10 Facts About Muhammad Ali You Probably Don’t Know

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (1942 – 2016), later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was an American boxer who is not only widely regarded as one of the best boxers in history but also constantly ranked as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

After winning the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics, Ali became professional. At 22, he defeated Sonny Liston to become the youngest boxer to take down the current heavyweight champion.

There he was involved in a series of fights that were classified among the greatest sporting events of the 20th century. This includes his Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier. 

Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman and Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier. In 1978, Muhammad Ali became the first man to win the heavyweight title three times. It was reformed a few years later. 

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In addition to his achievements as a boxer, Ali is also known for his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, and for his efforts as a humanitarian and activist.

10 Facts About Muhammad Ali

1. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Ali’s boxing style was highly unorthodox for a heavyweight. He never relied on overwhelming punches. Instead, he relied on the superior speed of his hand, quick reflexes and constant movement. There he “danced” frequently and circled his opponents with low hands. This caused his opponents to chase him and lose his balance in an attempt to hit him, as he appeared to be an open target. However, they often failed and left themselves exposed to Ali’s counterattacks. That’s exactly how Sonny Liston was hit and knocked out by Ali in his second fight.

Professional boxer Floyd Patterson said this about Ali’s movements: “It is very difficult to hit a moving target, and Ali was moving all the time, with so much grace, three minutes of each round for fifteen rounds. He never stopped. It was extraordinary. In addition, Ali’s strong footwork made it almost impossible for his opponents to cut the ring and corner it against the ropes. Muhammad Ali’s boxing style is summed up by his own phrase: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.

2. Received the Freedom Medal in 2005

In 1970, Ali was honored with the annual Martin Luther King award from civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy. In 1997, he received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for being an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white rule during the civil rights movement. In 1999, Time magazine named Muhammad Ali as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

On January 8, 2001, he was awarded the Presidential Citizen Medal by President Bill Clinton. In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Muhammad Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the largest civilian award in the United States. In December 2005, Ali received the Otto Hahn Peace Medal from the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for his work with the United Nations and civil rights movement. In 2012, he was awarded the Philadelphia Medal of Freedom in recognition of his life’s efforts as an activist, philanthropist and humanist.

3. Considered as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century

Muhammad Ali is considered by boxing commentators and historians to be one of the greatest fighters of all time. He was named “The Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine”, holding the record six times. In 1990, Ali was introduced to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In 1998, Ring Magazine named him number 1 in the ranking of the greatest heavyweights of all times. In 1999, the Associated Press voted Ali as the No. 1 heavyweight of the 20th century. In 2007, ESPN ranked him second in the selection of the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, behind Joe Louis. In 1999, Ali was named the “Greatest Heavyweight Boxer of All Time” and “The Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century” by the popular Sports Illustrated magazine.

In the same year, in a poll conducted by the BBC, Muhammad Ali was elected Sports Person of the Century. He accumulated more votes than the combined total of the other five candidates: Pele, George Best, Donald Bradman, Jack Nicklaus and Jesse Owens. In 2015, Sports Illustrated renamed its “Sportsman’s Legacy Award” to “Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award” to honor his achievements in boxing and in society.

4. Was an activist and a humanist

After his retirement, Muhammad Ali worked as a humanitarian and activist. Donated millions of dollars to charitable organizations and is estimated to have helped provide food for more than 22 million people affected by hunger worldwide. In 1974, Ali participated in “The Longest Walk”, a protest march in the United States in support of the rights of American Indians. In 1988, he visited Sudan to raise awareness of the plight of the victims of hunger. The following year, he participated in a charity event in Kerela, an Indian state. In 1990, he traveled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 American hostages during the First Gulf War.

In 1994, he campaigned to urge the United States government to help refugees affected by the Rwandan genocide. In 1998, he collaborated with actor Michael J Fox to raise awareness and fund research for Parkinson’s disease. In 2002, he traveled to Afghanistan as the “UN Messenger of Peace” for a three-day goodwill mission. He also did goodwill missions in Afghanistan and North Korea. He delivered medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba.

5. Refused to participate in the Vietnam War

In 1967, Muhammad Ali shocked the world by refusing to appear after being drafted into the United States army. The reasons he cited for his action were his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He also pointed out that black men were disproportionately recruited and killed in Vietnam, while those who returned after fighting heroically still faced racism in their own country.

At the June 20, 1967 trial, the jury found Ali guilty of evading recruitment. He lost his boxing title and was banned from boxing. Ali’s stance was controversial, as well as courageous because he had broad support for the Vietnam War at the time.

