Boxing legend Muhammad Ali has died at the age of 74. Ali had been suffering from respiratory problems and Parkinson's disease.
His life was one of the most inspirational of modern times. A boxer, a poet, and a true icon. He fought oppression, bigotry and racism like Mandela, but he also fought George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and beat them to a pulp. He won Gold (and lit the torch) at the Olympics. He was a figurehead for peace, too - refusing the draft to fight in Vietnam, and even negotiating with a dictator for the release of hostages (seriously, that happened - see fact 10).
"I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right."
Here's what else you need to know about "The People's Champion"...
1. He became a boxer because his bike was stolen
The young Cassius Clay’s bike was nicked from outside the Columbia Auditorium in 1954. Furious, he found a policeman and told him he wanted to “whup” whoever was responsible. As it happened, the policeman, Joe Martin, was a boxing trainer. He took Clay under his wing.
2. He practised his speed by dodging rocks
It sounds like something out of the movie Dodgeball, but it's true. “He used to ask me to throw rocks at him,” says Ali’s younger brother, Rudy. “I thought he was crazy, but he’d dodge every one. No matter how many I threw, I could never hit him.”
3. He punched a cop in his first bout
On October 29 1960, Ali won his first professional fight when he defeated Tunney Hunsaker. Hunsaker was also the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Ali won a unanimous decision after six rounds.
4. He was a singer and an actor, too...
You know him for his boxing and his poems, but did you know he was also a singer and an actor? Cassius Clay released an album, I Am The Greatest, in 1963, six months before he defeated Sonny Liston to claim the World Heavyweight Title for the first time. It included a cover of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, sung by Clay himself. Clay also starred in a Broadway musical, titled Buck White, which closed after five nights.
5. He was scared of flying
When Ali flew to Europe for the 1960 Rome Olympics, he was so scared of flying that he insisted on wearing a parachute in the plane. The trip was not wasted – he boxed his way to a Light-heavyweight gold medal.
6. Olympic Gold did not transcend racism back home
Ali entered a diner in Kentucky wearing the gold medal he won in Rome proudly around his neck. The waitress told him, “Sorry, we don’t serve Negroes.” Ali retorted, “Well that’s okay – I don’t eat ‘em either.”
7. He was expected to lose his first world-title fight
When Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in February 1964, it was a huge upset. Liston had just destroyed former champion Floyd Patterson in a first-round knockout. Clay was only 22-years-old and a 7-1 underdog. Of course, he won and the rest is history…
8. He was Irish (a bit, anyway)
Ali’s great-grandfather was an Irishman by the name of Abe Grady. Grady emigrated to Kentucky in the mid-1800s, where he married a freed slave – Odessa Lee Grady Clay. This "slave name" Clay was very publicly thrown off by Cassius as soon as he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. A follower of the Nation of Islam, he was allocated the name Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, the movement's leader.
9. Frank Sinatra had to work his ass off to watch Ali's comeback fight
Ali's comeback fight, after three and a half years’ suspension for refusing the draft to fight in Vietnam, was against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Dubbed ‘The Fight Of The Century’, demand for tickets was so high that Frank Sinatra could only get in as a photographer for Life magazine. The cover photo he took wasn't bad, either...
10. He once convinced Saddam Hussein to free 15 hostages
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he held 2,000 foreigners hostage. Ali flew to Baghdad to meet the Iraqi leader, hoping that his status as the world’s most famous Muslim might help him negotiate a release. After 50 minutes, he had successfully negotiated the release of 15 captive Americans. Not bad going...
Be inspired by more Ali greatness here:
- The tale of the tape: Ali v. Liston recounted blow by blow...