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Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was a three-time heavyweight boxing champion with an impressive 56-win record. He was also known for his public stance against the Vietnam War.

black and white photo of muhammad ali, facing the camera with boxing gloves on

Quick Facts

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Muhammad Ali was a boxer, philanthropist, and social activist who is universally regarded as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Ali became an Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. Following his suspension for refusing military service in the Vietnam War, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title two more times during the 1970s, winning famed bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman along the way. Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and devoted much of his time after to philanthropy. He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

FULL NAME: Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. BORN: January 17, 1942 DIED: June 3, 2016 BIRTHPLACE: Louisville, Kentucky SPOUSES: Sonji Roi (1964-1965), Belinda Boyd (1967-1977), Veronica Porché (1977-1986), and Yolanda Williams (1986-2016) CHILDREN: Maryum, Jamillah, Rasheda, Muhammad Jr., Miya, Khaliah, Hana, Laila Ali , and Asaad ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Capricorn

Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.

At an early age, young Clay showed that he wasn’t afraid of any bout—inside or outside of the ring. Growing up in the segregated South, he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination firsthand.

At the age of 12, Clay discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. After his bike was stolen, Clay told police officer Joe Martin that he wanted to beat up the thief. “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people,” Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym.

Clay started working with Martin to learn how to spar and soon began his boxing career. In his first amateur bout in 1954, he won the fight by split decision. Clay went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light heavyweight division.

Clay attended mostly Black public schools, including Central High School in Louisville from 1956 to 1960. Clay often daydreamed in class and shadowboxed in the halls—he was training for the 1960 Olympics at the time—and his grades were so bad that some of his teachers wanted to hold him back from graduation. However, the school’s principal Atwood Wilson could see Clay’s potential and opposed this, sarcastically asking the staff, “Do you think I’m going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn’t finish?”

preview for Muhammad Ali - Mini Biography

In 1960, Clay won a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team and traveled to Rome to compete. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Clay was an imposing figure in the ring, but he also became known for his lightning speed and fancy footwork. After winning his first three bouts, Clay defeated Zbigniew Pietrzkowski of Poland to win the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal.

After his Olympic victory, Clay was heralded as an American hero. He soon turned professional with the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group and continued overwhelming all opponents in the ring.

Clay met charismatic Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X at a rally in Detroit in June 1962. Floored by Malcolm X’s fearlessness as an orator, the two developed a friendship and Clay became more involved in the Black Muslim group. Malcolm X even assigned an associate to help manage Clay’s day-to-day affairs.

In 1964, Malcolm X brought his family to visit Clay while he trained in Florida for his February 25 title fight against Sonny Liston . Clay’s victory over Liston earned him his first world heavyweight boxing championship. Following the win, the two held an evening of reflection in a hotel room with Jim Brown and Sam Cooke that became the inspiration for the One Night in Miami stage play and 2020 drama film.

The next morning, on February 26, Clay announced his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. At first, he called himself Cassius X before settling on the name Muhammad Ali. Surprisingly, his allegiances were with supreme leader Elijah Muhammad and not the exiled Malcolm X. Ali and Malcolm’s friendship quickly fractured, and the two went their separate ways by that spring.

Ali showed little remorse upon Malcolm X’s murder on February 21, 1965, but admitted in his 2005 memoir Soul of a Butterfly : “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”

The boxer eventually converted to orthodox Islam during the 1970s.

muhammad ali, who sits on a couch, points to a 1966 newspaper headline about a vietnam war protest, the newspaper is held by a man and a woman on ali's left who are also sitting on the couch

Ali started a different kind of fight with his outspoken views against the Vietnam War. Drafted into the military in April 1967, he refused to serve on the grounds that he was a practicing Muslim minister with religious beliefs that prevented him from fighting. He was arrested for committing a felony and almost immediately stripped of his world title and boxing license.

The U.S. Justice Department pursued a legal case against Ali and denied his claim for conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of violating Selective Service laws and sentenced to five years in prison in June 1967 but remained free while appealing his conviction.

Unable to compete professionally in the meantime, Ali missed more than three prime years of his athletic career. Following his suspension, Ali found refuge on Chicago’s South Side, where he lived from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s. He continued training, formed amateur boxing leagues, and fought whomever he could in local gyms.

Finally granted a license to fight in 1970 in Georgia, which did not have a statewide athletic commission, Ali returned to the ring at Atlanta’s City Auditorium on October 26 with a win over Jerry Quarry. A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in June 1971, allowing Ali to fight on a regular basis.

cassius clay punches doug jones with his right glove

Ali had a career record of 56 wins, five losses, and 37 knockouts before his retirement in 1981 at the age of 39.

Often referring to himself as “The Greatest,” Ali was not afraid to sing his own praises. He was known for boasting about his skills before a fight and for his colorful descriptions and phrases. In one of his more famously quoted descriptions, Ali told reporters that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the boxing ring.

A few of his more well-known bouts include the following:

Sonny Liston

After winning gold at the 1960 Olympics, Ali took out British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in 1963. He then knocked out Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Joe Frazier

On March 8, 1971, Ali took on Joe Frazier in what has been called the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier and Ali went toe-to-toe for 14 rounds before Frazier dropped Ali with a vicious left hook in the 15th. Ali recovered quickly, but the judges awarded the decision to Frazier, handing Ali his first professional loss after 31 wins.

After suffering a loss to Ken Norton, Ali beat Frazier in a rematch on January 28, 1974.

In 1975, Ali and Frazier locked horns again for their grudge match on October 1 in Quezon City, Philippines. Dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” the bout nearly went the distance, with both men delivering and absorbing tremendous punishment. However, Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel after the 14th round, giving the hard-fought victory to Ali.

George Foreman

Another legendary Ali fight took place on October 30, 1974, against undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman . Billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the bout was organized by promoter Don King and held in Kinshasa, Zaire.

