Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, (second from right) at the 1960 Olympics
Muhammad Ali (iː/; born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. Nicknamed "The Greatest", he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest boxers of all time.
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs, and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in and indeed craved the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. He was known for trash-talking, and often freestyled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, both for his trash-talking in boxing and as political poetry for his activism, anticipating elements of rap and hip hop music. As a musician, Ali recorded two spoken word albums and a rhythm and blues song, receiving two Grammy nominations. As an actor, he performed in several films and a Broadway musical. Ali wrote two autobiographies, one during and one after his boxing career.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, at the age of 39, Ali focused on religion and charity. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome, which some reports attribute to boxing-related injuries, though both Ali and his physician disputed the claim. As his condition worsened, Ali made limited public appearances, and was cared for by his family until his death on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (s/) was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He had a sister and four brothers. He was named for his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. (1912–1990), who himself was named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, also from the state of Kentucky. Clay's father's paternal grandparents were John Clay and Sallie Anne Clay; Clay's sister Eva claimed that Sallie was a native of Madagascar. He was a descendant of slaves of the antebellum South, and was predominantly of African descent, with smaller amounts of Irish and English heritage.DNA testing performed in 2018 showed that, through his paternal grandmother, Ali was a descendant of the heroic former slave Archer Alexander who had been chosen from the building crew as the model of a freed man for the Emancipation Memorial, and was the subject of abolitionistWilliam Greenleaf Eliot's book, The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom. Like Ali, Alexander fought for his freedom.
His father was a sign and billboard painter, and his mother, Odessa O'Grady Clay (1917–1994), was a domestic helper. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius Jr. and his younger brother, Rudolph "Rudy" Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali), as Baptists. Cassius Jr. attended Central High School in Louisville. He was dyslexic, which led to difficulties in reading and writing, at school and for much of his life. Ali grew up amid racial segregation. His mother recalled one occasion when he was denied a drink of water at a store—"They wouldn't give him one because of his color. That really affected him." He was also affected by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which led to young Clay and a friend taking out their frustration by vandalizing a local rail yard.
Ali was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin, who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief's having taken his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to "whup" the thief. The officer told Clay he had better learn how to box first. Initially, Clay did not take up Martin's offer, but after seeing amateur boxers on a local television boxing program called Tomorrow's Champions, Clay was interested in the prospect of fighting. He then began to work with trainer Fred Stoner, whom he credits with giving him the "real training", eventually moulding "my style, my stamina and my system." For the last four years of Clay's amateur career he was trained by boxing cutmanChuck Bodak.
Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954 against local amateur boxer Ronnie O'Keefe. He won by split decision. He went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay's amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Ali said in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a "whites-only" restaurant and fought with a white gang. The story was later disputed, and several of Ali's friends, including Bundini Brown and photographer Howard Bingham, denied it. Brown told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, "Honkies sure bought into that one!" Thomas Hauser's biography of Ali stated that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it. Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.