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A month after Pearl Harbor, on January 17, 1942, Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was twelve, in 1954, Cassius had his bike stolen. As any 12-year-old would be, Cassius was upset and told a police officer by the name of Joe Martin that he would beat up the thief. Joe happened to also be a boxing coach, and suggested Cassius learn how to box first.
That was Cassius’ first introduction to boxing, and soon he’d fall in love with the sport. For the next six years, he worked tirelessly and earned a spot representing the United States in Rome at the 1960 Olympics. As fate would have it, this was also the first Summer Olympics ever to be telecast in North America, something CBS paid $394,000, or about $3,170,000 in today’s dollars, to provide.
No doubt this helped launch Cassius into the public’s eye as the teenage sensation put on a great show, defeating Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final round to take home gold medal for the United States.
None of this is depicted in the movie, though, as the film picks up just Cassius’ triumph in Rome and just before his first fight against the Sonny Liston. This fight took place when Cassius was 22. Even though Cassius, who is played by Will Smith in the movie, had just come off a major win that put him in the spotlight after winning a gold medal, no one expected him to beat the established champ, Sonny Liston.
Sonny was widely considered the most intimidating fighter of his day. In fact, Henry Cooper, the English heavyweight champion made it known he’d happily fight Cassius, but he wouldn’t even get into the ring with Sonny. Henry’s manager famously said, “We don’t even want to meet Liston walking down the same street.”
Needless to say, Sonny was a frightening opponent.
But Cassius wasn’t afraid of Sonny – he wanted the title. And so, on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida, one of the greatest boxing matches to date took place between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Part of this heavy favoritism for Sonny because of their age difference. Cassius was much younger with less experience, although in truth no one really knows how much. This is mostly because there’s no documented proof of Sonny Liston’s birth. He claimed to be 32 at the time of the fight, ten years older than Cassius, but most people thought he was closer to 40.
What most people didn’t know at the time was Sonny had sustained numerous injuries in the past couple of years earning and defending his title. Secretly, Sonny would resort to heavy icing and ultrasound therapy after each training session. Sonny also believed he’d take care of Cassius without much difficulty. It didn’t even cross his mind that he’d lose.
Because of this confidence, Sonny didn’t really train for the fight. He’d run a mile a day instead of his usual five, eat his fair share of hot dogs and beer and was even rumored to sleep with prostitutes at training sessions. On the other hand, Cassius hit the training room hard and even studied Sonny’s previous fights. That’s where Cassius learned that Sonny telegraphed his punches with his eye movement.
Despite this, 43 of the 46 ringside sportswriters picked Sonny to win by knockout. A huge part of this was because of Sonny’s proven victories in the ring, but also because no one believed Cassius’ style of fighting would win a heavyweight championship.
In the movie, Cassius is very outspoken and before the fight sounds off with Sonny. This actually happened, and many saw it as a method that Cassius used to get into the heads of his opponents–a form of psychological warfare. In fact, just about every boxer had a nickname and while Sonny Liston’s was Big Bear, Cassius Clay’s was Louisville Lip.
Sonny went into the fight with a record of 35-1 with 24 KOs, while Cassius was 19-0 with 15 KOs.
The morning of the event, both fighters were required to weigh-in. At the weigh-in, Cassius walked into the room wearing a denim jacket that said Bear Huntin’ on the back and carrying a walking stick. Then he started waving the stick and yelling, “I’m the champ! Tell Sonny I’m here! Bring that big ugly bear on!”
Sonny walked into the room and Cassius brought it up another notch, “Someone is going to die at ringside tonight!” he shouted at Sonny. “You’re scared, chump!”
As they were measuring the fighters anyway, when it was Cassius’ turn to weigh-in, the doctor measured his heart rate at twice it’s normal rate, 120 beats per minute, with a blood pressure well over the normal at 200/100.
After the taunting and seeing Cassius’ heart rate, the doctor said Cassius was, “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he even enters the ring.”
He also said they’d have to check Cassius’ heart rate before the fight, and if it didn’t go down the fight would be canceled. An hour later, Cassius’ heart rate had returned to normal and the fight went on.
Much later, he was quoted as saying, “Liston’s not afraid of me, but he’s afraid of a nut.”
He also said, “I won’t lie, I was scared…It frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight.”
Acting crazy was just that—an act.
In the movie, Will Smith’s version of Cassius Clay spends much of the fight bouncing around Sonny, who’s played by Michael Bentt in the movie. And this actually happened. In reality, Cassius’ style of fighting was very different than other heavyweight fighters. Cassius was quick and fast on his feet. He used this speed to dance around his opponents and dodge punches.
