Muhammad Ali was not a mere boxer, he was much more, the greatest as he claimed and adored by millions around the globe. He was not loved for his amazing boxing skills alone, more for his endearing beliefs.
He was an inspiration for not only sportspersons but also to millions around the world. His fearlessness gave the blacks the confidence to fight for their rights.
Born on January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, a small town in Kentucky alongside the Ohio river, Ali was the first to win the world heavyweight title three times.
An outspoken advocate of civil rights for black people, his opposition to what he perceived to be the white dominated establishment prompted him to join the Nation of Islam and refuse to serve in the Vietnam war.
His pugilistic might was spread over three different decades and his record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts tells it all.
He took to boxing at the age of 12. When his bicycle was stolen, the young Cassius Clay approached police officer Joe Martin to report. Ali told the officer that he was going to bash up the thief if he could lay his hands on him.
Martin, who trained young boxers at a local gym, suggested that the youngster should learn to fight before confronting the thief.
Clay quickly took to the ring, making his competitive debut in 1954 in a three-minute amateur bout.
Clay first shot to fame at the global level by winning the light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics as a supremely talented 18-year-old.
Strangely for a boxer who knocked down fearsome opponents in the ring with such flamboyance, Clay at first refused to travel with the US boxing squad to Rome due to his fear of flying.
Eventually, he bought a second hand parachute and wore it on the flight. It was worth all the effort. On September 5, 1960 he beat Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland to become the Olympic champion.
He received a hero’s welcome when the team returned to New York, but the reality of the segregated US society hit home when he got back to Kentucky and was refused a table in a restaurant. Ali claimed in his 1975 autobiography that it prompted him to throw away his Olympic medal in disgust.
He turned professional soon after with Angelo Dundee — who would contribute so much to his boxing success — as his trainer.
Clay stunned the critics and boxing fans around the globe by defeating the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion at the age of 22.
In the build up to the fight, Clay had taunted Liston and predicted that he will win by knockout. He coined one of his most famous quotes, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” ahead of the fight.
But most boxing fans regarded Clay’s statements as the claims of an overconfident loudmouth and Liston known for his awesome punching power was widely tipped to win by knockout.
During the fight, Clay repeatedly outfoxed Liston with his speed, footwork and reflexes, chipping away at his opponent with powerful jabs. By the sixth round, Liston’s left bicep, which had borne the brunt of Clay’s assault, was swollen, prompting his corner to stop the fight as Clay won by technical knockout.