Sports journalism likes to get hyperbolic in order to sell a story, so plenty of athletes have at one point or another been called arguably the best ever to enter their field. However, in sports and popular culture in general, only one man has the moniker as simply being The Greatest. It takes a huge ego to call yourself that and an even greater talent to repeatedly prove your reputation as such, but Muhammad Ali was more than capable of delivering in both fields. Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, and endless tributes have followed, all of which made sure to mention Ali was more than just a fighter or an entertainer; Ali was The Greatest Of All Time in both arenas.
Ali was born Cassius Clay in January of 1942, but it was the name Muhammad Ali that turned him into an international superstar in the early 1960’s. Ali didn’t win every single fight, nor did he win the most fights per capita—in fact, for several years in the midst of his prime, he was all but banned from the boxing world due to his efforts at protesting the United States government and advancing the Civil Rights movement.
Once Ali was allowed back in the boxing ring in the 70’s he became an even bigger worldwide sensation, proving he was The Greatest all over again, and showing his age wasn’t slowing him down in any way. Ali stepped out of the ring in 1980 when his health started deteriorating, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Nonetheless, Ali’s reputation as a showman and sportsman only strengthened in hindsight. In retrospection of his death, join us on our journey through 15 facts that prove Ali was the Greatest of All Time.
15. He Won Golden Gloves As A Teenager
Still competing under his birth name Cassius Clay, Ali was already a boxing sensation as a teenager. Clay began boxing in 1954 when he was only 12 years old, and his reputation as an unbeatable fighter started to grow almost instantly. Clay allegedly stepped into the ring after having his bicycle stolen. The story goes he reported the crime to the police, with the promise once they found the culprit he’d give them a serious beating. The police told Clay he should make sure he knows how to do that if he was going to make threats like that, and training as a boxer started shortly thereafter. Clay’s amateur record was an astounding 100 wins and 5 losses, and saw him win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, and the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title. Cassius Clay’s impressive amateur credentials were put on display when he turned 18, and went to the ultimate showground for amateur athletes…
14. He Won The Gold Medal At The 1960 Olympics
Thanks to his impeccable amateur record, Cassius Clay was selected to be a member of the US Team for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 18-year-old Clay was highly reticent about the journey, but it wasn’t that he doubted himself—he was simply deathly afraid of flying in his early years. Clay would eventually become a megastar who traipsed the globe quite nonchalantly, but for his first international flight he needed a second-hand parachute before he felt safe about boarding the plane. Luckily he powered through, as he easily won the Gold Medal in light-heavyweight boxing. A famous story claimed Ali later threw his Gold Medal into a river after being disrespected by racists, but later reports indicated he simply lost it after returning to the States. The Olympic Committee offered to replace the Medal when Ali returned to the opening ceremonies in 1996.
13. He Won The World Heavyweight Boxing Title At 22
After winning the Gold Medal at the Olympics and starting a professional career that saw him undefeated in his first 20 fights, Clay was given a shot at the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Sonny Liston. Clay was also earning a reputation as a legendary trash talker, dancing around his opponents in the ring and predicting which round he would win his fights in, with a pretty good track record of making good on his predictions. The boxing press felt Clay was obviously talented, but too inexperienced and unprepared to face a champion like Liston. Clay proved them all wrong in only 6 rounds, at which point Liston decided he was unable to continue and Clay was declared the winner. Less than a month later, Clay would already prove himself to be one of the most controversial fighters in history when he officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
12. He Fought For What He Believed In
In March of 1964 shortly after Cassius Clay was declared the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay was henceforth to be known as Muhammad Ali, which means “worthy of all praises most high.” More than simply a fantastic boast, Ali’s name change was also a proclamation once and for all that he was a member of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Ali had been associating with Black Muslims since his youth, but the extent of his involvement with NOI wasn’t publicly known until that moment. The Nation of Islam activated black progressivism and black separatism through any means necessary. Ali claimed Clay was his “slave name,” and despised any boxer or member of the press who continued to call him by that name. His commitment to his cause led to him becoming a hate figure in large, racist parts of the United States, but he remained undefeated and kept fighting both in the ring and in public. There was, however, one place Ali refused to fight…
11. He Refused To Fight In Vietnam
Ali defended his title against a number of opponents and remained undefeated with little serious threat to his title into 1967. Elsewhere in the United States at this time, millions of Americans were being forced into war in Vietnam. Ali was conscripted into mandatory service, but he loudly and proudly refused to sign the oath of allegiance to the United States army. Ali claimed he had no problems with any Vietcong, as he claimed the Vietnamese people never “called him n*gger,” nor did they do any of the other countless racist things Ali was a victim to in his home country. Ali’s lawyers quashed the threat of jail time, but the boxing community was still able to strip Ali of his World Heavyweight Championship title, and blackball him from boxing for the next several years.
