“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” – Muhammad Ali
The Champ. The Louisville Lip. Just Ali. He was three-time heavyweight champion of the world. A symbol of the antiwar movement in the 1960s. A global ambassador for cross-cultural understanding. He battled Parkinson’s disease for over three decades until his death in 2016. He was more than a boxer. He was one of the greatest fighters of all time both in and out of the ring. Here are a few things you may not have known about Ali!
Ali got his start in boxing when, in 1954 at the tender age of 12, he reported his bike stolen to the Louisville, Kentucky police, vowing to “whup” the thief. The officer, Joe Martin, was a boxing trainer who suggested the young Ali first learn how to fight, and six weeks later, under Martin’s tutelage, Ali won his first match.
31. A Man of Principles
During the Vietnam War, Ali was banned from boxing for three years after he refused, citing religious reasons, to serve in the US military. He was vindicated three years later when his boxing license was ordered reinstated by the New York State Supreme Court and he celebrated by immediately beating the crap out of Jerry Quarry.
30. What’s In a Name?
Ali’s given name, Cassius Clay, was originally the name of a Kentucky planter and politician who fought for the abolition of slavery and served as minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln. His anti-slavery activism earned him many enemies. Despite being beaten, shot, and stabbed over the course of various assassination attempts, Clay survived to the ripe old age of 74 when he died of “general exhaustion.”
29. And He Knows It!
Ali was known for taunting his opponents with rhymes about how he would win. His pugilistic poetry was so popular, that Columbia Records released a 1963 spoken word album called “I Am The Greatest” which featured Ali performing his poetry with a band behind him and a live studio audience in front.
28. He Can Sing Too?
During his exile from boxing, Ali decided to take up acting and starred in the 1969 Broadway musical “Buck White”, playing the titular role as a militant black lecturer. Despite decent reviews, the musical closed after four nights and seven performances.
27. Probably a Wise Decision
Ali was once challenged to a boxing match by basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain. During the pre-fight conference, a reporter asked Ali the question that was on everyone’s mind: how could Ali possibly counter Chamberlain’s formidable reach, power and size? Ali leaned into the mic and whispered, “Timberrrrrrrrr!” while maintaining unflinching eye contact with Chamberlain.
Every time Chamberlain tried speak during the conference, Ali whispered “timber” again. Whenever a reporter asked Ali a question, his reply was the same. Eventually, a visibly flustered Chamberlain left the conference to consult his lawyers. A few minutes later, one of Chamberlains lawyers came back and sheepishly announced that the fight was off.
26. Kiss Him, He’s Irish
Ali’s great-grandfather was Abe Grady, an Irishman who emigrated to the United States and settled in Kentucky in the 1860s. In 2010, Ali returned to his ancestral home of Ennis, County Clare. Upon arrival, he became the first man to be given a Freedom of the City certificate in 600 years.
25. Time Zones Are The Worst
The “Rumble in the Jungle,” where Ali fought then-undefeated world champion George Foreman, was fought in Kinshasa at 4am, before the African sunrise, so that Americans could watch it live during prime time.
The boxing gloves worn by Ali and Sonny Liston during their infamous 1965 heavyweight rematch, where Ali knocked Liston out in the first round with a “phantom punch,” were sold at auction for $965,000 USD by an anonymous buyer.
23. He Can Throw Too?
In his 1975 autobiography, Ali claimed that shortly after returning from the Olympics in Rome, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after being denied service at a “whites-only” restaurant and getting into an altercation with a white gang. The story was later disputed, and several of his friends denied it happened. He was given a replacement medal during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
22. He Couldn’t Bear It
Despite being a 7-1 underdog in his first fight against Sonny Liston, a dominant fighter with mob ties, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup. Ali called him “the big ugly bear,” claiming that “Liston even smells like a bear.” Despite speculation that Liston may have attempted to blind Ali in the fifth round with ointment applied to his gloves, Ali won the fight in the 7th round by TKO.
21. The X Factor
Following his first fight against Sonny Liston and with Malcolm X at his side, Clay announced he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, and briefly changed his name to Cassius X before being bestowed his holy name, Muhammad Ali.
20. Army Intelligence
Ali was classified in the army as “fit for service only in times of national emergency” because he failed the Army’s IQ test, scoring only a 78. He was famously quoted as saying, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.” However, it’s likely that Muhammad Ali’s dyslexia resulted in a deflated IQ score that doesn’t necessarily reflect his intelligence.
19. That’s An Expensive Face
In 2005, Ali sold the rights to his name and image for $50 million to licensing mastermind Robert Sillerman, chief executive of CKX. From 2000-2005, Ali’s name and likeness generated between $4 million and $7 million per year due to endorsement deals with companies like Adidas and Electronic Arts.
In 1974, Ali and Foreman each made $5 million for “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. Fast forward to 2015, where Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao made $180 million and $120 million respectively. Even accounting for inflation, Ali made less than 20% of what Pacquiao earned.
