The Legendary Boxer who Converted to Islam

63 years since the gold medal of the legendary boxer who converted to Islam

Muhammad Ali is probably the greatest boxer in history, but beyond that he has a fascinating life story. He was born named Cassius Kelly and converted to Islam. He fought in court after refusing to be drafted and fell ill with Parkinson's at the age of 42

Muhammad Ali (Shutterstock)

Muhammad Ali is arguably the greatest boxer of all time, but his influence goes far beyond the sport. He shocked the world when he converted to Islam as the world champion. He almost paid in his degrees due to his refusal to enlist in the army, and was one of the most colorful figures in world sports.

Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to a Christian family in Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States on January 17, 1942, and came to boxing by accident. When he was 12 his bike was stolen, Young Cassius went to file a complaint, and the officer at the police station advised him to learn boxing. Cassius took the matter seriously and by the age of 18 participated in 108 battles winning a hundred of them.

At the age of 18, he arrived at the Rome Olympics in 1960, and in his first appearance on the world's biggest stage on September 5, he won the gold medal. After that Olympics, Cassius Kelly became a professional athlete, thus he was banned from participating in the next Olympics. On October 29, the new Olympic champion made his debut as a professional athlete. In the following three years, he participated in 19 fights and won them all.

Muhammad Ali: "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee"

On February 25, 1964, he won the world heavyweight championship for the first time in his career, after defeating boxer Sonny Liston, the champion the previous two times. The victory made him the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the highest title in the world of boxing. He was known for his loose mouth as the famous sentence in his career was: "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee".

Before the fight against Liston, he sang: "Kelly came to meet Liston and Liston starts to back off. If Liston retreats a little more, I'll have to sit by the ring. Kelly throws a left punch, Kelly throws a right punch, look how young Cassius is having a colorful fight here."

Converted to Islam and changed his name: "Cassius Clay is the name of my slave"

In the same year, he followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X, a radical black rights activist whom he defined as his spiritual teacher, and joined the Islamic-political "Nation of Islam" organization. After joining the organization Cassius Clay converted to Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, saying: "Cassius Clay is the name of my slave. I did not choose it and I do not want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name that means 'Dear God' and I insist that people use it when they address me ".

Vietnam War protestors (WikiMedia)

The newly minted Muslim went on to beat them all, retaining his title as world heavyweight champion in 1967. That year, the United States Army was engrossed in the Vietnam War, and Ali refused to enlist because Islam forbids him to do so. Following the refusals, he was sentenced to five years in prison and was fined 10,000 dollars, his boxing license was revoked and he was stripped of the title of world champion.

Muhammad Ali: "It's hard to be humble when you're as big as me"

Ali embarked on a four-year legal battle, at the end of which in 1971 he won a hearing that reached the Supreme Court of the United States. In those years, he lost the gold medal from the Olympics but claimed that he threw it into the river as a protest against the establishment's fight against him, only years later did he admit the truth.

That same year, Ali faced Joe Frazier in what was called the "Fight of the Century" because both were undefeated in their professional careers. Millions watched the fight which was broadcast in fifty countries and 12 languages. Fraser was the one who helped Ali return to boxing when he publicly supported him and even met with senior government officials on his behalf, but Ali only insulted him along the way, and a great rivalry was created.

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in 2002 (Shutterstock)

Ali said of Fraser among other things: "Frasier is so ugly, he should donate his face to the US Department of Wildlife." When about himself he said: "It's hard to be modest when you're huge like me."

Muhammad Ali: "I told you I was the greatest of all time"

After a long fight at the end of which they both ended up in the hospital, Fraser won and handed Ali his first career loss. The victory was also political as Fraser symbolized the American government while Ali was the great anti-establishment who had just finished his fight against the establishment. Two years later Ali got his revenge on Fraser, and a year later in 1974, he regained the title of world champion with a victory over George Foreman. In 1994, a documentary called "When We Were Kings" was released about that battle.

Before the fight against Foreman, he sang: "I will fight crocodiles, I will choke a whale, I imprisoned lightning, I threw thunder into a dungeon, you know I am bad. A week ago I killed a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a big brick, I also make the medicine sick." At the end of the victory, he told the press: I told you, to all my critics, I told you all that I'm the greatest of all time, never underestimate me."

Muhammad Ali and George Foreman together with the creators of the movie "When We Were Kings" (Photo: Shutterstock)

In 1974, he met for a third fight against Freeman, dubbed "the thriller in Manila", and thereafter 14 rounds, two of which Frazier fought blindly, his trainer decided to retire out of fear for his health and Ali won. An exhausted Ali could barely celebrate the big victory and later said it was the hardest fight of his life. He continued to defend his title as the undisputed world champion until 1978, when he lost to Leon Spinks, but regained the title seven months later.

At the age of 42, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's

In 1981 Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, and three years later at the age of only 42, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 1990 he traveled with an American delegation to Iraq, where he took advantage of being a Muslim to visit schools and mosques and managed to free 15 American citizens who were held captive in Iraq.

At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he held the Olympic torch where he moved millions of spectators when he did it with a special effort when his hands were shaking from Parkinson's disease. At the same opening ceremony, he received a gold medal again, instead of the one he lost. In 2012 he was one of the bearers of the Olympic flag.

His daughter Laila Ali followed in his footsteps and became a boxer when she did not lose in any of the 24 fights in which she participated and won the important title of undisputed world champion several times. Besides her, he had two more sons and six daughters, while he was married four times. He died on June 3, 2016, due to septic shock.


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