📸 Ali standing over Liston during their 1965 rematch.
In 1964, a loud, handsome boxer from Louisville, Kentucky shocked the sports world by beating the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston. The new champion's name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and he was just 22 years old. The day after the fight, Clay announced to the press that he was a Muslim and confirmed rumors that he had joined the Nation of Islam. Ten days later, the champion was introduced to the world by a new name: Muhammad Ali.
📸 Ali with the heavyweight belt, 1964
During his career, Muhammad Ali compiled a record of 56-5 with 37 wins by knockout. His victories include wins over what some consider the finest opposition in history: Sonny Liston (twice), Joe Frazier (twice), Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton (twice), and a knockout victory against George Foreman, one of the hardest punching boxers of all time. Ali also held the title three different times, each time defeating a reigning champion. This feat has never been equaled, nor is likely to be.
📸 The victorious Ali at the Olympics in Rome, 1960.
As with any athlete of his caliber, Ali’s life story has become the stuff of legend, truth intermingled with myth, due in no small part to his ghost-written autobiography, The Greatest. That said, his life lent itself to such tall tales. At 12 years old, Ali’s 60 dollar Schwinn bike was stolen, prompting him to search for a nearby policeman, who he was told worked at a nearby boxing gym. Joe Martin listened to Ali’s exuberant threats of what he would do to the bicycle thief before offering to train him to fight. Six weeks later, Ali won his first bout, proclaiming even then that one day he would be the greatest of all time.
Ali began to train seriously with Martin, waking up at 4 or 5 AM most days to run several miles, then training after school well into the evening. His academics suffered from this punishing schedule, but Ali managed to graduate from high school, well liked by his principal and teachers. During this time, he began to compete in amateur tournaments, both in Kentucky and further out in places like Chicago and Indianapolis. In 1960, at just 18, Ali won the gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the Olympics held in Rome. With this victory, Ali returned to the states and began his professional career.
Sponsored by a group of Kentucky businessmen and briefly trained by former champion Archie Moore, Ali began working his way up to the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. The fight came in 1964, the underdog Ali facing 7-1 odds against Liston. In the ring, the younger man showcased his unusual fighting style, keeping his hands slow and leaning directly back to dodge hits. In the fourth round, he found himself suddenly blinded, possibly by liniment oil rubbed on Liston’s gloves. Ali persevered, with Liston conceding after the sixth round. Ali had finally made good on his assertion that he was the greatest.
📸 Ali with Malcolm X, having beaten Liston.
Muhammad Ali was far more than just a boxing legend, his opposition to the war in Vietnam and direct engagement with civil rights issues catapulted him into a world far beyond the ring. In 1967, Ali refused to accept induction into the US Armed Forces for the war in Vietnam. Previously, he had sought to obtain conscientious objector status on the grounds of his faith but was denied. As a result, he was immediately stripped of his boxing titles by every boxing commission.
Soon after, he was convicted in federal court, sentenced to five years in prison, and handed a $10,000 fine ($73,000 today). He was released on bond and remained free during appeals. In 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8-0 in Ali’s favor and his conviction was thrown out. He later became an ambassador for peace, addressing the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid in 1978, and twenty years later became one of the first United Nations Messengers of Peace.
📸 Ali with the Olympics torch in Atlanta, 1996.
Despite his activities, Ali’s politics resist easy classification. As a young boxer, he first encountered the Nation of Islam in Chicago, keeping his affiliation a secret until he secured the heavyweight title. Before a meeting in Detroit in 1962, Ali first met Malcolm X, who became a close friend. The two men shared Black separatist views but both became disillusioned from the hypocrisy evinced by Elijah Muhammad, the sect’s leader. Later in life, Ali adopted Sunni Islam, and remained devout through the rest of his life.
Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, after a thirty-year battle with Parkinson's, a degenerative brain disease caused by the thousands of impacts sustained over his boxing career. Throughout his struggle, Ali never complained, he simply referred to the disease as his trial, yet one more challenge in a life of struggles that he had to overcome.
📸 Ali watching a replay of a fight, 1966.
📸 Ali training.
Ali's punching bag
This specimen from Mini Museum comes from a punching bag formerly used by Muhammad Ali. Known as a double-end or "crazy" bag, this particular type of punching bag is used to improve accuracy, speed, and endurance.
The double-end bag is attached at two ends with floor-to-ceiling elastic straps. This makes the bag highly reactive to punches, which is useful in developing defensive skills, as the bag is prone to "hit back".
This particular bag was used by Muhammad Ali during training sessions in the 1970's. The bag was gifted to long-time Louisville sports radio personality and friend of Muhammad Ali, John Ramsey, and later purchased at auction by Mini Museum. It first appeared in the Fourth Edition of the Mini Museum.
Eig, Johnathan. "Ali: A Life." (2017).
Remnick, David. King of the World. Picador, 1999.
Ali, Muhammad, and Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.
Ali, Muhammad, and Hana Yasmeen Ali. The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974.