It began with a bicycle.
The bicycle was a red-and-white Schwinn, and one afternoon in October 1954, 12-year-old Cassius Clay parked it outside the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky, while he and a friend availed themselves of the free popcorn and hot dogs available to anyone who strolled through the stalls of the Louisville Home Show.
When he emerged, he saw that his bike had been stolen, and a furious Clay screamed and hollered that he wanted to report the crime to the police. He was directed to the basement of the auditorium, where a police officer by the name of Joe Martin ran a boxing gym; when the distraught Clay said he wanted to "whup" whoever stole his bike, Martin asked him if he knew how to fight. Clay said no, but he'd try to whup the thief anyway. Martin suggested he spend some time with him in his gym first.
"Why don't you learn something about fighting," he said, "before you go and make any hasty challenges?"
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Six years later, Cassius Clay was an Olympic gold medalist; four years after that, on Feb. 25 1964, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, after forcing the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston -- whom Clay taunted as a "big, ugly bear" -- to retire on his stool after the sixth round.
Inside the ring, he was like no other heavyweight the world had ever seen: exceptionally fleet of foot and with rapid fire, stinging punches more commonly associated with lighter weight fighters. Outside of it, he was different, too: "I am the greatest!" he proclaimed after defeating Liston. "I'm the greatest thing that ever lived. I don't have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God every day. I know the real God. I shook up the world, I'm the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!"
Young black athletes of the time were expected to be humble and respectful, but Clay broke the rules, and the sportswriters of his time had no idea how to deal with him. The Louisville Lip, they called him, and while his confidence and loquaciousness were genuine -- the man who would be his trainer and friend, Angelo Dundee, recalled that when he first met Clay as a young man, the future champ spent a couple of hours informing him that he would win Olympic gold and then become the best heavyweight in the world -- there was an astutely cultivated theater to it, as well.
In Las Vegas for a fight early in his professional career, he took time out to visit a professional wrestling event, and was transfixed by a wrestler named Gorgeous George, who had developed an overtly flamboyant persona in order to become "the man everybody loved to hate." It didn't matter that the crowd booed him; the important thing was that they hung on his every utterance and movement. The young man duly took note, and deployed his quick wit to develop a series of bombastic poems that became a trademark.
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"This is the legend of Cassius Clay," he proclaimed before fighting Liston. "The most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y, of a muscular punch that's incredibly speedy. The fistic world was dull and weary; but with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary. Then someone with color and someone with dash, brought fight fans a-runnin' with Cash. This brash young boxer is something to see, and the heavyweight championship is his des-tin-y."
And so it was. But then, one day after defeating Liston, he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and, renouncing what he said was his slave name, declared that he would be known as Cassius X until the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad, bestowed a new one upon him. On March 6, 1964, he became Muhammad Ali.
Many of those same sportswriters continued to call him Clay -- as did some of his opponents, to their ultimate regret: in 1967, he taunted and punished Ernie Terrell, carrying him the full 15 rounds and snarling, "What's my name?" as he repeatedly landed crippling blows.
As Ali's reign atop boxing reached his zenith, so the war in Vietnam gathered pace. Ali had failed a U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test in 1964 because his writing and spelling skills were sub-standard; but with the war's escalation, qualifying standards were lowered, and Ali was reclassified in February 1966. He declared himself a conscientious objector and released a statement that referenced the battle for civil rights that was roiling the nation.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?" he declared. "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. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail. We've been in jail for four hundred years." It was a more offhand quip to a reporter that really stuck, however, when he stated that, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
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For refusing the draft, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship and denied a license to box. As great as he had been up until 1967, he -- and we -- were denied what would likely have been his peak years, until in 1970, the New York Supreme Court ordered his license reinstated. (The following year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that his conviction for draft evasion be overturned.)
In his absence, the heavyweight championship had been claimed by Joe Frazier, and on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, the two men met in what was dubbed "The Fight of the Century." Burt Lancaster was calling the action for the closed circuit broadcast; Frank Sinatra was a ringside photographer for Life magazine. The country was divided down the middle, with much of what might be dubbed the establishment favoring Frazier. That prompted Ali to call his opponent an Uncle Tom (and, for good measure, a gorilla); he offered his taunts, at least in part, for publicity purposes, channeling the spirit of Gorgeous George, but Frazier, who had helped Ali financially during his in-ring exile, was wounded by them and grew to loathe Ali.
The fight was fought with venom and skill, and was won by Frazier, who sealed the deal with a left hook that knocked Ali down in the final round. It was Ali's first professional defeat, but he was not finished. In 1974, in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle", he defeated George Foreman, who had taken the crown from Frazier, by employing what he called the "Rope-a-Dope": he leaned back against the ropes as Foreman whaled on him, until his foe became exhausted by his exertions in the heat of the Congo jungle, and Ali finished him off in the eighth round.
He fought Frazier again the following year, in the "Thrilla in Manila." The two men battered each other to within an inch of their lives until Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, pulled his man from the contest at the end of the 14th round. Like Ahab and the whale, Ali and Frazier had destroyed each other with hate and violence, and Ali should have retired at that point. But he didn't.
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He put on a series of increasingly anemic title defenses until, in 1978, he lost on points to Leon Spinks, a defeat he should never have allowed himself to suffer. He retired after regaining the title, but unwisely launched a comeback to challenge his successor and former sparring partner, Larry Holmes, in 1980. Now closing in on his 39th birthday, and badly damaged by a career in the ring, he was in no condition to fight, and despite Holmes' efforts to limit the punishment he meted out, Ali was halted after ten rounds.
The decline after that was steady, and then swift. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease; his movements became unsteady, and his once-voluminous words became slurred and then eventually stilled. And yet, in his decline, his public image evolved. The country's views on both civil rights and the Vietnam War grew closer to those he had espoused in the 1960s; while still controversial -- and indeed detested by at least some veterans -- he became less of a lightning rod and more of an elder statesman, battling a crippling disease with dignity and grace. Perhaps no moment better epitomized the transformation that when, arms trembling, he lit the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
For a younger generation, that is perhaps the image of Ali that endures. But for many others he will remain always the brash, flash heavyweight champion of the world, proclaiming his greatness for all to hear:
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble."