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Happy 70th birthday Muhammad Ali: His journey to greatness

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

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Long before “The Super Bowl Shuffle” there was another sports star boasting of future glory on record. In 1963, Columbia Records released “I Am The Greatest.” The following is an excerpt of Clay’s poem in the leadup to the bout against heavyweight champ Sonny Liston:

Clay comes out to meet Liston

And Liston starts to retreat

If Liston goes back any further

He’ll end up in a ringside seat

Clay swings with a left

Clay swings with a right

Look at young Cassius

Carry the fight

Liston keeps backing

But there’s not enough room

It’s a matter of time

There, Clay lowers the boom

Now Clay swings with a right

What a beautiful swing

And the punch raises the bear

Clear out of the ring

Liston is still rising

And the ref wears a frown

For he can’t start counting

Til’ Sonny comes down

Now Liston disappears from view

The crowd is getting frantic

But our radar stations have picked him up

He’s somewhere over the Atlantic

Who would have thought

When they came to the fight

That they’d witness the launching

Of a human satellite

Yes, the crowd did not dream

When they laid down their money

That they would see

A total eclipse of the Sonny

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Updated: February 18, 2012 8:02AM

It started with a stolen bicycle.

Whoever took young Cassius Clay’s shiny new Schwinn certainly had no idea that petty crime would transform a young kid from Louisville, Ky. into a champion known and loved the world over.

As Muhammad Ali celebrates his 70th birthday Tuesday, we take a look back at his remarkable journey to greatness.

January 17, 1942

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the first child of Cassius and Odessa Clay, is born in Louisville General Hospital. As a baby, Mrs. Clay nicknames him “GG” for his constant jabbering of “gee, gee, gee.” Ali later says he meant “Golden Gloves.” The Clays would have another son, Rudolph.


Young Cassius and a friend ride their bikes to attend the Louisville Home Show. After a day of eating free popcorn and candy, Cassius discovers his red-and-white Schwinn has been stolen. Cassius reports the theft to Joe Martin, a police officer who runs an amateur boxing program. A hysterical Cassius tells Martin he is going to whup whoever stole his bicycle. Martin says he had better learn how to fight first. Cassius takes the officer’s advice and joins Martin’s boxing program.


Clay soon becomes an amateur standout, winning the first of multiple Louisville Golden Gloves titles, a novice crown, in 1956. In 1958, Clay moves up and wins the Louisville light-heavyweight championship. Later that year, he travels to Chicago Stadium and loses in the finals of the National Golden Gloves. Clay comes back to Chicago in 1959 and defeats Tony Madigan for the Intercity (Chicago-New York) title. It is on this trip that Ali says he first became aware of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.


Clay wins every tournament he enters this year, including the Chicago Golden Gloves, National AAU championship and, ultimately, Olympic gold in Rome. Legend has it that Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after being denied service in a Louisville restaurant. Some believe he simply lost it.

Clay also adds a diploma to his many titles, graduating from Louisville’s Central High School 376th out of a class of 391.

Upon returning home from his triumph in Rome, Clay signs a professional contract with a syndicate of Louisville businessmen in October. The Louisville Sponsoring Group pays Clay a signing bonus of $10,000 and $333 a month. The group and Clay would split his earnings 50-50.

Three days after signing his management deal, Clay makes his pro debut against Tunney Hunsaker, winning a six-round decision.

After the Hunsaker fight, Clay’s managers select a trainer, former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. That relationship doesn’t last long, and the group sends Clay to Miami and the man who would be in his corner for the rest of his career, Angelo Dundee.


Clay begins to work his way up the heavyweight ranks, getting on his opponents’ nerves by daring to call the round in which he would knock them out. With a shot at Sonny Liston’s heavyweight title at stake, Clay receives a big scare in 1963 at London’s Wembley Stadium when Henry Cooper knocks him down before the bell in the fourth round. Clay gets up and stops Cooper in the fifth — as he had predicted. It is also during this period that Clay’s entourage begins to take shape. Among them are Drew “Bundini” Brown, a cheerleader who coins Clay’s mantra “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee,” and Howard Bingham, who becomes the young contender’s personal photographer and best friend. Their relationship remains unchanged five decades later.


With Cooper out of the way, Clay gets his shot at the title, signing to fight the seemingly invincible Liston. The bout is scheduled for Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach.

As the fight approaches, there are concerns it will be canceled as whispers of Clay’s evolving relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam become news. At the urging of the fight’s promoters and with a concern his young friend would lose his chance at the title, Malcolm X agrees to take a lower profile.

Clay enters the ring a huge underdog to Liston, but his jab and speed are too much for the man he dubbed “The Bear” to handle. After six rounds, Liston’s face and confidence are battered beyond repair, and he is unable to answer the bell for the seventh round, claiming he has a shoulder injury.

Clay is the new champion and yells to ringsiders: “I’m the king of the world. I’m pretty. I’m a bad man.”

After winning the title, Clay declares he’s a follower of Elijah Muhammad and a member of the Nation of Islam. Two days after the Liston bout, Muhammad tells the annual Nation of Islam convention in Chicago that he is “so glad that Cassius Clay was brave enough to say he was a Muslim.” The next month, in a radio broadcast from Chicago, Muhammad gives Clay the new name of Muhammad Ali. Ali explains that Muhammad means “worthy of all praise” and Ali translates to “most high.” Muhammad’s son Herbert eventually becomes Ali’s manager, securing multimillion-dollar purses throughout Ali’s career.

