January 17th marks the 71st birthday of arguably the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started boxing at the age of 12.
From the very beginning, Ali took his boxing training very seriously. Within weeks of taking up the sport, he was winning local boxing championships. His discipline and talent soon led to more and more victories, helping him advance through the national amateur ranks. As an amateur, he won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves titles and the Olympic gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, when he was only 18 years old.
Having won the Olympic gold medal, he reached the top position in amateur boxing and decided to turn professional.
On February 3, 1963, Muhammad Ali appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. At this point, Ali had not won a heavyweight title yet, but was still a very well respected boxer. That night, Ali, then Cassius Clay, joked around with Ed about his upcoming bout with Doug Jones before showing off a magic trick. When asked how many rounds it would take for Ali to knock Ed Sullivan out, Ali responded “Well Ed, if you run I will have to cut it to one!”
On February 1964, a year after Muhammad Ali’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan, he fought the then heavyweight champion Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, which he won. This became Ali’s first heavyweight world championship title. The day after the championship bout with Liston, Muhammad Ali publicly announced his conversion to Islam. At this point he was still known as Cassius Clay, but soon changed his name.
In the next few years after the Liston fight, Ali won every bout and became one of the most popular athletes of the 1960’s. In 1967, after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, he was banned from boxing, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison (although he remained free on bail).
While barred from boxing, Muhammad Ali gave lectures in colleges across the country and even starred in a Broadway musical to additional income.
On January 18th 1970, Ali returned to The Ed Sullivan Show. This time not to talk about his boxing career, but to perform a scene of the Broadway musical in which he starred, “Big Time Buck White.” Ali and the cast of the musical performed the number “We Came In Chains” in colorful outfits and afro hairdos.
Later that year, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction and he returned triumphantly to boxing.
Even though he lost his title to Joe Frazier in 1971, he eventually won back the title in 1974 to George Foreman, and after losing it once again in 1978 he regained it later that year to Leon Spinks. Ali became and to this day is the only boxer to ever win three heavyweight titles.
In 1984, Ali was sadly diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. After being diagnosed, he remained out of the public light until 1996 when he was invited to light the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
As a boxer, Muhammad Ali brought unprecedented speed and grace to his sport. His charm and wit forever changed the image of what the public expected a champion to be. His accomplishments in the ring were legendary, but there is far more to Muhammad than what took place in a boxing ring. He is a humanitarian, philanthropist and social activist, who has worked tirelessly helping charities around the world. In 2001, Muhammad Ali’s life was brought to the big screen in a motion picture starring Will Smith. All in all Muhammad Ali nicknamed as “The Greatest” remains a hero and an icon of the 20th century.
For more about other Sports Stars on The Ed Sullivan Show take a look at this blog post.