Many assumed this meant, like it did for many lightweight fighters, that this also meant he didn’t pack as much into his punches. Of course, that wasn’t true. The fight was fascinating, and you can actually find it online if you want to watch the original fight.
The movie does a pretty good job of depicting the key moments in the fight.
As soon as the opening bell rang, Sonny charged at Cassius, determined to end the fight in the first round. Immediately, Cassius’ speed came into play. Sonny looked awkward as he lunged, almost slipping as he tried to catch the speedy Cassius. Of course, this didn’t help calm Sonny’s anger.
It did, though, give Cassius more confidence.
When the first round ended, Cassius felt great. He survived. What’s more, Sonny couldn’t catch up to him. The second round evened up the fight as Sonny started to settle into the fight, landing a hard left hook as Cassius was cornered on the ropes. In the third round, Cassius did a first — he cut Sonny. Never before in his career had Sonny been cut. It took about 30 seconds in the third round for Cassius to land a combo of punches that cut Sonny’s left eye, something that’d take eight stitches to close after the fight.
New York Times writer Mort Sharnik, who was ringside, would later describe his feelings of the third round, “My God! Cassius Clay is winning this fight!”
But a cut wasn’t going to end Sonny Liston. In fact, he was pissed. He rallied and unleashed a devastating combination of punches to Cassius’ body. Still, as the bell rang and the two fighters returned to their corners Cassius turned to Sonny and yelled, “You big sucka! I got you now!”
In the movie, something odd happens next when Will Smith’s character returns to the corner after the fourth round with difficulty seeing. This actually happened. Even though Cassius mostly kept his distance from Sonny, dancing around the fighter for most of the round, when he returned to the corner he started complaining that he couldn’t see — something was burning in his eyes. Cassius’ trainer, Angelo Dundee, who’s played by Ron Silver in the movie, didn’t know why Cassius couldn’t see. He tried washing out his eye, but that didn’t help. Then, as the referee came over to see what the commotion was about, Angelo yelled to Cassius, “Run!”
The ref would later say he was just seconds from disqualifying Cassius from the fight, but instead the next round began.
After the fight, Cassius said he couldn’t even see Sonny for the whole round. He just saw a faint shadow, one that he managed to avoid by circling and dancing around. Somehow, Cassius survived the round. This wasn’t really discussed in the movie, but another theory which many raised after the fight was that Sonny’s trainers had inadvertently blinded Cassius.
Angelo explained his theory after the fight, “Joe Pollino [Sonny’s cutman] had used Monsel’s Solution on that cut. Now what had happened was that probably the kid put his forehead leaning in on the guy—because Liston was starting to wear in with those body shots—and my kid, sweating profusely, it went into both eyes.”
A couple days after the fight, another heavyweight contender, Eddie Machen, said he thought it was on purpose. “The same thing happened to me when I fought Liston in 1960,” Machen would later tell the press. “I thought my eyes would burn out my head, and Liston seemed to know it would happen.”
Fortunately for Cassius, his vision started to clear up as the two fighters prepared for the sixth round. Then, something happened. In the movie, you see Sonny Liston spit out his mouth guard on the ground. The fight is over, Cassius wins! This happened, but there’s two different versions why Sonny became the first boxer since 1919 to quit a World Heavyweight Championship while sitting on his stool.
In one version of the story, Sonny’s shoulder, which had been causing his issues due to boxing injuries over the years, was deemed paralyzed by his staff. His crew made the decision to end the fight despite Sonny’s protests. When he lost the case, Sonny spit his mouth guard on the ground in disgust.
The other version of the story is that Sonny simply told his trainers, “That’s it.” They initially thought this meant he was finally done toying with Cassius, he’d come out and end the fight by knocking Cassius out. But Sonny meant he was done fighting, which he indicated by spitting out his mouth guard out.
Regardless of which version is true, the result was the same—Cassius Clay was new World Heavyweight Champion! At 22, he was also the youngest to ever claim the title…a record which would be broken in 1986 by a 20-year-old boxer named Mike Tyson.
That’s when Cassius ran to the ropes and shouted two lines over and over at the sportswriters that’d be used countless times since, “I’m the greatest!” and “I shook up the world!”