For once, Ali was seen as the underdog to the younger, massive Foreman, but he silenced his critics with a masterful performance. He baited Foreman into throwing wild punches with his “rope-a-dope” technique, before stunning his opponent with an eighth-round knockout to reclaim the heavyweight title.

Leon Spinks

After losing his title to Leon Spinks on February 15, 1978, Ali defeated him months later in a rematch on September 15. Ali became the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times.

Larry Holmes

Following a brief retirement, Ali returned to the ring to face Larry Holmes on October 2, 1980, but was overmatched against the younger champion.

Following one final loss in 1981, to Trevor Berbick, the boxing great retired from the sport at age 39.

Ali was married four times and had nine children, including two children—daughters Miya and Khaliah—he fathered outside of marriage.

Ali married his first wife, Sonji Roi, in 1964. They divorced a little more than one year later when she refused to adopt the Nation of Islam dress and customs.

Ali married his second wife, 17-year-old Belinda Boyd, in 1967. Boyd and Ali had four children together: Maryum, born in 1969; Jamillah and Rasheda, both born in 1970; and Muhammad Ali Jr., born in 1972. Boyd and Ali’s divorce was finalized in 1977.

laila ali and muhammad ali pose for a photo after laila won the super middleweight title, which is represented by the large belt on her left shoulder, laila wears her boxing gloves and holds a medal in front of her while muhammad embraces her, behind them is a crowd of people

At the same time Ali was married to Boyd, he traveled openly with Veronica Porché, who became his third wife in 1977. The pair had two daughters together, Hana and Laila Ali . The latter followed in Ali’s footsteps by becoming a champion boxer. Porché and Ali divorced in 1986.

Ali married his fourth and final wife Yolanda, who went by Lonnie, in 1986. The pair had known each other since Lonnie was just 6 and Ali was 21; their mothers were best friends and raised their families on the same street. Ali and Lonnie had one son together, Asaad, and remained married until Ali’s death.


Rasheda’s son Nico Walsh Ali became a boxer like his grandfather and aunt. In 2021, he signed a deal with legendary Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promoted 27 of Muhammad Ali’s bouts. He won his first eight professional fights, according to database BoxRec.

Nico’s brother, Biaggio Ali Walsh, was a star football running back, helping lead national powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas to the top of the USA Today rankings from 2014 through 2016. He played collegiately at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before becoming an amateur mixed martial artist.

The brothers have drawn the attention of social media celebrity Jake Paul, a novice boxer who has said he’d like to fight both and “erase” them.

One of Ali’s other grandsons, Jacob Ali-Wertheimer, competed in NCAA track and field at Harvard University and graduated in 2021.

In 1984, Ali announced that he had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition. Despite the progression of Parkinson’s and the onset of spinal stenosis, he remained active in public life.

Ali raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona. And he was on hand to celebrate the inauguration of the first Black president in January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn into office.

muhammad ali holds the olympic torch at the 1996 olympic games opening ceremony

In his retirement, Ali devoted much of his time to philanthropy. Over the years, Ali supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other organizations. In 1996, he lit the Olympic cauldron at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, an emotional moment in sports history.

Ali traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help out those in need. In 1998, he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace because of his work in developing nations.

In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush .

Ali also received the President’s Award from the NAACP in 2009 for his public service efforts. Other recipients of the award have included include Ella Fitzgerald , Venus and Serena Williams , Kerry Washington , Spike Lee , John Legend , Rihanna , and LeBron James .

Ali opened the Muhammad Ali Center , a multicultural center with a museum dedicated to his life and legacy, in his hometown of Louisville in 2005.

“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” he said. “Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”

Ali lived the final decade of his live in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, Arizona.

A few years before his death, Ali underwent surgery for spinal stenosis, a condition causing the narrowing of the spine, which limited his mobility and ability to communicate. In early 2015, he battled pneumonia and was hospitalized for a severe urinary tract infection.

Ali died on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona, after being hospitalized for what was reportedly a respiratory issue. He was 74 years old.

fans tossing flowers on the hearse carrying muhammad ali's body

Years before his passing, Ali had planned his own memorial services, saying he wanted to be “inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me,” according to a family spokesman.

The three-day event, which took place in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, included an “I Am Ali” public arts festival, entertainment and educational offerings sponsored by the city, an Islamic prayer program, and a memorial service.

Prior to the memorial service, a funeral procession traveled 20 miles through Louisville, past Ali’s childhood home, his high school, the first boxing gym where he trained, and along Ali Boulevard as tens of thousands of fans tossed flowers on his hearse and cheered his name.

The champ’s memorial service was held at the KFC Yum Center arena with close to 20,000 people in attendance. Speakers included religious leaders from various faiths: Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter; broadcaster Bryant Gumbel; former President Bill Clinton ; comedian Billy Crystal; Ali’s daughters Maryum and Rasheda; and his widow, Lonnie.

“Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country, and for the world,” Lonnie said. “In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice—that he grew up during segregation and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”

Clinton spoke about how Ali found self-empowerment: “I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race, nor his place, the expectations of others—positive, negative, or otherwise—would strip from him the power to write his own story.”

Crystal, who was a struggling comedian when he became friends with Ali, said of the boxing legend: “Ultimately, he became a silent messenger for peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.”

Pallbearers included Will Smith , who once portrayed Ali on film, and former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Ali is buried at the Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville.

Ali’s stature as a legend continues to grow even after his death. He is celebrated not only for his remarkable athletic skills but for his willingness to speak his mind and his courage to challenge the status quo.

Ali played himself in the 1977 film The Greatest , which explored parts of his life such as his rise to boxing fame, conversion to Islam, and refusal to serve in Vietnam.

