There will be other great fighters, but none could ever be The Greatest. That appellation is reserved squarely for one man: Muhammad Ali.
On a pure talent level, boxing historians can debate whether it was Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis or any other legend who was the best to ever set foot inside a ring. But for everything he did outside the game—outside sports entirely—no other fighter can stand with Ali.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He came to boxing, the story goes, at age 12 when his bicycle was stolen. He reported the theft to a local cop, Joe Martin, and swore he’d beat up the culprit. Martin, a boxing trainer, told Clay that first he should learn how to fight.
By 1960, Clay was a gold medal winner at the Olympic Games in Rome at 178 pounds, and he turned pro later that year.
As he climbed the heavyweight ranks, Clay earned the nickname “The Louisville Lip” for his taunting, chatterbox style. But it wasn’t until his 1961 fight with Duke Sabedong that Clay learned the motormouth arts from an unlikely master.
Clay was scheduled to do a radio interview at the same Las Vegas station where Gorgeous George was on air to promote a wrestling card. The grappler’s flamboyant boasts floored Clay, and George left Clay with a piece of advice, according to a 1998 profile in The New Yorker: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”
By 1964, Ali was ready to back up the boasts with a chance at the champ. Sonny Liston was a hulking brute. Everyone thought he was going to destroy Clay, a 7-to-1 underdog, but then something funny happened. Clay survived Liston’s early assault, then opened a cut on the champ. By the sixth, Clay asserted himself. By the seventh, Liston quit. Clay was the champion.
Two days later, Clay, having become involved wiht the Nation of Islam, would change his name to Muhammad Ali.
After three years of beating all comers, including a rematch with Liston and a win over former champ Floyd Patterson, Ali was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He refused, claiming conscientious objector status on religious grounds. He was arrested and suspended from boxing.
The case would drag on for four years and go to the Supreme Court before being overturned. By then, Ali’s legend was cemented. He transformed from a supremely talented, polarizing fighter into a champion of social justice. His stance on the war led Martin Luther King Jr. to call for young men to declare themselves conscientious objectors as well, saying “No matter what you think of Mr. Muhammad Ali’s religion, you have to admire his courage.”
Ali was reinstated to the sport in 1970 and won two fights in quick succession over Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena to set up the first of his three epic clashes with Joe Frazier.
“The Fight of the Century” would have lived up to its lofty billing if it weren’t for the sequel to come later. Frazier, who had become the champion in Ali’s absence, handed Ali his first defeat after 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden.
They would meet again in 1974, when Ali took the highly-anticipated rematch. He would reclaim his titles in an eighth-round knockout of George Foreman later that year during the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
It was all building to the fight of Ali’s career, of Frazier’s career—of all time: The 1975 “Thrilla in Manila.”
Ali spent the weeks leading up to the fight hurling abuse at Frazier, and it drove Frazier into a fury. The fight that followed was a miasma of oppressive heat, withering animosity and punishing physical abuse on both sides.
Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, was forced to stop the fight after the 14th round, when swelling had rendered Frazier practically blind. Ali, in his corner, had been ready to cut the gloves off, but was denied by his team. Ali said it was the closest he’s ever come to death. They may have been fighting for the world championship, but as Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger said, “They were fighting for the championship of each other.”
Ali continued to reign through the ’70s, defending his championship until the age of 36 when a young Leon Spinks upended the champ. Ali immediately struck back in the rematch, but lost the title for good in his second-to-last fight, against Larry Holmes in 1980.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. Despite that, he’s still had public triumphs since then, including carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 and being named an honorary flag bearer for the 2012 London Games.