The bond shared by three-time lineal world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and mum Odessa Clay was so warm that even observers could appreciate the special love they shared. Momma Bird as she was sometimes called was born on February 17, 1917. Given that her parents John Lewis O’Grady and Birdie B. Morehead separated, she was raised by her aunt.
She was born in Hopkins County, Kentucky as one of six children. Her paternal grandfather was a white Irishman named Abe O’Grady who emigrated to the United States from Ennis, County Clare soon after the Civil War and married a daughter of Lewis and Amanda J. “Mandy” Walker of Todd County, Kentucky.
At 16, she met Cassius Marcellus Clay aka “Cash” who was 20. They married in the 1930s and moved into their own home in Louisville Kentucky, going on to have two sons Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. who became Muhammad Ali and Rudolph Valentino Clay who became Rahman Ali. They were birthed January 17, 1942 and July 18, 1944 respectively.
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Odessa worked sometimes as a domestic to help support her children. She was a big influence on their lives.
Of his mother, Ali who took the heavyweight title in 1964, 1974 and 1978 noted: “And my mother, I’ll tell you what I’ve told people for a long time. She’s a sweet, fat, wonderful woman, who loves to cook, eat, make clothes, and be with family. She doesn’t drink, smoke, meddle in other people’s business, or bother anyone, and there’s no one who’s been better to me my whole life.”
Odessa Clay supported and inspired her son throughout his boxing career. At small gyms early in her son’s career and later at international arenas when he became world-famous, she traveled with him and was a ring-side regular at his bouts. Muhammad Ali was much closer to his mother, whom he lovingly called “Momma Bird” than to his father. After discovering boxing, it was his mother with whom he shared his dreams of greatness.
Odessa Clay died of heart failure on August 20, 1994 aged 77 at Hurstbourne Health Center, a nursing home in the Louisville, Kentucky area. She had been disabled by a stroke since February 1994. Her body was buried in a grave alongside her husband in Green Meadows Memorial Cemetery, in Louisville.
Clay appeared as herself in the documentaries; Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story (1996) and When We Were Kings (1996). In the 1977 film The Greatest, Clay was portrayed by Dorothy Meyer and in the 2001 film Ali she was portrayed by Candy Ann Brown.