The 1996 documentary When We Were Kings explores Ali’s training process for his 1974 fight against George Foreman and the African political climate at the time. Directed by Leon Gast, the film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Actor Will Smith played Ali in the biopic film Ali, released in 2001. For the performance, Smith received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X is explored in the fictionalized 2020 drama One Night in Miami and the 2021 documentary Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali .

  • The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.
  • It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
  • I’m gonna float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.
  • I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given.
  • I’m the champion of the world. I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I’m so great I don’t have a mark on my face. I shook up the world! I shook up the world!
  • If Clay says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how—Hitch him up!
  • You get the impression while watching him fight that he plays cat and mouse, then turns out the light.
  • The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality.
  • Religions all have different names, but they all contain the same truths. I think the people of our religion should be tolerant and understand people believe different things.
  • It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.
  • I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace, and understanding. l am still learning.
  • Truly great people in history never wanted to be great for themselves.
  • At night when I go to bed, I ask myself, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, would I be proud of how I lived today?”
  • This is the story about a man with iron fists and a beautiful tan.
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muhammad ali hero's journey

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Muhammad Ali

By: History.com Editors

Updated: September 12, 2018 | Original: December 16, 2009

Super Fight II was a non-title boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The second of the three Ali-Frazier bouts, it took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 28, 1974.

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was an American former heavyweight champion boxer and one of the greatest sporting figures of the 20th century. An Olympic gold medalist and the first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times, Ali won 56 times in his 21-year professional career. Ali’s outspokenness on issues of race, religion and politics made him a controversial figure during his career, and the heavyweight’s quips and taunts were as quick as his fists. Born Cassius Clay Jr., Ali changed his name in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused military induction and was stripped of his heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for three years during the prime of his career. Parkinson’s syndrome severely impaired Ali’s motor skills and speech, but he remained active as a humanitarian and goodwill ambassador.

Muhammad Ali’s Early Years and Amateur Career

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the elder son of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. (1912-1990) and Odessa Grady Clay (1917-1994), was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky . It was a red-and-white Schwinn that steered the future heavyweight champion to the sport of boxing. When his beloved bicycle was stolen, a tearful 12-year-old Clay reported the theft to Louisville police officer Joe Martin (1916-1996) and vowed to pummel the culprit. Martin, who was also a boxing trainer, suggested that the upset youngster first learn how to fight, and he took Clay under his wing. Six weeks later, Clay won his first bout in a split decision.

Did you know? Muhammad Ali has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 38 times, second only to basketball great Michael Jordan.

By age 18 Clay had captured two national Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union national titles and 100 victories against eight losses. After graduating high school, he traveled to Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.

Clay won his professional boxing debut on October 29, 1960, in a six-round decision. From the start of his pro career, the 6-foot-3-inch heavyweight overwhelmed his opponents with a combination of quick, powerful jabs and foot speed, and his constant braggadocio and self-promotion earned him the nickname “Louisville Lip.”

Muhammad Ali: Heavyweight Champion of the World

After winning his first 19 fights, including 15 knockouts, Clay received his first title shot on February 25, 1964, against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (1932-1970). Although he arrived in Miami Beach, Florida , a 7-1 underdog, the 22-year-old Clay relentlessly taunted Liston before the fight, promising to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and predicting a knockout. When Liston failed to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round, Clay was indeed crowned heavyweight champion of the world. In the ring after the fight, the new champ roared, “I am the greatest!”

At a press conference the next morning, Clay, who had been seen around Miami with controversial Nation of Islam member Malcolm X (1925-1965), confirmed the rumors of his conversion to Islam. On March 6, 1964, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) bestowed on Clay the name of Muhammad Ali.

Ali solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship by knocking out Liston in the first round of their rematch on May 25, 1965, and he defended his title eight more times. Then, with the Vietnam War raging, Ali showed up for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces on April 28, 1967. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused to serve. Ali was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and revoked his heavyweight belt.

Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but he remained free while the conviction was appealed. Many saw Ali as a draft dodger, and his popularity plummeted. Banned from boxing for three years, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War on college campuses. As public attitudes turned against the war, support for Ali grew. In 1970 the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated, and the following year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision.

Muhammad Ali’s Return to the Ring

After 43 months in exile, Ali returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, and knocked out Jerry Quarry (1945-1999) in the third round. On March 8, 1971, Ali got his chance to regain his heavyweight crown against reigning champ Joe Frazier (1944-2011) in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.” The undefeated Frazier floored Ali with a hard left hook in the final round. Ali got up but lost in a unanimous decision, experiencing his first defeat as a pro.

Ali won his next 10 bouts before being defeated by Ken Norton (1943-). He won the rematch six months later in a split decision and gained further revenge in a unanimous decision over Frazier in a non-title rematch. The victory gave the 32-year-old Ali a title shot against 25-year-old champion George Foreman (1949-). The October 30, 1974, fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, was dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, the decided underdog, employed his “rope-a-dope” strategy, leaning on the ring ropes and absorbing a barrage of blows from Foreman while waiting for his opponent to tire. The strategy worked, and Ali won in an eighth-round knockout to regain the title stripped from him seven years prior.

Ali successfully defended his title in 10 fights, including the memorable “Thrilla in Manila” on October 1, 1975, in which his bitter rival Frazier, his eyes swollen shut, was unable to answer the bell for the final round. Ali also defeated Norton in their third meeting in a unanimous 15-round decision.

On February 15, 1978, an aging Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks (1953-) in a 15-round split decision. Seven months later, Ali defeated Spinks in a unanimous 15-round decision to reclaim the heavyweight crown and become the first fighter to win the world heavyweight boxing title three times. After announcing his retirement in 1979, Ali launched a brief, unsuccessful comeback. However, he was overwhelmed in a technical knockout loss to Larry Holmes (1949-) in 1980, and he dropped a unanimous 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick (1954-2006) on December 11, 1981. After the fight, the 39-year-old Ali retired for good with a career record of 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts.