17. Friendship outside the ring.
After their fight in Zaire, Foreman and Ali became friends. During the 1996 Oscars, Ali had trouble walking up the steps to receive the Oscar for When We Were Kings and George Foreman helped him up. In 2003, Foreman said, “Ali is the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
16. The King and I
Muhammad Ali sued Don King in 1982 for underpaying him $1.1 million for his fight against Larry Holmes. King recruited a friend of Ali’s to give Ali a suitcase containing $50,000 in cash and a letter promising to drop the lawsuit. Needing the money, Ali signed. Upon hearing the news, Ali’s lawyer wept.
Muhammad Ali, Don King, and Joe Frazier.
15. The Fight of the Century
The epic showdown between Joe Frazier and Ali was the first time in history where an unbeaten former heavyweight champion faced off against the unbeaten current champ. Ali was stripped of his title when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War so he had not lost his crown in the ring. Ali dubbed himself the People’s Champion. He lost that fight, but fought Frazier twice more and finished with a lifetime 2-1 record against him.
14. Where There’s a Will
Will Smith portrayed the iconic boxer in the 2001 film Ali. He made $20M for the role, which is more than Ali ever made for a single fight. Despite positive reviews, the film lost an estimated $63.1 million.
13. He Can Negotiate Too?!
In 1990, Ali made an unsanctioned trip to Iraq to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages. At an internationally televised press conference, Ali promised Saddam Hussein in person that he would bring an “honest account” of Iraq back to the American people. Ali returned home with all fifteen hostages.
Ali’s daughter, Laila, became a successful boxer. She went undefeated and held the WBC, WIBA, IWBF, and IBA female super middleweight titles and the IWBF light heavy weight title. She was also a professional manicurist, presumably after breaking so many nails by punching people in the face.
11. He Always Moved Fast
Ali’s first wife was a cocktail waitress to whom he proposed after their first date. They were married one month later on August 14th, 1964. To the shock of absolutely no one, they were divorced less than two years later.
Muhammad Ali with first wife, Sonji Roi.
10. The More Things Change…
Operating between 1967 and 1973, in a secret operation code-named MINARET, the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on leading Americans, including Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King, and others who criticized the US War in Vietnam. A later review of the program concluded that it was “disreputable if not outright illegal.”
Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King.
9. He’s An Actual Superhero
In 1981, Ali talked a man out of jumping off of a ninth story ledge. After talking to the distraught 21-year-old for a half hour, the two emerged from the front doors on the ground floor to the cheers of onlookers. The Los Angeles police gave Ali all the credit for talking the man down. “No doubt about it, Ali saved that man’s life.”
8. Wrestling is Real AF
In his first and only MMA fight ever, Ali fought a Japanese wrestler named Antonio Inoki. Thinking the fight would be staged, Ali agreed, but when they realized it was a real fight, Ali’s team banned almost every wrestling move except a slide kick. During the fight, Inoki kicked Ali in the legs so many times that eventually, Ali developed two clots and almost had to have his leg amputated. His footwork was never the same.
7. A Worse Ambassador Than Dennis Rodman
Ali was invited to North Korea to participate in the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace in Pyongyang. When one of the North Koreans boasted how they could take out the United States or Japan anytime they wanted, Ali, despite his Parkinson’s, said, as clear as a bell, “No wonder we hate these mother[redacted]!”
Iron Mike Tyson saw Ali’s final match, a lopsided defeat against Larry Holmes that many said should never have happened in the first place. An upset Tyson told Ali on the phone that he would “grow up and get him back for you.” Seven years later, Tyson was scheduled to fight Holmes and a now-retired Ali stepped into the ring and reminded Tyson of his promise. Tyson knocked Holmes out in the fourth round.
5. He Would Have Made a Terrible Butterfly
Ali was so terrified of flying that he tried to withdraw from the 1960 Olympic games just weeks before he was scheduled to fly to Rome. He was convinced to go, but went to an Army surplus store to purchase a parachute, which he wore for the entire duration of the flight.
Muhammad Ali doesn’t seem too stressed on this plane…
4. Enter The Matrix
In 1969, Ali and Rocky Marciano were the only undefeated heavyweight champions in history, and in order to settle a debate as to who would win, punch by punch details of the boxer’s records during their prime were entered into a computer. The results were released in a film called The Super Fight where Marciano and Ali acted out every possible scenario and the footage was edited together to match the computer’s results.
3. He Fought Superman
In issue #C-56 of the Superman comics, Ali faces off against none other than the Man of Steel himself. Of course, Ali wins. Why? Because he’s Muhammad Ali. Also, he saves the world. Why? Because, he’s Muhammad Ali.
2. The scandal
A few days after his death, an ex-girlfriend of his tried to extort $100,000 from his estate after she claimed she had footage that shows him engaging in intimate relations with models at post-fight parties. She also claims to have written a blockbuster book about her 20-year affair with Ali.
1. A Fitting Farewell
Ali’s funeral was attended by thousands, including pallbearers Will Smith and Mike Tyson, former US President Bill Clinton, and King Abdullah of Jordan. It was a touching tribute to the man crowned by Sports Illustrated as the “Sportsman of the Century.”
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