning 100 and only losing five. What’s more, he won a few Gold Glove championships and quickly became known as one of the greatest amateur light-heavyweight boxers in the world.


5th September, 1960

Muhammad Ali Olympic Medal


In 1960, Cassius travelled to Rome for The Olympics where he defeated all his opponents, scooping the Gold Medal which crowned him an American hero. It was at this point Muhammad Ali embarked on a professional boxing career.


However, his white boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee, was hated by white Americans as he was blamed for training a black man that could both box, and speak, eloquently.



29th October, 1960

Becoming a Pro


Eight weeks after his victory in Rome, Clay won his first professional bout. All the trademarks of his unorthodox style were on display.


Ali was nothing like his fellow heavyweight boxers; the Muhammad Ali boxer style was rooted in speed and skill rather than force and power. His method was more about avoiding the punches than taking them.


Ali exercised a mainstream position when fighting, but often kept his hands down, enticing his rival to take a violent blow which would allow Ali to counter attack.


Another tactic he liked to use was “stick and move”– in other words, he’d hurl a swift punch and then skip away before his adversary could react. He was a phenomenal athlete and only his exceptional speed and stamina enabled him to do this for 15 rounds.


He tackled tough opponents, including well-liked Englishman Henry Cooper, who knocked him down with a formidable left hook. But Clay upheld a flawless ring record. He would soon prove himself against his toughest opponent yet.



Ali utilised his speed and boxing IQ to become the first fighter in boxing history to win the heavyweight championship three times.


6th March, 1964

Muhammad Ali Religion: Changing His Name and Losing His Title


When 1964 rolled around, Ali converted to the religion of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X then later changed it to Muhammad Ali. As a result, this made him a recluse in some circles but, for many, he was a symbol of black pride, refusing to play the role of the ‘compliant negro’ with the purpose of gaining approval from the white establishment.



The ‘Phantom Punch’


Ali stunned the world after he defeated Sonny Liston, becoming world heavyweight champion. It was believed Liston’s loss was due to his overconfidence, injury or a possible mafia fix. The rematch in 1965 lasted a mere 100 seconds, as Liston descended to an almighty Ali punch, delivered with such velocity that many at ringside actually missed it.



28th April, 1967

Muhammad Ali Civil Rights: Standing Up for His Principles


Not long after, on 28th April, 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, owing to his religion. Due to his refusal to join, the boxing association excluded him from fighting for three years, beginning in 1967.


Risking everything, he stood firm on his stance to stay out of the Vietnam War, proclaiming, “my conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? How am I going to shoot them? Poor little black people, little babies, and children, women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”


After his arrest for draft evasion, he explained that at least part of the reason he refused to go to war was religion, saying, “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”


He talked back to white men and made sure that being black counted for something, and he lived by the idea that he could claim the right to “float like a butterfly sting like a bee.”


8th March, 1971

Muhammad Ali Fights: His Return to the Boxing Ring


Ali made his comeback to boxing in 1970, fighting some of his most renowned battles. He knocked out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. One of Muhammad Ali’s greatest fights was The "Fight of the Century", which took place on 8th March, 1971 in New York City between Ali (31-0) and Joe Frazier (26-0). This fight went all 15 rounds with Ali losing to Frazier by decision. It was Ali's first loss as a professional.



30th October, 1974

The Rumble in the Jungle


It was during this year that Ali had the perfect opportunity to reclaim his title in Zaire against a new world champion heavyweight, George Foreman. The "Rumble in the Jungle" took place on 30th October, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire between Ali (44-2) and George Foreman (40-0). Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round, using his new ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic, to resume the title of Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.



10th December, 1974

An International Idol


Ali’s triumph over Foreman defined him as the most recognisable person on the planet. He was admired by many, including Elvis, Bertrand Russell and Nelson Mandela. In December 1974, President Gerald Ford invited Ali to the White House to talk to him about divisions caused by the war in Vietnam and racial rifts.


1st October, 1975

Thrilla in Manilla


In 1975, Ali abandoned Nation of Islam teachings in favour of orthodox Islam, declaring “Colour doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count.”


It’d been 21 months since Ali won a low-key rematch against Joe Frazier in New York and Ali, at this point, had labelled Frazier as ‘a gorilla’.  The "Thrilla in Manila" took place on 1st October, 1975 in Quezon City, Philippines between Ali (48-2) and Joe Frazer (32-2). Ali won by TKO after the 14th round when the referee stopped the fight.


15th September, 1978

The Later Years


Following Manila, Ali maintained his championship six times before his loss to Leon Spinks, a largely unseasoned fighter with seven pro fights to his credit. Several months later, in September 1978, Muhammad conquered Spinks in a rematch, obtaining the heavyweight crown for an extraordinary third time. 



Ali took a fleeting retirement, but made a reckless reappearance against Larry Holmes. But alas, Ali didn’t quite make it and was pulled out of the fight by his trainer after the tenth round.


8th February, 1980

Ali the Ambassador


Because of his popularity, Ali was enlisted into diplomatic causes by the US government. President Carter sent Ali to Africa to gather support for a US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. However, the mission upset numerous African leaders and was widely deemed as a diplomatic catastrophe. Next, Ali travelled to Iraq where he helped negotiate the release of American hostages captured after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Aided by Ali’s profile, 15 hostages were released.




Muhammad Ali Retirement: the Golden Years


In 1981, the boxing pro, aged 40, retired from his career following a bout of lost battles to Trevor Berbick. After boxing, he spent a lot of his time getting involved with charity work.




A New Fight


Sadly, in 1984, he discovered he was suffering with Parkinson’s disease.  He married his final wife, Lonnie Williams, who became his full-time carer up until his untimely death. She was a catholic, but later converted to Islam.



Muhammad Ali Wives and Love Life


Ali wed his first wife, Sonji Roi, in 1964, they divorced within 17 months. His second wife he married was Belinda Boyd, aged just 17. She bore him three daughters and the son that Ali had long-craved for.



Later, in 1975, Ali forged a relationship with Veronica who was a glamorous poster girl to spice up his fight against Joe Frazier. He then had two more daughters. By 1986, Veronica had been swept aside.



Famous Muhammad Ali Quotes


Muhammad Ali was beyond just a boxer - he was a global icon, an entertainer, an inspiration and, not to mention, a civil rights champion. He was a man with wit and wisdom who could think up rhymes and sayings on the spur of the moment, designed to bring down his opponent in order to get himself ready for a fight.


He’d talk funny before and during a fight, remarking on how “ugly” or “dumb” his opponent was, and frequently referred to himself as “the greatest”.


One of the most famous Muhammad Ali sayings was undeniably, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” as well as, “he who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”


Other Muhammad Ali boxer quotes include, “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”


For fans and admirers of the iconic boxer or for those wanting to know an in-depth Muhammad Ali autobiography and more about his colourful life, be sure to get your mitts on our brand new Personalised Muhammad Ali biography book which looks back through 74 years of the most celebrated athlete’s ground-breaking boxing career. It details the best Muhammad Ali fights and turbulent personal life through newspaper articles and offers a unique insight into the world of the boxing champion, with numerous Muhammad Ali facts about his life. What’s more, the book includes a whole bunch of official Muhammad Ali pictures from the Daily Mirror archive – a truly wonderful gift for celebrating the much-loved athlete.