Muhammad Ali’s Later Years and Legacy

In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, possibly connected to the severe head trauma suffered during his boxing career. The former champion’s motor skills slowly declined, and his movement and speech were limited. In spite of the Parkinson’s, Ali remained in the public spotlight, traveling the world to make humanitarian, goodwill and charitable appearances. He met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) in 1990 to negotiate the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Ali had the honor of lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In 1999 Ali was voted the BBC’s “Sporting Personality of the Century,” and Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century.” Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a 2005 White House ceremony, and in the same year the $60 million Muhammad Ali Center, a nonprofit museum and cultural center focusing on peace and social responsibility, opened in Louisville.

Ring Magazine named Ali “Fighter of the Year” five times, more than any other boxer, and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Ali has been married four times and has seven daughters and two sons. He married his fourth wife, Yolanda, in 1986. Ali died at the age of 74 on June 3, 2016.

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Muhammad Ali standing in a boxing ring in front of another boxer with his back to the camera

Hometown Hero to Global Icon

Born cassius clay, jr..

Cassius Clay, Jr. is born to Odessa and Cassius Clay, Sr. at the Louisville General Hospital in South Louisville. Two years later, brother Rudy (later Rahaman Ali) is born, and soon the family moves into the Parkland neighborhood.

Black and white photo of baby Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay, Jr.) in white outfit

Red Bike Moment

The red Schwinn bike of twelve-year-old Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay, Jr.) is stolen outside the annual Louisville Home Show. Reporting the theft to nearby policeman Joe Martin, he expresses a desire to “whup” the culprit. Martin—who trains young boxers—suggests he should first learn how to fight. (Spoiler alert: advice taken.)

Enters Central High School

Cassius struggles academically (he was later diagnosed with dyslexia) but becomes a school celebrity for his dedication to training, including running to school every day alongside the bus. He would visit the school as a hero after the Rome Olympic Games and his legacy remains a point of Central pride.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali with group at Central High School

Wins Olympic Gold Medal

Three months out of high school, Ali competes at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Despite being afraid of airplanes, Ali boards the flight while wearing an army surplus parachute. He wins the light-heavyweight gold medal, defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali and family as he wears his gold medal

Signs with Louisville Sponsoring Group

At age 18, Clay enters a contract with a group of Louisville-area businessmen who will finance his professional boxing career. Clay is represented by Alberta O. Jones, who influenced his future philanthropic efforts. Clay would later donate the winnings of his first professional fight to Kosair Children's Hospital.

Meets Malcolm X

Clay’s early boxing years are also formative ones in his spiritual journeys, headlined by meeting Malcolm X in Detroit in 1962, and Drew Bundini Brown in the spring of 1963. Training with Angelo Dundee at 5th Street Gym in Miami, Cassius is poised for the next level, carrying 19 straight wins into his first shot at the heavyweight championship.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

Clay Vs. Sonny Liston (I)

In his first heavyweight title bout, Ali is a longshot to defeat Liston, widely seen as unstoppable. Nonetheless, Ali predicts “a total eclipse of the Sonny”—and indeed Liston does not rise to the seventh round’s opening bell. “I’m the greatest! I shook up the world!” Win - Technical Knockout in 6 rounds [Miami Beach]

muhammad ali hero's journey

Announces Conversion to Islam, Name Change

The day after winning his first heavyweight belt, the fighter announces he is a proud Muslim. He goes by the name Cassius X for nine days, then receives the new name of Muhammad Ali from Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

First Visit To Africa

Visiting Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt, Ali inspires as a symbol of anti-colonialism. Welcomed in Ghana as a son of Africa and a hero, Ali reclaims his roots by saying “I am an African.” At the pyramids in Cairo, the BBC reports he “fuse[s] politics and religion” when giving the Black power salute and shouting ‘God is great’ in Arabic.

Historical photo of a Muhammad Ali as a young man in Nigeria with a group of boys and young men

Refuses Military Draft in Houston

Ali twice refuses to step forward when military induction officials call his name, citing his conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam as a minister in the non-violent religion of Islam. Convicted of draft evasion, he is stripped of his heavyweight title and boxing licenses.

"No, I will not go 10,000 miles from home to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters."

Muhammad Ali

Rallies with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Louisville

Ali joins Martin Luther King, Jr. in Louisville at a rally for fair housing practices. The open housing demonstrations had protesters calling for a boycott of the Kentucky Derby on the same day, where members of the Ku Klux Klan offered to help keep order. City police and Churchill Downs refused. The two men fought for civil rights but shared different ideals, with King declining the views of the Nation of Islam on integration.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cleveland Summit

Football star Jim Brown organizes a summit of 12 leading Black athletes, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, to meet with Ali and discuss his position on the draft. Most were veterans themselves, and several arrived intending to change Ali’s mind. However, the group emerged expressing support for Ali’s position.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali at Cleveland Summit alongside Jim Brown and other athletes

Ali Vs. Jerry Quarry: First Post-Exile Fight

This fight was not approved by Georgia governor Lester Maddox, a segregationist who declared a “day of mourning” over it. However, only Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell’s approval was necessary, secured through the efforts of State Senator Leroy Johnson. Ali previewed the fight in a drawing to Leroy Nieman, where Maddox is drawn running down the back right aisle, yelling "Stop that fight!" Win - Technical Knockout in 3 rounds [Atlanta, Georgia]

Action photo of Muhammad Ali after punching Jerry Quarry in their Oct. 26 fight

Ali Vs. Joe Frazier (I)

In a chance to reclaim his title, Ali’s first heavyweight fight with Frazier matched two undefeated fighters. However, Ali’s three years away from the ring made the difference in a grueling 15 rounds. It is Ali’s first defeat and the start of the greatest rivalry in boxing history. Loss - Unanimous Decision in 15 rounds [New York City]

Action photo of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier during boxing match

Supreme Court Decision

In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court overturns Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, saying the Appeals Court had not properly established their grounds against Ali’s conscientious objector status. His passport is returned, and he is officially a free man.

