The life and times of Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest’


Odessa Clay gives birth to her first child Jan. 17 in Louisville. She and her husband, a sign painter and church muralist, name the boy Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.


Odessa gives birth to Cassius’ only sibling, Rudy.


Twelve-year-old Cassius rides his new bike to the Louisville Service Club’s convention, where children can get free ice cream and balloons. There, the boy’s bike is stolen. He vows to whip the thief if he finds him. He does find a policeman, Joe Martin, who teaches boxing in the Columbia Gym, in the Service Club basement. Martin says Cassius should learn to fight before he does any whipping. Six weeks later, the 89-pound youngster wins his first fight, over Ronnie O’Keefe.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali dies at 74.


Clay becomes the first Louisvillian to win a title in the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Chicago. He also wins the national Amateur Athletic Union light-heavyweight title — a feat he will repeat the following year.


Clay graduates from Louisville Central High School.

Clay defeats Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland on Sept. 5 to win the light-heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Olympics in Rome.

Clay signs a professional contract with 11 Louisville businessmen led by distillery executive William Faversham. The Louisville Sponsoring Group pays him a $10,000 signing bonus. He buys a pink Cadillac for his parents.

On Oct. 29, Clay makes his pro debut, scoring a six-round decision over West Virginia lawman Tunney Hunsaker in Freedom Hall. Clay’s sponsors send Clay to San Diego to train under legendary fighter Archie Moore. Moore complains: “My wife is crazy about him, my kids are crazy about him, and I’m crazy about him, but he won’t do what I tell him to.” Clay says he wants to fight like Sugar Ray Robinson, not Moore.

By year’s end, 37-year-old Angelo Dundee becomes Clay’s trainer, beginning a spectacularly productive relationship. Clay arrives in Miami in December to work with Dundee, who doesn’t try to change the young fighter’s unorthodox, upright, hands-low style.


Clay visits a mosque in Miami and later declares the experience “the first time in my life that I felt truly spiritual.”.

For his sixth pro fight, against Lamar Clark on April 19, Clay predicts — for the first time — the round in which he will defeat an opponent. He fulfills his promise that “This Clark will fall in two.”.


Clay hears Elijah Muhammad speak for the first time. He meets another Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X, who becomes a friend and adviser.

On March 9, the military draft board classifies Clay 1-A, meaning he is fit and available to be called into the U.S. Army.

On Nov. 15, Clay meets his erstwhile trainer, 47-year-old Archie Moore, in Los Angeles, and knocks him out in the fourth round.

Appreciation: Muhammad Ali was a champion in and out of the boxing ring.


Clay appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time, the June 10 issue, advancing his fight against Henry Cooper in London. He will eventually appear on the magazine’s cover 35 times, second only to Michael Jordan.

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Because of a low score on the Army intelligence test, Clay is reclassified 1-Y, not qualified for military service, in January. “I said I was ‘The Greatest,’ ” he explains. “I never said I was the smartest.”.

Clay scores a stunning seventh-round defeat over 7-1 favorite Sonny Liston on Feb. 25 at the Miami Convention Center, winning the world heavyweight championship at age 22. His pessimistic sponsors fail to plan a victory celebration. By the time they can arrange one, Clay is in Malcolm X’s hotel room, eating ice cream and chatting with football player Jim Brown.

In response to a reporter’s question the day after the fight, Clay confirms he is a member of the Nation of Islam, saying: “I believe in Allah and in peace. … I’m not a Christian anymore. … I’m free to be whatever I want. … Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t tote weapons. They pray five times a day.”.

Casting off his “slave name,” Clay adopts the temporary name Cassius X. On March 6 he announces that Elijah has bestowed him the name Muhammad Ali. The name means “Praiseworthy One.”.

In July, Ali has his first date with Sonji Roy, a fund-raiser for the Nation of Islam. Before the date is over, he proposes. They are married Aug. 14.

A rift grows between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Ali sides with Elijah, causing grief for Malcolm.


Ali knocks out Liston in the first round of their rematch, before only 4,280 fans in Lewiston, Maine. Liston falls under a “phantom” punch that apparently few people saw, giving rise to suspicions that he threw the fight. Former champion Joe Louis eventually declares Ali “unfit” to hold the title.

In October, former champion Floyd Patterson says: “Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race.” On Nov. 22, Ali delivers a punishing defeat of Patterson, in part, he says, because Patterson refuses to call him Ali.


Ali’s 17-month marriage to Sonji Roy ends in divorce in January. With the Vietnam War heating up, the Army lowers test-score standards, reclassifying Ali 1-A — fit for service. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he says to reporters who call him at home in Miami. He later explains … “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”.

Ali asks to be reclassified a conscientious objector to military service. A judge sides with him, but the draft board keeps him 1-A, armed with a U.S. Justice Department opinion that Ali’s objections to military service are political, not religious.

Ali splits with the Louisville Sponsoring Group and chooses a new manager, Herbert Muhammad, a son of Elijah.


On April 28, Ali refuses induction into the U.S. Army in Houston. He says he is a minister of the Nation of Islam. Almost immediately, the New York State Athletic Commission strips Ali of his title. Other states follow suit. Ten days later, Ali is indicted.

“They took away his livelihood because he failed the test of political and social conformity,” sportscaster Howard Cosell said. “Nobody said a damn word about the professional football players who dodged the draft, but Ali was different: He was black, and he was boastful.”.

On June 20, a jury deliberates 20 minutes before convicting Ali of refusing induction into the Army. He receives the maximum sentence: five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He is freed on bail pending appeal.

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On Aug. 17, Ali marries Belinda Boyd, a teenage Chicago waitress with plans to go to secretarial school.