Two days after the fight, on February 27, 1964, he made more waves when he announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Immediately, Cassius started going by Cassius X. In the movie, one of Cassius’ group is the famous minister and human rights activist Malcolm X. This is very true, and although we don’t really know what influence Malcolm had influence on Cassius’ name change, we do know Cassius and Malcolm were good friends at the time and so it’d make sense that he did. In fact, it was Malcolm X who inspired Cassius to join the Nation of Islam.
Officially, Cassius X said he changed his name because he didn’t want to bear the names handed down by former slave-owning families.
Then, on March 6, 1964, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, announced that Cassius would be renamed Muhammad Ali.
Two days later, on March 8, 1964, Malcolm X, the very man who inspired Muhammad to join the Nation of Islam, left the Nation of Islam. Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, and while he tried to convince Muhammad to join him, Muhammad refused. This certainly wasn’t a quick decision by Malcolm, as he had started to grow “disillusioned” with the Nation of Islam for years. This caused a rift between the two, something that’s portrayed fairly accurately in the movie.
In the movie, Will Smith’s version of Muhammad Ali meets Sonji Roi, whose played by Will Smith’s actual wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. The movie portrays a quick connection between the two. In truth, Muhammad met Sonji only a month before the two were married on August 14, 1964.
Another pivotal moment in the movie happens when Malcolm X, who’s played by Mario Van Peebles, is murdered–shot as he’s giving a speech. While the movie isn’t really about Malcolm, so it doesn’t focus on his character, this moment is, sadly, truth. And the moment is portrayed very accurately in the movie.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was just starting a speech for the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan when a disturbance in the crowd caused chaos. As Malcolm’s bodyguards were trying to calm everyone down, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun.
Two other men joined in, shooting Malcolm as he lay bleeding on the ground. At 3:30 PM, Malcolm X was declared dead. An autopsy would identify 21 gunshot wounds as the cause of death. All three men who were involved in the shooting, one of whom was beaten to death by the crowd before the police arrived, were identified as members of the Nation of Islam.
But this story isn’t really about Malcolm X—that’s a story for another day.
On May 25, 1965, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston had a rematch. Although their first fight had been one that lasted much longer than anyone thought, the second Ali-Liston fight would go down as one of the most controversial fights in boxing history.
Around the halfway point of the first round, Sonny threw a left jab. Muhammad dodged, returning the punch with a right of his own. The punch landed square on Sonny’s jaw, knocking him to the ground. Sonny rolled over, got on his right knee, then fell back down again.
Sonny Liston went down at 1:44, got back up at 1:54 and the fight was over at 2:12.
It was one of the shortest heavyweight title fights in history.
In the movie, it’s at this fight where Muhammad gets upset with his wife, Sonji, for not being “dull enough”. While we don’t really know the exact verbage they used, there’s likely some truth in this. Sonji, who was a cocktail waitress when the two met, refused some of the Muslim customs in regards to dress for women. While this likely wasn’t the only reason they broke up, it was one of the major contributors. The movie makes it sound like they’re divorced quickly after the fight, but in truth two were divorced on January 10, 1966.
As opposition to the Vietnam War started to heat up Muhammad, who was a popular figure in the United States, couldn’t help but get sucked in. In the movie, there’s a moment where Will Smith is on the phone as he’s backstage for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He gets upset saying he failed the draft, and now all of a sudden they’re saying he’s eligible?
While we don’t really know how the conversation went down, the basic facts are true. As all men are required to do in the United States, when Muhammad Ali turned 18 in 1962, he registered for conscription. But in 1964, his classification was changed after sub-standard writing and spelling skills caused him to fail the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test. But in 1966, due to the growing tensions in the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army lowered their standards. This meant Muhammad, along with thousands of others, were all of a sudden now eligible for the draft.
In the movie, Will Smith’s version of Muhammad Ali refuses to move when the Army officer calls for “Cassius Marcellus Clay.” This, too, happened–although there’s more to the story.
After he was notified of being eligible for the draft, Muhammad made a public statement saying, “War is against the teachings of the Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”
At another time, Muhammad made a moving statement saying: “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?”
Needless to say, Muhammad Ali’s public statements, along with the already-growing opposition to the bloody war, were an inspiration to many.
On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to step forward when his name was called. The officer warned him he would be committing a felony if he refused. Again, Muhammad refused to budge. He refused to fight in someone else’s war.
So he was arrested. As a result of the arrest, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license, stripping him of his title in the process. Other boxing commissions followed and within just a few days Muhammad Ali went from World Heavyweight Champion to being unable to box in any state.