Makes First Pilgrimage to Mecca - Hajj

With his passport returned by the Supreme Court decision, Ali travels to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj for the first time. Ali observes ihrām—a sacred state of cleansing and attire—as he approaches Mecca. While there, Ali also meets with the royal family.

Establishes Deer Lake Training Camp

Ali buys several acres in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania and builds a remote training camp called Fighter’s Heaven, where the Champ held training sessions, opening it to the public. Fighter’s Heaven was reopened and restored in 2016 and named a historical destination.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali leading a horse outside Deer Lake near rock with Joe Louis' name painted on top

Ali Vs. Joe Frazier (II) - Super Fight II

Although Joe Frazier no longer held the title of Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali wanted to face him again to prove he was indeed “the Greatest.” Billed as “Super Fight II,” the match went the distance of 12 rounds and ultimately led to a unanimous decision in favor of Ali. Win - Unanimous Decision in 12 rounds [New York City]

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier inside boxing ring

Ali Vs. George Foreman – Rumble in the Jungle

A showdown in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to reclaim Ali's heavyweight title puts him against Foreman, the imposing favorite. Ali employs his “rope-a-dope” tactic: leaning on the ropes, Ali absorbs body blows until Foreman finally wears himself out. The fight held cultural impact for the people of Zaire, who connected with Ali, as well as the millions who watched the fight around the world. Win - Knockout in 8 rounds [Kinshasa, Zaire]

Action shot of Muhammad Ali punching George Foreman

Makes First White House Visit

Ali met seven presidents throughout his lifetime, beginning with Gerald Ford. President Ford invited Ali and later said in part “I wanted to meet Muhammad, not only because of my interest in sports, but because it was part of my overall effort to heal the wounds of racial division, Vietnam, and Watergate.”

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali meeting with President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office

Elijah Muhammad Dies

Wallace D. Muhammad assumes his father’s leadership of the Nation of Islam, aligning it more closely with the teachings and practices of Sunni Islam. Ali chose to follow these teachings and practice what he came to refer to as “true Islam.”

Ali Vs. Joe Frazier (III) – Thrilla In Manila

Ali meets Frazier in the final installment of this storied boxing rivalry, and one of the most grueling but best displays of the sport. It was the fight Ali said was the closest he's ever been to dying. Both fighters faded fast toward the end, but it was Frazier’s corner who conceded in round 14. Win - Technical Knockout in 14 rounds [Quezon City, Philippines]

Action photo of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the ring as Frazier dodges punch

Leads Trenton Rally for “Hurricane” Carter

Ali is a prominent public advocate for the release and exoneration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former boxer arrested along with John Artis for a 1966 triple homicide with dubious evidence. Carter was released under habeas corpus after nearly 20 years in jail.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali speaking at event for release of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter

Campaigns against Apartheid

Ali appears at the United Nations for a press conference with the Chairman of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid. He addresses the committee with a message of peace and spirituality.

Ali Vs. Leon Spinks (II)

Ali’s self-appointed title of “The Greatest” is solidified in a Spinks rematch at The Superdome in New Orleans. The event has the then-highest attendance ever for an indoor bout. Ali takes the world heavyweight championship for a third time—a first in boxing history. Win - Unanimous Decision in 15 rounds [New Orleans, Louisiana]

Action photo of Muhammad Ali trading punches with Leon Spinks

Prevents young man’s suicide in L.A.

Ali hears of a distressed man threatening to jump from a ninth-floor window and races his car to the scene. He talks the man down from the ledge by saying, “You’re my brother. I love you.” Checking the man into a local hospital, Ali returns later to check on his progress.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali and a man two windows apart

Ali Vs. Trevor Berbick – Drama in Bahama

In the 61st and final fight of his career, Muhammad Ali begins the bout trying to look like his former self, but by the sixth round, he began to tire. After Berbick was declared winner, Ali officially retired. Loss - Unanimous Decision in 10 rounds [Nassau, Bahamas]

Action photo of Muhammad Ali throwing punch toward Trevor Berbick in the ring

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease

Since retiring, Ali's health had intensely deteriorated. After checking himself into New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Ali is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, difficulty walking, and loss of balance and coordination.

Marries Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams

After many years of friendship, Lonnie and Muhammad were married in a small ceremony at the home of then Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane.

Black and white photo of Muhammad Ali and Lonnie standing next to each other

Negotiates Release of 15 U.S. Hostages in Iraq

Despite warnings, Ali travels to Baghdad, Iraq to negotiate the release of 15 United States hostages taken during the Kuwait invasion. Ali meets with Saddam Hussein for nearly an hour and successfully secures the hostages’ release.

A group of men with yellow ribbon pens on stand in a group. Muhammad Ali is in the back.

Meets Nelson Mandela

Ali travels to South Africa for two weeks to support the development of boxing. The visit includes his first meeting with Nelson Mandela—who was a boxer as a young man.

Color photo of Nelson Mandela posing with a fake punch towards Muhammad Ali

Lights the Summer Olympic Cauldron

In an opening ceremony surprise, with undisguised challenges holding the torch and yet focused and precise, Ali lights the Olympic cauldron in a moment that captivates 3.5 billion worldwide viewers.

Muhammad Ali dressed in all white lifts up a lit Olympic Torch

Named U.N. Messenger of Peace

Ali’s 1978 address to the Special Committee against Apartheid, along with his own belief in sport’s power to create unity, inspires Secretary-General Kofi Annan to name Ali as one of his first messengers of peace.