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However, over time, Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to war have made him an icon for countless black Americans, among others. In addition, Muhammad Ali was also a prominent racial pride figure for African Americans during the civil rights movement. On June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction for a unanimous verdict.

6. He was the first man to win the middleweight title 3 times

In 1978, Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali on a split decision to become the heavyweight champion in what was considered one of the biggest surprises in boxing history. A rematch took place on September 15, 1978. Despite having passed his peak, Ali returned to the ring well-conditioned and focused. Over 15 rounds, he overcame Spinks and won by a unanimous verdict. That victory made Muhammad Ali the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.

He remains the only three-time world heavyweight champion. Muhammad Ali retired in December 1981. During his professional 61-fight career, he won 56 fights, including 37 knockouts. Lost 5 times. There he won 22 fights for the World Heavyweight Championship. He made a total of nineteen successful title defenses, nine during his first reign and ten during his second reign. He was also the first Heavyweight World Champion to return from retirement and regain his title.

7. Won Joe Frazier in Manila

In 1975, Joe Frazier again challenged Ali for the title of world heavyweight champion. Before the fight, Ali nicknamed Frazier “The Gorilla” and used that as a basis for the rhyme, “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get Gorilla in Manila”. This led to the match being called Thrilla in Manila. Contested on October 1, 1975, the fight was watched by a record world television audience of 1 billion viewers. In the fight, Ali started out aggressive, however, he looked tired and used the rope-a-dope strategy.

In the 12th round, Frazier started to get tired and Ali closed Frazier’s left eye with sharp blows and opened a cut over his right eye. This diminished Frazier’s vision, leading Ali to dominate the 13th and 14th rounds. Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, gave up the fight before the 15th round. Ali was therefore able to defend his title and win the last of his three fights against Frazier by making the score 2-1. Thrilla in Manila is consistently ranked as one of the best fights in sports history. Ali later said that the fight “was the closest thing to dying that I know”.

8. Won Foreman George in the Jungle Rumble

Joe Frazier lost his title to George Foreman. This created an untitled boxing match between Ali and Frazier, known as Super Fight II. The fight took place on January 28, 1974, in the same place as the previous fight. Muhammad Ali won the fight by unanimous decision. Ali’s defeat over Frazier set the stage for a fight between Ali and George Foreman, considered by many to be one of the most difficult punches in heavyweight history. Known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, this historic boxing event took place on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Ali entered the fight as a 4-1 hoodoo, but won by knockout, putting Foreman on the ground just before the end of the eighth round. The Rumble in the Jungle is also famous for Ali’s introduction of rope-to-drug tactics, in which he leaned against the ropes and absorbed his opponent’s punches. This decreased his chances of being caught with a straight hit and at the same time tired his opponent. Rumble in the Jungle was also called “arguably the biggest sporting event of the 20th century”. By winning it, Ali became the world heavyweight champion for the second time.

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9. At 22, he was the youngest boxer to lose a heavyweight champion

There are several amateur records credited to Cassius Clay with the majority claiming that he won more than 100 amateur fights and lost less than 8. Clay made his professional debut on 29 October 1960 against Tunney Hunsaker. Won the six-round fight. From this match until the end of 1963, Clay accumulated a 19-0 record with 15 knockout victories. This made Clay the top contender to challenge Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship in boxing. Liston was a dominant fighter with a criminal background and links to the mafia.

Since Clay was not at his best in the last few fights, the odds were against him 7-1, making him lucky. The fight took place on February 25, 1964. After a strong start, Clay dominated the sixth round, hitting Liston repeatedly. Liston did not appear for the seventh round and Clay was declared the winner by technical knockout (TKO). The victory made Cassius Clay, aged 22, the youngest boxer to take down the current heavyweight champion. In addition, Sports Illustrated magazine classified Clay’s victory as the fourth greatest sporting moment of the 20th century.

10. Won the gold medal in the middleweight division at the 1960 Olympics

Cassius Clay started boxing at the age of 12. He made his amateur boxing debut in 1954 against Ronnie O’Keefe, the fight he won by split decision. Then, before the age of 18, he won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles and two National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles. However, his greatest achievement as an amateur boxer was winning the Gold Medal in the middleweight division (£ 178 division) at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

Clay won his first three fights in the Olympics with two unanimous decisions and a knockout in the second round. In the final, he faced three-time European champion, Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, from Poland. After being dominated by his opponent in the first two rounds, Clay found the best form in the third round by attacking his opponent and almost guaranteeing a knockout. Clay was declared the winner by all the judges, making him the Olympic middleweight champion.