Just like in the movie, Muhammad Ali was found guilty when he went to trial for his refusal on June 20th, 1967. It took the jury only 21 minutes of deliberation to deliver the verdict. He appealed the verdict, and after a Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the movie it seems like there’s a long time between the initial verdict and when Muhammad receives word of the Supreme Court’s verdict. This is actually true. It took years, but on June 28th, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction by a unanimous 8-0 decision.
Of course, while Muhammad’s boxing career may have hit a brick wall, his life went on. In the movie, Muhammad meets a young girl during this time and falls in love with her. This happened when, on August 17, 1967, the 25-year-old Muhammad Ali married the 17-year-old Belinda Boyd. After the two were married, Belinda converted to Islam and changed her name to Khalilah Ali.
In 1970, Muhammad won a victory in a federal court that forced the New York Boxing Commission to reinstate his license. Although New York took a while to reinstate the license, he acted quickly, getting a license from the Atlanta Athletic Commission. Muhammad then fought the only boxer who was willing to fight him at the time — Jerry Quarry. The fight took place on October 26th, and Muhammad won the bout after three rounds.
Then in December of 1970, Muhammad fought again, this time in Madison Square Garden against Oscar Bonavena. It wasn’t a very great match, but Muhammad won on a TKO after 15 rounds. Still, Muhammad Ali was back in boxing. But while his license was reinstated, his title was not.
That title now belonged to Joe Frazier, a powerful boxer who was 26-0 with 23 knockouts.
And so, on March 8, 1971, a fight was set up between Muhammad Ali, who was also undefeated with a record of 31-0 with 25 knockouts, and Joe Frazier. Two undefeated champions battling for the undisputed championship. It was the first time two undefeated boxers ever fought each other for the heavyweight title. No wonder it was deemed by the press as The Fight of the Century.
The movie’s depiction of this is pretty accurate. After a brutal fight that lasted 15 rounds, Joe Frazier was declared the winner by a unanimous decision. It wasn’t a knockout, but it was still Muhammad’s first loss. If you have the chance, I’d really recommend looking up the fight online—it’s a great match!
Almost as soon as he lost, Muhammad wanted a rematch. While he waited and prepared, just like in the movie, Muhammad watched as Joe Frazier lost the title to a new boxer, George Foreman.
Muhammad did get his rematch of Joe Frazier, but because Joe lost to George it wasn’t a title fight. Joe wasn’t a fan of Muhammad. His pre-fight antics and psychological tactics may have been an act, but Muhammad went too far in Joe’s mind. Joe hedge a grudge against Muhammad for the rest of his life.
It took three years, but Muhammad Ali got his rematch. Muhammad had the upper hand this time. Muhammad beat Joe Fraizer on January 28, 1974.
But beating Joe wasn’t enough. Muhammad still wasn’t the champion.
So that’s where the movie ends, on Muhammad Ali fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire—which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. This fight took place on October 30, 1974 and was affectionately nicknamed the Rumble in the Jungle by the press.
George Foreman was a scarier opponent than Joe Frazier, with a 40-0 record with 37 knockouts at the time. Not to mention having unseated Frazier as the World Heavyweight Champion.
The fight went down much like it did in the movie. That is, it didn’t happen when it was supposed to. Just like it was depicted in the movie, George Foreman was injured in training before the fight.
The injury, a cut above his eye, meant the fight had to be postponed a full month. But it also meant George couldn’t do any boxing in training at the risk of reopening the wound. George later said, “That was the best thing that happened to Ali when we were in Africa—the fact that I had to get ready for the fight without being able to box.”
Meanwhile, Muhammad was training hard. But he was also using the time to hype the fight. As was his typical fashion, before the fight Muhammad Ali tried a psychological approach to get into his opponent’s head. In the interviews and hype before the bout, Muhammad was as boisterous as ever.
There were four men who would cover the fight. Bob Sheridan did play-by-play while pro football player Jim Brown and Joe Frazier provided color commentary. The final commentator was David Frost, who we learned about in the episode about the movie Frost/Nixon. Muhammad told Frost, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!”
Perhaps it was Muhammad’s reputation and his outspoken nature on civil rights. Perhaps it was his media coverage before the fight. No matter the reason, the people of Zaire loved him. Just like in the movie, anywhere he went there were chants of “Ali, Bomaye!” — which means, “Ali, kill him!”
Muhammad was the clear favorite for the crowd. But not necessarily for those in the boxing world. Muhammad was 32, considered in boxing to be much older than the 25-year-old George Foreman.