Photo of Muhammad Ali receiving UN Messenger of Peace pin from Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Visits Ground Zero after 9/11

Days after the devastating attacks of September 11, Ali travels to Ground Zero to thank first responders and share a message of peace in the face of xenophobia and Islamic extremist terrorism.

Color photo of Muhammad Ali with soldiers at Ground Zero one week after 9/11.

Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

President George W. Bush awards Ali with the highest civilian honor in the United States: “Across the world, billions of people know Muhammad Ali as a brave, compassionate and charming man, and the American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own.”

Muhammad Ali receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. George W. Bush

Muhammad Ali Center Opens

Despite Ali’s impact and fame around the world, Lonnie and Muhammad choose their beloved Louisville as home to a museum and education center for mobilizing Muhammad’s legacy of fostering respect, inspiring future changemakers, and advancing social justice.

Man stands with arms crossed in front of Muhammad Ali banner

Inaugural Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards

These annual awards honor and celebrate individuals who, like Muhammad Ali, have devoted their lives to peace and social justice, inspiring others to do great things in their communities. Inaugural honorees include President Jimmy Carter and Christina Aguilera.

Muhammad Ali Passes Away

Muhammad Ali passes away late in the evening in Scottsdale, Arizona due to respiratory complications. He was 74.

Celebration of Life and Legacy

For seven days, Louisville and the Muhammad Ali Center are the epicenter of an historic public memorial. Hundreds of thousands of people descend upon his hometown for several memorial events, including a sprawling funeral procession through Ali’s beloved hometown streets.

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What made Muhammad Ali ‘The Greatest’ in the ring?

muhammad ali hero's journey

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Many factors came together to create recognition of Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74, as “the greatest” boxer in history.

There is no doubt Ali’s determination to overcome racial inequality , his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, his emergence as a representative of Islam and his highly engaging media persona coalesced to make him by far the most widely known boxer of all time. He came to be popularly regarded as a champion of the oppressed and a seeker of justice for the persecuted. This resonated globally.

Central to the celebrity Ali achieved, though, was his exceptional ability as a boxer.

A unique style

Various boxing authorities have ranked Ali as the best heavyweight boxer in history. He and the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson have been bracketed as the top two across all weight divisions.

Ali won a gold medal (as a light heavyweight) at the 1960 Rome Olympics as the culmination of an amateur boxing career in which he won 100 of 105 bouts.

As a professional, Ali won the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions over 14 years. He was victorious in 56 of 61 professional bouts , with three of the losses coming late in his career when his athleticism had faded. Sports Illustrated named him as its Sportsman of the 20th Century.

What made Ali such an outstanding exponent of his sport?

It certainly wasn’t sheer strength and power. He was never considered to be among boxing’s hardest punchers and more than one-third of his professional contests lasted their full scheduled duration. Nor was he remarkable in terms of height or weight.

Rather, Ali’s speed, agility, footwork and general athleticism were among the attributes that most distinguished him from other competitors. It was said he was a heavyweight who moved like a lightweight .

In the early years of his career, Ali also displayed outstanding aerobic endurance: he was able to relentlessly maintain his dancing, up-on-the-toes style.

There is no doubt Ali was uniquely skilled. But he employed techniques that, while clearly effective, were far from classical. In stark contrast to contemporary views of best practice, he often held his hands by his sides at waist level, and he sometimes avoided the punches of opponents by pulling his head backwards away from them.

Many boxing experts regarded these as high-risk behaviours made viable only by Ali’s astonishing speed, but the unorthodoxy served to confuse his adversaries and lure them into errors. He was seldom the aggressor, preferring a method that capitalised on the aggression of others.

Ali very aptly characterised his own style as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. His distinctive, unconventional boxing style was in keeping with the fierce individualism and rejection of norms that pervaded other aspects of his life and created almost universal interest in him.

Mental strength

Ali also demonstrated major psychological strengths. He was renowned for his self-belief, which frequently extended beyond vociferous pre-contest expressions of confidence to actually nominating the very round in which he would win.

He was predisposed to composing rap-style poems designed to extol his talents and unsettle opponents, and was well-known for his intimidatory stares and for subjecting opponents to verbal taunts during bouts.

Over time, Ali’s perennial competitive success seemed increasingly to justify the self-belief and enabled him to inculcate an impression that he was almost superhuman. That was an impression that a public seeking new heroes in turbulent social and political times was very willing to accept. In addition, it appears to have been embraced by Ali himself.

The self-belief and illusion of superhuman qualities were arguably instrumental in enabling Ali to get through a number of torturous contests. These included the “Thrilla in Manila”, where he and Joe Frazier inflicted shocking damage on each other in what he later described as a near-death experience, and the “Rumble in the Jungle”.

In the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali absorbed some massively forceful punches from George Foreman as part of a contrived “rope-a-dope” strategy . This eventually brought him an unlikely victory that proved to be the crowning glory of his incredible boxing journey.

In the phase of his boxing career commencing after his 3½-year suspension from the sport due to his refusal to enter the US Armed Forces, Ali became famous for an extraordinary ability to “take a punch”. This – along with the courage and commitment to purpose that it implies – has been viewed as another reason for his boxing greatness.

The taking of punches, though, very likely had a significant downside in causing neurological injury and contributing to the Parkinson’s disease that affected his life from the mid-1980s onwards and was soon greatly debilitating.

Ali not only competed during the “golden years of heavyweight boxing” but was the fundamental reason for them. He brought completely new dimensions to the sport and gave it a sort of aestheticism and a broader relevance that was without precedent.

Despite the health problems that he suffered in retirement, he reportedly continued to enjoy being Muhammad Ali. That enjoyment was well-earnt. He inspired and empowered multitudes of people around the world and engendered cultural change.

