Muhammad Ali: From Beginner To Gold Medalist In 6 Years (And Beyond)

Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous boxers in history... but despite his storied past, not everything about his career is well-known.

In this article, we look in brief at the career of "The Greatest", as well as some of his achievements that have stood the test of time. 

Muhammad Ali
Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Winner From The Get-Go: 19-0 Start To Boxing

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in January of 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali was one of six children.  Ali (then Clay) started his boxing career at age 12, with a 19-match winning streak -- with 15 of those wins coming by knockout. This streak included many well-respected and tough boxers of the time, as well his former trainer and experienced boxer, Archie Moore.

He then went on to win the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the Rome 1960 Summer Olympics. This shining start from October 1960 to December 1963, was to set the tone for a winning and formidable career in boxing.

Journey To Champion

From late 1963 onwards, Clay was a top contender for the world heavyweight title and his fight against Sonny Liston (then world champion) in February of 1964 brought him his first world heavyweight championship. In suspicious circumstances, for three rounds during the fight Clay complained of 'burning eyes', which some spectators and analysts thought may be linked to an ointment used to treat cuts, perhaps purposefully applied to his opponent's gloves by the trainer. However, over time sweat and tears wiped away whatever was causing the pain, and Clay won the fight in the seventh round by TKO. Soon after, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam.

He would defeat Liston again in another fight in May of 1965, which lasted less than two minutes' total, and then go on to found his own promotion company called "Main Bout", which handled all of Ali's television appearances and major events.

Ali won several more major events and held on to his title until March of 1966, when extenuating circumstances caused major upheaval for Ali and the boxing world at large.

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Stripped Of His Titles: Ali's Battle For Justice

Ali vehemently opposed the war in Vietnam, and therefore refused to be drafted into the armed forces. He stood not only against his own personal participation in the war, but for his country's involvement in it, and the treatment of his people. Consequently he was stripped of his titles, rejected by every state when trying to apply for a boxing license, and also stripped of his passport - meaning he was unable to fight for almost four years (when he was 25 until 29), which were seen as some of his prime years. In August of 1970, with his appeal still in progress, local politicians backed Ali to organise a boxing license and support his comeback, which was a win in three rounds on October 26 1970.

Rise To Prominence And Cementing His Legacy

Ali's conviction was overturned in 1971, which created extraordinary anticipation and excitement in the boxing world. This excitement was rolled into a fight dubbed "The Fight of The Century" against Joe Frazier in March of 1971. Both fighters had a strong claim to the heavyweight title, and with Ali having been banned from fighting for several years, anticipation was at an all-time high. Much trash talking ensued prior to the fight, and it lived up to the hype, with a blow-for-blow fight resulting in a Frazier win. This was Ali's first professional defeat, and was given by unanimous decision.

Despite this (close) loss, Ali continued to bounce back to the top of the heavyweight circuit, cementing his dominance with wins over Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson and Bob Foster in 1972, followed by a redemption win agains Joe Frazier in 1974.

In late 1974, the "Rumble In The Jungle" fight against George Forman became one of the most anticipated fights in boxing history, with an estimated 1 billion viewers on pay per view television. Foreman was one of the hardest-hitting boxers in history, and had previously beaten both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both of whom had beaten Ali. Ali was a clear underdog and very few people thought he had a chance of winning.

Ali's supreme confidence - both before the fight where his signature trash-talking featured prominently in all promotions and press conferences -- and during the fight -- proved his secret weapon, gaining him a major upset victory against Foreman. It was Foreman's first professional defeat and brought Ali back to the top of the boxing world.

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Later Career And Retirement

Ali continued to win in large-scale exhibitions and much ancicipated matches. He was at the top of the boxing world for several more years, both due to his entertainment value and his mastery of the sport. In July of 1979, following a win against Leon Spinks which made him the first person to ever win 3 heavyweight championships, Ali announced his retirement from boxing. He did fight two more bouts which were unsuccessful (and many believe contributed to his later health issues); and in December of 1981 he 'fully' retired from boxing, having cemented his legacy and etched his name in boxing history.

The Test Of Time: Achievements Unmatched For Decades

Here is just a taste of some of Ali's acheivements and records:

  • Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century (ESPN)
  • Held 35-year records for number of boxers beaten (21) and unified title bouts (14) for the heavyweight title
  • Widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time
  • First television event to be watched by over 1 billion people (VS George Forman, 30th October 1974)
  • Two grammy nominations as a musician