Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay Jr. in Louisville, KY in 1942, was a brash, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who backed up his claims of "the greatest" in and out of the ring over a uniquely influential life that was as controversial and colorful as it was admired.
As a 12-year-old, Clay became interested in boxing when someone stole his new bicycle and he wanted to whup whoever stole it. He proved to be a natural in the ring and won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves titles and the Olympic gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome games. He turned pro at age 18 and by 22 defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship. Three months later the "Louisville Lip," as the press called him, knocked Liston out in the first round during their much ballyhooed rematch. Soon afterwards, Clay declared his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Over the next 20 months, Ali defended his heavyweight title eight times and established himself as one of the most exciting, flamboyant, and outspoken boxers of all time.
But when Ali refused to enter the Vietnam War draft he was stripped out his boxing titles and faced a five-year prison sentence. He won on appeal but spent over three years out of the ring. His comeback began in 1970 with a victory over Jerry Quarry in Atlanta and then Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden. In The Fight of the Century, in 1971, he battled undefeated champion Joe Frazier and lost. But, a few months later, Ali won his biggest fight. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction and upheld his conscientious objector claim.
Ali went on to win the heavyweight title two more times, first from the hard-punching George Foreman in 1974's Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, in which Ali employed his "rope-a-dope" strategy by resting on the ring's ropes and allowing Foreman to punch himself out. In 1978, Ali lost and then regained his title in fights with Leon Spinks. His greatest match, however, was 1975's Thrilla in Manila, in which he defeated Smokin' Joe Frazier in 14 rounds. Over the course of a 21-year boxing career, Ali won 56 fights and lost five.
In 1977, Ali starred as himself in a big-screen version of his autobiography The Greatest, and took a rare acting role again in 1979 in Freedom Road, appearing alongside Kris Kristofferson, as a former slave who gets elected to the Senate.
Ali retired from boxing in 1981, a few months after losing on points to Trevor Berbick. In 1984, he announced he had Parkinson's disease and created the Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center in Phoenix, Arizona. But Ali didn't allow his poor health to stop him from his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts. He fought to end Third World debt and in 1999 went to Afghanistan on a goodwill mission. He memorably lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. At the ceremony, President George W. Bush called him the greatest boxer of all time. Ali died in 2016, at age 74.