Ali’s passing has evoked widespread sadness, particularly among the many admirers who somehow identified so strongly with him that they felt a quite intensively personal sharing of his triumphs and defeats, both in the ring and outside it. He leaves an enduring and highly influential legacy, that in the final analysis has been made possible by the qualities that made him genuinely “the greatest” as a boxer.

Further reading:

Muhammad Ali rewrote the rule book for athletes as celebrities and activists

Final bell sounds for Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

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Muhammad ali: journey through the life and times of the legend.

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Arguably the greatest sportsman of our times, Ali's whups inside the ring were matched only by his wit outside. Here’s a journey through the life and times of the legend.

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Muhammad ali: the boxing legend.

July 18, 2023 by Terry McDaniel

muhammad ali hero's journey

Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, left an indelible mark on the world of sports. However, his impact extends far beyond his accomplishments inside the ring. Ali’s unwavering stance against racism, his commitment to civil rights, and his courageous activism made him an icon and a true hero to many. In this blog post, we delve into the remarkable life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, showcasing how he transcended the realm of sports to become a symbol of social justice and courage.

Fighting for Civil Rights:Ali was vocal and unapologetic about his beliefs, using his platform to address issues of racial inequality and social justice. His refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War on conscientious grounds ignited controversy and temporarily halted his boxing career. Despite facing significant backlash, he stood firm in his conviction, sacrificing his title, money, and reputation for what he believed was right.

Championing Social Justice: Beyond the boxing ring, Ali dedicated his life to philanthropy and humanitarian efforts. He worked tirelessly to promote peace, understanding, and equality, becoming a beacon of hope for marginalized communities worldwide. His charitable work, including advocacy for children’s causes and support for Parkinson’s disease research, exemplified his commitment to making a positive impact on society.

Inspiration and Legacy:Muhammad Ali’s legacy lives on as an inspiration to countless individuals. His fearlessness, charisma, and unwavering principles continue to resonate, encouraging others to stand up against injustice and fight for what they believe in. Ali’s larger-than-life persona, combined with his athletic prowess and social activism, cemented his status as a true hero who transcended the boundaries of sports.

Muhammad Ali’s remarkable journey from a talented boxer to an advocate for civil rights and social justice has left an indelible mark on history. His courage, unwavering stance against racism, and tireless commitment to equality made him an icon and a hero to many around the world. Muhammad Ali’s legacy serves as a reminder that athletes have the power to create positive change beyond their respective sports, inspiring generations to stand up for what is right and make a difference in the world.

Do you know a hero? We would love to hear about them: share their story with us!

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Op-Ed: Don’t remember Muhammad Ali as a sanctified sports hero. He was a powerful, dangerous political force

Muhammad Ali with his chief attorney Hayden Covington, right, on June 19, 1967, in Houston, as the boxing champion goes to trial on charges of refusing to be inducted into the armed services.

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Muhammad Ali’s saga is without parallel: the champion boxer who was the most famous draft resister in history; a man whose phone was bugged by the Johnson and Nixon administrations yet who later was invited to the White House of Gerald Ford; a prodigal son whom his hometown city council in Louisville, Ky., condemned, but who a few years later had a main street renamed in his honor and today has a museum that bears his name.

His life was one of polarization and reconciliation, anger and love, and a ferocious, uncompromising commitment to nonviolence, all delivered through the scandalously dirty vessel of corruption known as boxing. Few have ever walked so confidently and casually from man to myth, and that journey was well earned.

As football great Jim Brown said to me last year: “It was unbelievable, the courage he had. He wasn’t just a championship athlete. He was a champion who fought for his people…. The man used his athletic ability as a platform to project himself right up there with world leaders … going after things that very few people have the courage to go after. From the standpoint of his ability to perform and his ability to be involved with the world, Ali was the most important sports figure in history.”

To this day it is awe-inspiring that he once bellowed ‘God damn the white man’s money’ at a time when such words were more than shocking — they were sacrilege.

Or, as Bill Russell said in 1967 in supporting Ali’s decision to risk five years in prison for resisting the draft: “I envy Muhammad Ali.... He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess: He has absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

Ali’s death, however, should be an opportunity to remember what made him so dangerous in the first place. The best place to start would be to recall the part of him that died decades ago: his voice. No athlete, no politician, no preacher ever had a voice quite like his or used it as effectively as he did. Ali’s voice was playful, lilting, with a rhythm that matched his otherworldly footwork in the boxing ring. It’s a voice that forced you to listen lest you miss a joke, a gibe or a flash of joy.

Retired New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte said to me, “Before everything else, what I’ll remember about the young Ali was that he was so much fun.” And that his voice had a physical beauty that “beat you to death with his attractiveness.”

With that voice, face and body, the man Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. could have been Michael Jordan before Jordan: an icon of ungodly wealth and conspicuous consumption.

But Cassius Clay chose to be Muhammad Ali and do something different with that voice. He used it to speak out from a hyper-exalted sports platform to change the world. He joined the Nation of Islam in frustration with the pace and demands of the civil rights movement. He was willing to go to jail in opposition to the war in Vietnam. But one has to hear the voice, and read the words, to understand what exactly made it so dangerous and, by extension, made it all matter.

Imagine not only an athlete but a public figure telling these kinds of unvarnished truths. To this day it is awe-inspiring that he once bellowed “God damn the white man’s money” at a time when such words were more than shocking — they were sacrilege.

It is awe-inspiring that, when facing five years in prison, Ali said: “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand — either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.”

He was equally moving when he said on another occasion: “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. This is more than money.”

In 1967, long before it was obvious to most, Ali connected the black freedom struggle to the injustices of the war in Vietnam, saying: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

We haven’t heard Ali speak for himself in more than a generation, and it says something damning about this country that he was only truly embraced after he lost his power of speech, stripped of that beautiful voice. Ali may have seemed like he was from another world, but his greatest gift was that he gave us quite a simple road map to walk his path. It is not about being a world-class athlete or an impossibly beautiful and charismatic person. It is simply to stand up for what you believe in.

