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Muhammad Ali

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, later known to the world as Muhammad Ali was born on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. His father was a sign painter named after one of the founding members of the Republican Party and abolitionist politician Cassius Marcellus Clay. His mother was a domestic helper called Odessa, and he had a younger brother called Rudolph Valentino Clay, who was born on 18 July 1944 and also went on to become a professional boxer.

Cassius attended Central High School in Louisville but struggled with his education, particularly with reading and writing, something that would affect him for most of his life as he struggled with what turned out to be dyslexia.

He was also deeply affected by incidents resulting from the fact that he was growing up in a racially segregated world, including the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly offending a white woman in a grocery store.

Cassius Clay had started boxing when he was about twelve years old and made his amateur debut the year before the murder of Emmett Till against a local fighter called Ronnie O’Keefe, a fight which he won by a split decision. The only way was up for Clay after that first victory, and he had a very successful amateur career, which culminated in a gold medal win as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He ended his amateur career with 100 wins and only 5 losses.

The move into professional boxing came when he fought Tunney Hunsaker on 29 October 1960, and he went on to win 19 fights, 15 of them by knockout over the next three years. The hardest two of these fights were against Britain’s Henry Cooper in 1963, which Clay only won after the referee stopped the fight due to a cut sustained by Cooper, who had knocked Clay down at the end of the fourth round, and against Doug Jones on 13 March 1963 which Clay won by a unanimous decision which was not met well by Jones’ home crowd fans.

His first shot at the heavyweight world crown came when he fought Sonny Liston for the first time on 25 February 1964. In the run-up to the fight, Clay taunted the reigning champion relentlessly and warned him that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and he was true to his word with Liston not coming out of his corner for the start of round seven, resulting in the new heavyweight champion of the world to shout to the onlooking crowd “I am the greatest”. The next morning, Clay attended a press conference at which he confirmed that he had converted to Islam. He was given the name Muhammad Ali by the leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad on 6 March 1964.

In July the same year, Ali met a cocktail waitress called Sonji Roi, and after only one date he asked her to marry him, and they were married only a month later on 14 August 1964. However, the marriage was short-lived, mainly due to Sonji not towing the Muslim line, wearing lipstick and revealing outfits, and refusing to convert to Ali’s faith. According to Ali’s brother, who had also converted to Islam and had taken the name Rahman, Sonji was the love of his brother’s life and it was the Nation of Islam that forced them apart, something that Muhammad Ali would never forget. The couple were divorced on 10 January 1966.

A rematch with Sonny Liston took place on 25 May 1965, but Liston lost again to the new champion. Ali went on to defend his title another eight times before he was arrested for refusing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1967 due to his religious beliefs. His boxing license was taken away by the New York State Athletic Commission and he was stripped of his heavyweight belt. Initially, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison and was fined $10,000 but this conviction was overturned by the New York State Supreme Court in 1970 and his boxing license was ordered to be returned.

On 17 August 1967, Muhammad Ali married for the second time, this time to Belinda Boyd whose family had converted to Islam before she was born. She later changed her name to Khalilah Ali, although she would still be known as Belinda to some close friends and family. The couple went on to have four children, Maryum who was born in 1968 and who went on to become a rapper and author, twins Jamillah and Rasheda who were born in 1970 and Muhammad Ali Jr. who was born in 1972.

After getting his license back, Muhammad Ali’s return to the boxing ring occurred on 26 October 1970 and after an absence of more than three and a half years, he knocked out his opponent Jerry Quarry in the third round. He attempted to win the world title back from the then champion Joe Frazier on 8 March 1971 but was defeated by unanimous decision after being knocked down in the final round. The loss was the first of Ali’s professional career.

His next shot at the world crown came against George Foreman on 30 October 1974 in Zaire in a fight which was billed as the Rumble in the Jungle. He won by a knockout in the eighth round, regaining the title that was taken from him seven years previously. He successfully defended the title ten times, including in the Thrilla in Manila on 1 October 1975 against Joe Frazier.

Muhammad Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks on 15 February 1978 after a 15-round fight which resulted in a split decision, but only seven months later he became the first person to win the world heavyweight crown for the third time when he won it back from Spinks, this time with a unanimous decision.

In 1974 Muhammad Ali had begun an affair with 16-year-old Wanda Bolton who was half Ali’s age. Wanda changed her name to Aaisha Ali and presented Ali with a daughter called Khaliah who was born in 1974. The pair were married in an Islamic ceremony which was not legally recognised, whilst he was still married to Khalilah. However, the affair wasn’t Ali’s first as he had also had an affair with Patricia Harvell who had also given him a daughter in 1972. His repeated infidelity resulted in the failure of his marriage to Khalilah in 1977, after which he married Veronica Porché with whom he already had a daughter called Hana and who was also pregnant with their second child, also a daughter called Laila who was born in December 1977. The marriage to Veronica also ended in divorce due to Ali’s continued infidelity.

By the time he announced his retirement in 1979 Muhammad Ali was 37 years old, but he felt that he had more to offer. However, his comeback was unsuccessful with a technical knockout loss to Larry Holmes in 1980 and a loss by unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick on 11 December 1981. He retired after that fight, for good this time, with a record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout and 5 losses.

Only three years later Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, possibly as a result of the severe head injuries he received during his boxing career.  However, he remained in the public eye making numerous humanitarian, goodwill and charitable appearances even though his motor skills and his ability to move and speak were gradually deteriorating.

On 19 November 1986, Muhammad Ali married his fourth wife, Yolanda Williams, who went by the name Lonnie, and who had been a friend of Ali’s since 1964. The couple adopted a five-month-old boy called Asaad Amin.

Although others have come forward claiming to be Muhammad Ali’s children, in all from his four marriages, officially he had seven daughters and two sons.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, Muhammad Ali was granted the honour of lighting the Olympic flame and was also presented with a gold medal, to replace the one that he won in Rome, which he had lost only a year after receiving it.

The BBC named Muhammad Ali ‘Sports Personality of the Century’ in 1999 and he was named ‘Sportsman of the Century’ by Sports Illustrated in the same year, the cover of which he had appeared on no less than 38 times.

As his health continued to deteriorate, Ali had several serious visits to the hospital, including with pneumonia in December 2014 and with a urinary tract infection in January 2015.

On 2 June 2016, he was admitted to the hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona suffering from respiratory problems and was described initially to be in fair condition. However, his condition worsened, and he died from septic shock at the age of 74 the following day.

His death resulted in tributes being paid to him from all over the world including from politicians such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and David Cameron, as well as other sporting greats such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Mike Tyson. He was interred during a private ceremony at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Pallbearers included Will Smith, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, and George Foreman. The memorial service was watched by an estimated 1 billion people all over the world.

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