10. He Was Forced Out Of Boxing At His Peak
Ali had 27 pro bouts under his belt and was reigning as the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion in 1967 by the WBC, WBA, The Ring, and virtually every other major boxing organization in the world. Due in part to his abrasive personality, civil rights activism, position in the Nation of Islam, and most importantly his draft dodging, all of these institutions chose to strip him of his titles and blackball him from the sport for the next three or four years. Ali was still undefeated at this time and seemingly had no end to his dominance in his sight, still only 25 years old when the boxing association forced him to stop fighting. Ali was finally allowed back into boxing in 1970, but fans can only imagine how much greater Ali’s reputation could have been were he allowed four more years of incredible fights. Although, some feel what he chose to fight for at that time was more important.
9. He Fought For Civil Rights During His Down Time
During his time away from boxing, Ali became an icon of civil rights and black empowerment, even inspiring civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and later Al Sharpton in their fights for justice. Ali was more than a fighter in the ring, proving an athlete was an icon that needed to fight for what was right on top of fighting for glory and fame. Ali repeatedly proved he was an incredible fighter in the ring, but fighting for equality is a much greater challenge with stronger goals, and Ali both inspired millions to act and did everything he himself could to further ideals of equality in the United States.
8. He Fought The Fights Of The Century
Once Muhammad Ali returned to boxing, he was noticeably a little slower, and his reflexes weren’t as sharp as they once were. He won his return bout, and quickly one of the biggest bouts in boxing history was booked, featuring Ali and Joe Frazier in what was called The Fight Of The Century. Frazier had won the World Championship in Ali’s absence, and it was called the first time two undefeated athletes faced one another for the belt. Frazier managed to win by unanimous decision after 15 rounds, giving Ali his first loss, but Ali was given a rematch a few years later. Ali won all but one of his matches over the next three years, and faced Frazier again in 1974. Ali won the rematch in 12 rounds by unanimous decision in what was considered a minor bout, but the victory both avenged his loss and lead to two of the most important pieces of his legacy.
7. He Won The Rumble In The Jungle
After defeating Frazier, Ali was granted a shot at the undefeated World Champion, George Foreman. The fight between The Greatest and The Champion took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa in October of 1974. Once again, boxing journalists were claiming the older and slower Ali had no chance of regaining the title, and once again Ali proved everyone completely wrong when he won by knockout in eight rounds. Ali won the fight by debuting his world famous rope-a-dope tactic of leaning into the ropes and absorbing Foreman’s punches with his arms, or better yet causing Foreman to miss, thus tiring out the younger and stronger champion and allowing Ali time to mount a comeback. With a flurry of punches Ali knocked Foreman down and regained his title in front of 60,000 screaming fans.