Ali moves to the South Side to be closer to the Nation of Islam’s base of operations. Living here, he meets the woman who becomes his first wife, Sonji. They are married a little more than a year. From 1965 to 67, Ali defends his title nine times, including a brutal beating of Chicago’s Ernie Terrell, a friend in their amateur days. Terrell refuses to address Ali by his new name in the pre-fight hype, insisting on calling him Clay. Ali vows to make Terrell pay and does, peppering him with jabs and taunts of ”What’s my name?” for 15 rounds.


Initially categorized “not qualified to serve” in the Armed Forces because of a poor performance on a Selective Service test, Ali is reclassified to the front of the line. On April 28, 1967, Ali refuses induction into the Army, explaining to the New York Times: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He is soon convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his championship and barred from boxing.

Unable to earn a living in the ring, Ali travels the country to give paid lectures on college campuses about a range of topics, from the war in Vietnam to civil rights.

In August 1967, Ali marries for the second time. Chicagoan Belinda Boyd, who works at a Nation of Islam bakery on the South Side, remains married to Ali for nine years. They have the first four of Ali’s nine children.

For three years, Ali fights to get a boxing license but gets knocked out every time. Among those who petition authorities on Ali’s behalf is a fireplug heavyweight from Philadelphia named Joe Frazier, the newly designated champion.

Howard Cosell consistently pleads Ali’s case and gives the exiled champion a platform on television. This, along with addressing Ali by his new name when most refused to do so, would earn Ali’s eternal respect.

In 1970, despite opposition from then-Gov. Lester Maddox, Ali is granted a license to fight in Georgia. On Oct. 26, Ali makes his return to the ring, stopping Jerry Quarry by a third-round TKO in Atlanta.


The Fight. Never has a boxing match been more appropriately hyped.

It was, and remains, the most anticipated sporting event in history. When Ali and Frazier collide on March 8, 1971, both are undefeated and have a claim to the title. Madison Square Garden is sold out in minutes, along with thousands of closed-circuit theater locations around America.

Supporters of Ali arrive with a passion, seeing him as fighting for more than a title in the ring. He is a champion to those who oppose what they see as injustice, particularly the war. Frazier is seen by many as the champion of the establishment ­— an unfair label, considering his efforts to help Ali get his license back.

With the world’s interest at a fever pitch, the fight transcends sports.

It is an event.

Production of the bout is handled by film-industry veterans who spare no detail, even selecting the color of the fighters’ trunks.

Burt Lancaster does color commentary for the broadcast, and Frank Sinatra is the ringside photographer for Life magazine.

When the opening bell rings, gone is the masterful dancing Ali displayed pre-exile. Ali goes back and forth with the relentless Frazier, and it costs him.

Frazier puts Ali on the seat of his red Everlasts with a left hook in the 15th round that would have knocked out most men. Ali rises at the count of four but goes on to lose a decision, his first defeat as a pro.

Ali, though, scores a huge victory three months later when the Supreme Court overturns his conviction of draft evasion.

The two years after Ali’s loss to Frazier are some of his most prolific in the ring. He fights 13 times around the world. On March 31, 1973, Ali enters the ring wearing a custom-made robe, a gift from Elvis Presley, but exits a loser for the second time when Ken Norton breaks his jaw and takes a 12-round decision.


Ali begins 1974 by squaring off once again with Frazier, getting revenge with a 12-round decision. This victory sets the stage for a bout against the new champion, George Foreman. On Oct. 30 in Zaire, Ali once again finds himself a heavy underdog against a dominant titleholder. He brilliantly improvises in the match, resting on the ring’s loose ropes and allowing Foreman to punch himself out. Once Foreman’s tank is empty, Ali knocks him out in the eighth round, becoming only the second fighter to regain the heavyweight crown.

Upon Ali’s return from Africa, Mayor Richard J. Daley agrees to allow Howard “Pat” Patterson, a Chicago police officer, to serve as his full-time bodyguard. The new champion defends his title 10 times in a three-year period, the most memorable being his third fight against Frazier. “The Thrilla in Manila” lives up to its billing, with the two going toe-to-toe for 14 scorching rounds before Frazier’s trainer mercifully stops the battle.

In 1977, Ali marries for the third time, to Veronica Porsche. The couple moves into a Hyde Park mansion at 4944 S. Woodlawn. They have two daughters, one of whom (Laila) follows her dad’s footsteps into the ring.

On Feb. 15, 1978, Ali greatly underestimates Leon Spinks, a seven-fight pro, and loses his title on a split decision. Seven months later, Ali decisions Spinks and becomes boxing’s first three-time heavyweight champion. In 1979, Ali announces his retirement.


Ali makes an ill-advised comeback in 1980, taking a beating against undefeated champion and former sparring partner Larry Holmes. The 11th-round TKO is the first time Ali is stopped. The next year, Ali fights for the last time, losing a decision to Trevor Berbick.

In 1984, Ali is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. It eventually develops into Parkinson’s Disease.

Ali marries his current wife, Lonnie Williams, in 1986. Ten years later, he lights up the world in Atlanta with the Olympic torch. Ali is presented with a replacement for his 1960 gold medal.

Ali goes to Iraq in 1990 to help secure the release of 14 U.S. hostages before the start of the Gulf War.

In 2005, the Ali Center opens in Louisville. It celebrating the values and achievements of Ali’s life.

Ali sells 80 percent of the rights to his name and likeness to entertainment company CKX for $50 million in 2006.

Ali travels to Philadelphia in November 2011 to attend the funeral of his fallen rival Frazier.

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