Political courage might seem to be in short supply, but it was inside a young boxer from Louisville who dreamed about being King of the World. Goodbye, Champ. Rest in power and peace.

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at the Nation and the author of, most recently, “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.”

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook


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Biaggio Ali Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson: ‘MMA brought me closer to God’

Up-and-coming PFL fighter talks to Al Jazeera about his meteoric journey, the power of mixed martial arts, and being Muhammad Ali’s grandson.

muhammad ali hero's journey

Growing up as Muhammad Ali’s grandson was a mixed blessing for up-and-coming mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Biaggio Ali Walsh.

Walsh, now 25, has many fond memories of his grandfather, the legendary boxer known as “the Greatest”, even though Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s disease when Walsh was a child.

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He recalls Thanksgivings watching John Wayne or Clint Eastwood westerns, Ali doing magic tricks, drawing together, and reading books – usually about Ali, like on his legendary Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman in 1974.

But while Walsh loved boxing and would hit the mitts and the bag at an uncle’s gym, and his brother Nico has become a professional boxer, he was never interested in seriously pursuing combat sports – he played American Football instead. And his grandfather never encouraged him to fight.

Nevertheless, being Ali’s grandson meant he got dragged into street brawls by people eager for bragging rights. He was even forced to box by a high-school senior at a friend’s house party when he was a 14-year-old freshman.

“We ended up boxing and I beat the p*** out of him,” Walsh told Al Jazeera with a laugh.

It was only years later, angry and depressed at the age of 22, that Walsh got into MMA and quickly excelled. He signed with the Professional Fighters League promotion in September 2022 .

It’s been a steep learning curve for Walsh, predominantly a striker whose record stands at 5-1-0 and is now in training for a lightweight fight next month against Joel Lopez (3-0-0) on the undercard of the 2023 PFL World Championship in Washington, DC.

If Walsh wins, it could hasten his journey to becoming fully professional and fulfilling his dreams, which he says are not about belts but something more spiritual and altruistic.

“Getting into the sport, it’s changed my entire life; mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” he said, speaking to Al Jazeera online from Las Vegas, where he’s based.

“I’ve gotten closer to God because of the sport.”

‘I missed having a purpose’

Walsh played American Football at college and studied film. But after that didn’t work out, he got a job as an assistant strength and conditioning coach and considered getting into real estate. But nothing seemed to fit.

“I just thought, I miss being an athlete. I miss having something to strive for and miss having some kind of purpose,” he said.

Meanwhile, he was sinking into depression, drinking, and doing drugs.

“I was just kind of spiralling in this dark road,” he said. “And that’s pretty much what got me into fighting and just getting back into the light. [Training was] the only thing that excited me.”

His friends and clients were going to the Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts gym in Vegas, home to UFC fighters such as Sean Strickland, Chris Curtis, and Dan Ige.

And he had become a fan of MMA, preferring the versatile sport over the more specialised discipline of boxing.

“[MMA is] kind of like street fight. I don’t get to just punch somebody, I get to kick someone in the head and take someone down, choke someone out, you know?” he said, laughing. “I got options.”

Biaggio Ali Walsh snaps Ed Davis' head back with a right cross punch

He made his amateur debut in June 2022. But he was overcome by nerves, clenched up, forgot to breathe, and lost the fight – ending up in hospital.

His second fight, however, “was like night and day,” he said. “I was so much calmer, and then I just got better and better and better.”

That’s not to say he wasn’t nervous in his PFL debut on the undercard of the 2022 World Championship at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where his grandfather fought numerous times.

“I was about to p*** myself! It was scary,” he said.

He won that fight though, and his next three, all by first-round knockouts.

But he was still unable to afford to fully dedicate himself to learning his fighting craft and worked late as a nightclub security guard.

After his last fight in August, a second-round win knockout win over Ed Davis at Madison Square Garden, he was able to quit that job and rely on sponsorship as well as revenue from Only Fans, which he hastens to add does not involve posting racy content.

Walsh thinks that the unbeaten Lopez, who he fights on November 24, will be his toughest opponent yet. But he’s also eager to face a similarly aggressive striker.

“I feel like those kinds of fights are the most exciting. I mean, look at guys, like, [UFC star] Justin Gaethje . He’s such a fan favourite because he has bangers,” he said. “That’s really what I care about.”

‘Stay humble’

Walsh says his deepening faith has also helped him become better at dealing with the nerves and the pressure that comes with fighting and being Ali’s grandson.

“In a sport like MMA, I think it’s very important to have a very strong relationship with God because you’re going in there and you don’t know if you could die,” he said.

Walsh grew up Muslim but says he didn’t know much about his religion until he started fighting and it gave him the drive to learn more and evolve as a person.

“When I read the Quran, it tells me that [material success] is not what’s really important.  What’s really important is having a good relationship with God and, and doing good and stacking good deeds, being good to people,” he said.

“Like, when you die, you don’t take the Ferrari, you don’t take the house, you don’t take any of this –  you take who you were as a person and what you worshipped.”

He also recalls the advice he got from his grandfather who, while renowned as a poetic trash-talker and bragger par excellence, also used his success for activism and humanitarian work .

“I would say that the biggest piece of advice that he did give me was to stay humble,” he said.

Walsh says he also wants to use his success to help others – particularly homeless people and using martial arts to help kids from underprivileged and abusive homes.

“I’m not rich yet. But if I do get rich, these are the type of things that I want to do … I don’t really care about no belt, I don’t care about my record or anything like that,” he said.

“I just want to be an exciting fighter. I think in that, I’ll be able to get the finances to help a lot of people.”


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