Muhammad Ali, born January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, had an amazing boxing career, winning the World Heavyweight Title three times. Throughout his boxing career, Ali won a total of 56 fights and lost 5, with 37 of those wins being knockouts.
Outside the ring, the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest” was also a staunch civil rights activist as well as a philanthropist. And though he may be gone, he is still remembered and revered for being a man of very strong principles.
To celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of one of the greatest athletes of all time, Face2Face Africa shares with you nine surprising facts about the boxing legend:
He was named after a White abolitionist
Ali was named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, the 19th-century Kentucky politician who vehemently disagreed with slavery. Born in 1810 to a wealthy southern family that owned slaves, Clay had the best upbringing American money could buy. His family was influential in the state’s politics too. For his opposition to slavery, Clay was beaten for his seat in the House of Representatives. His life was also threatened for quite a while, so much so that he had to carry two pistols and a knife every time.
When Clay freed the slaves who had been bequeathed to him in an inheritance, the death threats against his life got worse. But they did not stop him. He established a newspaper in Kentucky, The True American, and continued to publish anti-slavery opinions and rhetoric.
Before becoming known as Muhammad Ali, he changed his name to Cassius X
On the day newly crowned 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world Ali announced that he had rejected Cassius Clay as his “slave name”, Malcolm X, who had recruited him into the Nation of Islam, was beside him. The boxer told reporters that he had renounced his surname and would be known as “Cassius X”. This was until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad gave him a holy name — Muhammad Ali — in March 1964.
His career started after a missing bicycle
Ali was 12 years old when he met Joe Martin, a police officer in Louisville in October 1954. He had gone to report that his bicycle was stolen. The future boxer told police officer Martin that he would beat the culprit when he or she is found. Martin, also a boxing trainer, told an angry Ali that he must first learn how to fight. The police officer became Ali’s boxing teacher and about six weeks later, Ali won his first bout in a split decision.
He got more money from the gloves he used to defeat Liston than the fight itself
On February 25, 1964, Ali shocked many when he defeated the world heavyweight boxing champ, Sonny Liston, in a seventh-round technical knockout. History says an anonymous buyer purchased the gloves he wore to defeat Liston for $836,000. Meanwhile, Ali only got $630,000 for winning the fight.
He starred in a Broadway musical and recorded an album
While Ali was banned from the boxing world after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War due to religious reasons, he starred in a Broadway musical that ran for one week. “Buck White”, which opened inside New York’s George Abbott Theatre on December 2, 1969, saw Ali playing a Black militant addressing a Black power political group.
Earlier, Columbia Records had released a 1963 spoken word album called “I Am the Greatest” in which Ali, then 21, performed poetry alongside music in front of an audience. The album also contained two songs by Ali, including a cover of “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King.
Ali was married four times and had Irish roots
Ali was married four times and had nine children. He married his first wife, Sonji Roi, in 1964 but they divorced after one year when she refused to adopt the Nation of Islam’s customs. Ali married again in 1967 to Belinda Boyd, and they had four children together. Boyd and Ali divorced in 1976. Veronica Porche became his third wife in 1977 and they had two children. Ali married his fourth wife Yolanda (“Lonnie”) in 1986. They remained married until Ali’s death and had a son together.
Ali’s great-grandfather Abe Grady was an Irishman. He emigrated to the United States, settled in Kentucky in the 1860s and married a freed slave. One of their grandchildren was Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady Clay. Ali before his death visited his great-grandfather’s ancestral hometown of Ennis, Ireland, where he met his Irish family.
Ali stopped a man from jumping to his death
When on Monday, January 19, 1981, police officers, a psychologist and a chaplain failed in their bid to dissuade a man from jumping to his death, Ali saved the day. On the day, a young Black man in flared jeans and a hoodie was perched on a ledge on the ninth floor of a high-rise structure threatening to jump to his death. Ali’s friend, Howard Bingham, who upon seeing that all hope was nearly lost, called Ali. The boxer arrived at the scene, spoke with the suicidal man for about 20 minutes, and was able to persuade him to climb down.
The two walked out of the building together, got in Ali’s car and drove to the police station before Ali accompanied him to a Veterans Administration Hospital. When the man asked, “Why do you worry about me? I’m a nobody,” Ali in a later interview with the Reading Eagle, said, “I told him he wasn’t a nobody. He saw me weeping and he couldn’t believe I was really doing that, that I cared that much about him”.
He was jailed and served food to death-row inmates
In 1967, Ali was given a 10-day jail sentence for trumped-up driving offenses in Florida. The heavyweight champ was assigned to the prison cafe and asked to take food to people on death row. One of the death-row inmates recognized him. “Well, I’ll be goddamned! They got the world heavyweight champion serving me dinner. The world must be coming to an end,” Ali later wrote. Other death row prisoners began to call out: “Hey, Champ! Come this way, Champ!”
He wore a parachute on a plane because he was scared of flying
Ali had an extreme fear of flying. His fear developed after he experienced turbulence in the middle of a one-hour flight from Louisville to Chicago. It was so bad that “some of the seats were torn from their bolts on the floor,” Ali wrote. But his career in boxing meant he had to fly so he bought a parachute.
“He went to an army supply store and bought a parachute and actually wore it on the plane,” Joe Martin Jr., Martin’s son, said. The boxing great reportedly took the parachute onboard every flight with him.
“I’m not afraid of the fight. I’m afraid of the flight,” the boxer once told reporters about his fear of flying.