In the fight, Muhammad pulled a move that has since become known as “Rope-a-dope”. Instead of his usual fighting style of dancing around his opponents, it was the exact opposite of what every boxer up to that point had ever done, including Muhammad. Essentially, Muhammad stood by and let George Foreman, one of the hardest hitters in boxing—ever—hit him. He just took it. Sure, Muhammad got in a few jabs of his own here and there but for the most part he backed up to the ropes and let George tire himself out. Most of George’s blows were to Muhammad’s body and kidney area. There were a few to the face, but nothing seemed to phase Muhammad.
As the fight went on, George grew increasingly frustrated. He was pounding on Muhammad, but he simply didn’t fall. He started exerting more force into his punches. What else could he do?
Finally, George started to wear down. He was getting tired. In the eighth round, George was visibly tiring and Muhammad made his move. He started a relentless counter-attack. It was culminated with a five-punch combination, the last of which being a left hook that forced George’s head to move up and a devastating right straight to his face. George stumbled back…and fell.
George paused for a moment and began to get up…he managed to get up at the nine count, just one second before the end. But the referee stopped the fight. It was over. There were just two seconds left in the round.
Against all odds, Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle and regained the title.
And this is where the movie ends on what many consider to be one of the best fights of all time.
But that’s not where Muhammad’s story ended.
In 1975, Muhammad fought Joe Frazier for a third time in Manila in a fight dubbed the Thrilla in Manila. In temperatures nearing 100°F, Muhammad won again. The following year, Muhammad earned another victory over Ken Norton in New York.
That same year, 1975, Muhammad had some significant changes in his personal life. He left the Nation of Islam, following in the footsteps of his friend and spiritual mentor, the late Malcolm X, by converting to Sunni Islam. He also had an affair with an actress and model, Veronica Porche. Because of this affair, which is touched on in the movie, Muhammad and Khalilah got a divorce in 1977. Muhammad and Khalilah had four children together.
He married a pregnant Veronica the same year.
In February of 1978, Muhammad lost his heavyweight title to Leon Spinks. But then he won it back again on September 15th of the same year, beating Spinks at the Superdome in New Orleans. After winning, Muhammad announced his retirement from boxing.
He was showing his age. He started stuttering with vocal stutters and trembling hands. But Muhammad needed money. So he came out of retirement. He wanted to face Larry Holmes, who had gained the title after Muhammad’s retirement. But Larry refused — he knew Muhammad didn’t have anything left in the tank; Larry didn’t want to seriously hurt him.
Muhammad checked into the Mayo Clinic, who cleared him for fighting. Officially, he was fit for the ring. So, on October 2nd, 1980 and at the age of 38, Muhammad returned to the ring. Larry Holmes dominated. Actor Sylvester Stallone was ringside and later said it was, “like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.” The fight would be the only that Muhammad ever lost by knockout when it was stopped in the eleventh round.
Muhammad was determined to continue. His health was in a steep decline, something that wasn’t helped at all by the defeat by Larry Holmes. Muhammad Ali’s final fight was on December 11, 1981 at age 39 against Trevor Berbick. Muhammad lost in ten rounds.
Two days later, on December 13, 1981, he announced his retirement from boxing–this time for good. Muhammad Ali’s final boxing record was 56 wins to only five losses. His 56 wins included 37 knockouts and 19 decisions, while he had only one TKO to four decisions in his five losses.
In 1984, Muhammad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disease that most attribute to his boxing-related brain injuries. Many considered the decision to fight Larry Holmes something that significantly accelerated the disease.
Two years after his diagnosis, Muhammad and Veronica were divorced and he married long-time friend Yolanda Williams in 1986. Ten years later, and 36 years after he won the gold medal that kicked off his career in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 games.
It was that same year, 1996, Muhammad was at the Oscars as part of the group receiving awards for When We Were Kings, a great documentary that covered his fight in Zaire against George Foreman. Due to his Parkinson’s, Muhammad stumbled trying to get up the steps—George Foreman helped him up the steps. George would later say, “We fought in 1974, that was a long time ago. After 1981 we became the best of friends. By 1984, we loved each other. I am not closer to anyone else in this life than I am to Muhammad Ali.”
Toward the end of his life, Muhammad chose to step out of the public’s eye, even though he continued to offer support to various charities.
It was just a couple months ago, on June 3rd, 2016 that Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. He died as a result of natural causes and his funeral included eulogies from his closest friends and celebrities who were influenced by his life, including actor Billy Crystal, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel and former President Bill Clinton.