Boxing legend Muhammad Ali on Saturday, June 4 (Philippine time) passed away at age 74 due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.
NewsCentral.PH joins the world in looking back at the life of the celebrated, eloquent athlete and civil rights defender considered an inspiration for his legacy.
The future boxing champion was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. to father Cassius Sr. and mother Odessa on January 17, 1942.
At age 12, Clay won his debut match after six months of training with Joe Martin, who described him as “sassy” and more hardworking than all the other boys. In 1956, Clay joined the light-heavyweight class Golden Gloves tournament for novices. After three years of persistence, he was named 1959 Golden Gloves Champion. He also brought home the national Amateur Athletic Union title in the light-heavyweight division.
Clay almost missed his flight to the 1960 Rome Olympics for fear of airplane travel. However, the 18-year-old boxer went on to win the Olympic Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight Boxing Division, defeating Zigzy Pietrzykowski of Poland. Sports Illustrated noted the young Ali’s “supreme confidence” and “intricate dance steps” inside the ring.
While training for his match against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Clay met Muslim American civil rights activist Malcolm X, who introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Clay beat Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the world in 1964, after which he announced being part of the NOI, and that his name was Muhammad Ali. Ali won a rematch against the former champion on May 25,1965, which only lasted 2 minutes and 12 seconds and resulted in Liston’s knockout. He had landed an “anchor punch” to Liston’s jaw, sending him falling to the canvas.
Ali refused to be conscripted to the US Army for the Vietnam War, for which he was faced with five years in prison. He said, “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 or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
He was stripped of his championship titles, benefits, and the right to box professionally. Ali had been the first national figure to speak against the US’s war with Vietnam, so he spoke at colleges to earn a living.
In 1970, he began to make his comeback — fighting Jerry Quarry, Oscar Benavena, and Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden in 1971, who would defeat him in a second match in 1974. After this, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction in an 8-0 ruling, re-granting him his boxing license.
Ali won a hotly-contested bout against George Foreman in Zaire on October 30, 1974. A reigning world champion and a fan favorite, Foreman was favored to win as he had defeated Ken Norton and Joe Frazier — the only two boxers who had defeated Ali at the time. However, he won the fight with Foreman in the 8th round.
Ali and Frazier’s third and final fight, dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila”, was held in the Philippines in October 1, 1975. The late President Ferdinand Marcos was believed to have sponsored the match to be held at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City to divert attention from the civil unrest due to his declaration of Martial Law.
Meanwhile, Ali was reported to have “verbally abused” Frazier to generate publicity for the hotly-contested match, which was watched by 700 million people on television and 27,000 people in Araneta Coliseum, as temperatures soared to 49 degrees Celsius.
The two boxers fought to death in 14 rounds, enduring round after round of brutal combinations in the sweltering Manila heat. Reports vary on who led the first rounds of the fight, but Ali won via technical knockout, relying on his famed “rope-a-dope” tactic to expend Frazier’s energy before throwing jabs of his own. After the fight, Ali told his trainer, “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.”
The “Thrilla in Manila” is remembered by many enthusiasts as one of the best fights in sports history. The Ali Mall which stands today in the Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City, was built in the boxing legend’s honor.
After converting to Sunni Islam, Ali told the public that he would retire in 1979. However, he announced a fight with Larry Holmes that did not materialize. His last professional match was against Trevor Burbick in 1981, who won after 10 rounds by unanimous decision.
Ali in 1984 first announced that he had Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological condition. In 1991, Ali also published an oral memoir, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser. His biopic, Ali, was released in 2001.
Ali went on to build the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix, Arizona. He remained an active public figure and philanthropist. He had 56 wins (37 via knockout) and 5 losses in his career. He was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2002 for a three-day goodwill mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Amnesty International, and was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated, who has featured him on its covers 37 times. BBC and GQ named him Sports Person of the Century and Athlete of the Century, respectively, for his achievements in boxing.