6. He Survived The Thrilla In Manila
Once Ali was the champion again his unrivaled success in the boxing world resumed, knocking out challengers Chuck Wepner and Ron Lyle and winning by unanimous decision over Joe Bugner in dominant fashion. His next great challenger was a third and final fight with Joe Frazier, dubbed The Thrilla In Manila. Frazier had already twice proven himself as one of Ali’s more formidable opponents, but the real challenge of the Thrilla was the unbearable conditions in which the two were forced to do battle. Tensions between the two fighters were high as usual, but much worse than anything human was the outrageous heat in the Philippines. Some have estimated the Araneta Coliseum where the fight took place could have been upwards of 120 ˚ F. Both fighters found themselves desperately out of breath after 14 rounds, at which point Frazier’s trainers forfeited the fight fearing he could die if allowed to continue. Ali reportedly felt the same for himself, but somehow held on just long enough to retain his title.
5. He Was a 3-Time World Champion
Ali somehow recovered from “The Thrilla In Manila” and continued his reign as World Champion for the next two and a half years. Ali defended his title against a number of worthy challengers, and always managed to summarily best his foes by knockout or unanimous decision. In 1978, Ali lost the World Heavyweight title to Leon Spinks. He was immediately granted a rematch, which made a record amount of money for a boxing match, and found an audience of millions on television. Ali defeated Spinks by unanimous decision and became the first boxer in history to win the Heavyweight title three times. Ali announced his retirement shortly after the bout, leaving the sport as World Heavyweight champion. Desperate for money, he returned for two more fights, but lost them both due to his advanced age and declining health.
4. He Never Stopped Fighting
Ali lost his two return bouts to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick and then retired from boxing for good in 1981. Three years later, Ali received a diagnosis that would define the last three decades of his life, and prove he was never going to stop fighting. In 1984, Ali was told he had Parkinson’s disease, and it was rapidly causing the once dominant champion’s body to deteriorate. Ali didn’t step back into the ring (except to referee a match at WrestleMania), but he kept fighting for what he believed in as a champion of peace and justice throughout the world. Ali continued making public appearances for years spreading messages of peace, and even traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War to somehow manage to secure the release of 15 US hostages held captive by Saddam Hussein. Despite running out of Parkinson’s medication, Ali personally negotiated the hostages’ release, fighting harder than he ever had to save innocent lives.
3. He Was The Sportsperson Of The Century
More than simply a boxing champion, Muhammad Ali is celebrated as one of the greatest athletes and personalities in history, regardless of sport. Sports Illustrated named Ali the Sportsman of the Century, and a BBC poll to determine the Sports Personality of the Century received more votes for Ali than all of the other contenders combined. Boxing inclusive, Ring magazine named Ali the number 1 heavyweight boxer in history in 1998, and The Associated Press echoed that ranking the next year. ESPN.com called Ali the second greatest fighter of all time, ranking him only behind middleweight legend Sugar Ray Robinson. Ali’s record and legacy speak for itself, and awards like this merely stand to reinforce what Ali already proved in the ring.
2. He Was A U.N. Messenger Of Peace
Years after his career as a boxer was over and Ali was deeply entrenched in his battle with Parkinson’s disease, Ali was still fighting for one of the most important causes in the world: peace. The United Nations saw Ali’s determination and strength as a powerful aide for the spread of a peaceful message, and as such he was named a Messenger of Peace in 1998. Ali had always been a fighter for civil justice, and his association with the United Nations actually began in the 70s when he spoke with officials on apartheid and racial inequality. After Ali’s passing, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was quoted to have mourned his ally in justice by saying, “Ali was far more than a legendary boxer; he was a champion for equality and peace.”
1. He Redefined The Concept Of Trash Talk
More than anything else, the legacy of Muhammad Ali will always be not that of a man who dominated in the ring like any other, but rather as the man who turned trash talk into a damn near art form. Ali didn’t invent the idea, and in fact famously claimed to have had his personality inspired by legendary wrestler Gorgeous George, but he redefined the sporting world where managers did most of the talking and started letting athletes become entertainers on an entirely different level. Ali wasn’t just the greatest boxer or fighter of all time, he was arguably the greatest showman and entertainer of all time as well, and he managed that with his quick wit, incredible cadence, and ability to bask in the spotlight like no other.