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Belinda and Muhammad have the first of their four children, Maryum.Unable to fight, Ali earns money through a series of speaking engagements on college campuses. Many Americans vilify Ali as a coward unwilling to fight for his country. Others agree with civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’S view: “He is giving up millions of dollars to do what his conscience tells him is right.”.

In December, Ali is jailed for a week in Miami for driving with an invalid license.


As his appeals work their way through the courts, Ali finds a way to fight: Georgia, which has no state boxing commission, is willing to let him box. On Oct. 26 in Atlanta, he inflicts a third-round technical knockout on Jerry Quarry, running his record to 30-0.


On March 8, Ali meets champion Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, with each fighter splitting a $5 million purse in “The Fight of the Century.” Incensed by Ali’s demeaning him as an “Uncle Tom,” Frazier inflicts the first defeat of Ali’s career — a 15-round decision. The victor then spends three weeks in a hospital.

On June 28, the Supreme Court unanimously overturns Ali’s 4-year-old draft conviction, saying that his claims as a conscientious objector were based on religion and were sincere.

On July 26, Ali defeats fellow Louisvillian and former sparring partner Jimmy Ellis in a 12-round TKO, in the first bout after his conviction is overturned.


On March 31, Ali suffers his second defeat, fighting 10 rounds with a broken jaw before losing a 12-round decision to Ken Norton.

World mourns death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.


On Jan. 28, Ali meets former champion Frazier, who had been dethroned by George Foreman. “This may shock and amaze ya, but I will destroy Joe Fraze-yah,” Ali boasts. He wins a 12-round decision. On Oct. 30, Ali takes on Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, with the fighters splitting a $10 million purse. Ali lounges on the ropes, letting the champ punch himself into exhaustion, and scores an eighth-round knockout as the crowd cheers, “Ali boma ye!” (“Ali kill him!”).


Elijah Muhammad dies Feb. 25. His son Wallace takes over the Nation of Islam, preaching a less strident message than his father’s. Eventually Ali will declare, “Wallace taught us the true meaning of the Koran. He showed us that color doesn’t matter.”.

On March 24, Ali defeats Chuck Wepner, a liquor salesman known as “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner’s courageous performance inspires Sylvester Stallone (watching on closed-circuit TV) to write the screenplay for “Rocky.”.

On Oct. 1, Ali and Frazier stage one of the most dramatic fights in history — the “Thrilla in Manila.” Analysts calculate that Frazier lands 440 punches. “I hit him punches that would bring cities down,” Frazier says. But Ali scores regularly, too, and Frazier’s eyelids become so swollen he is practically blind. His trainer, Eddie Futch, refuses to let him answer the bell for the 15th round. Ali is only slightly more able-bodied at the end: “It was,” he says, “the closest thing to death that I could feel.”.

Ali pays $400,000 for a farm in Berrien Springs, Mich. It will eventually become his primary home.

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In January, Ali divorces Belinda (who by now had changed her name to Khalilah). She is awarded nearly $2 million in the settlement.


In June, Ali marries model Veronica Porche. One of their two children, Laila, eventually becomes a professional boxer.


On Feb. 15, Leon Spinks scores one of boxing’s most astonishing upsets, defeating Ali in a 15-round decision in Las Vegas. Ali will declare it the most disappointing moment of his career.

Before a crowd of 64,000 in the New Orleans Superdome on Aug. 15, Ali wins a 15-round decision over Spinks, becoming the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times.

Louisville changes the name of Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard, over some businesses’ objections about the expense of changing addresses on company stationery.

Ali announces his retirement — prematurely, it turns out.

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Ali, 38, comes out of retirement to face champion Larry Holmes on Oct. 2 in Las Vegas. Holmes scores a technical knockout in the 11th round. It is the first time in Ali’s 60 professional bouts that he fails to go the distance.


Ali loses his last fight, a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas, on Dec. 11. “I came out all right for an old man,” he says. “We all grow old.” Ali’s record: 56 victories, 5 losses, 37 knockouts.


Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome is made public. The symptoms include muscle tremors and slowed, slurred speech.


Ali’s divorce from his third wife, Veronica, becomes final in January. On Nov. 19, Ali, 44, marries 28-year-old Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, who grew up in Louisville before studying at Vanderbilt and UCLA. The 10-minute ceremony is conducted by Jefferson County Judge-Executive Harvey Sloane, in Sloane’s home.


Ali’s 77-year-old father, Cassius Sr., Dies of a heart attack on Feb. 9 in Louisville.

In December, Ali secures the release of 14 American hostages held in Iraq during the run-up to the Gulf War. Ali had gone to Iraq at the invitation of Saddam Hussein, who met with the former champion for 50 minutes.


Ali’s 77-year-old mother, Odessa, dies in a Louisville nursing home.

With his head and hands shaking, Ali lights the Olympic flame to start the Summer Games in Atlanta at 12:25 a.M. July 20. His biographer Thomas Hauser writes: “In all likelihood there has never been a time in the history of the Earth when 3 billion people felt love at the same time. But Ali made it happen.”.


Secretary-General Kofi Annan names Ali a United Nations Messenger of Peace.


Ali rings out the year — and, by most people’s count, the millennium — as a celebrity guest of the New York Stock Exchange.


Once reviled as un-American, Ali becomes a spokesman for the product that may be the most identified with America: Coca-Cola.


Mark Kram’s book Ghosts of Manila presents a revisionist view of Ali, as essentially a blank screen upon which people projected whatever they wished. “Ali was,” in Kram’s estimation, “no more a social figure than Frank Sinatra. … Seldom has such a public figure of more superficial depth been more wrongly perceived.”.


Ali is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for being “an inspirational figure to millions of people around the world.”.

The six-story, $80 million Muhammad Ali Center opens on Louisville’s downtown waterfront.

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