The great boxer Muhammad Ali: 7 stories behind the man, Sport News & Top Stories


Muhammad Ali, who died on Saturday, June 4 (Friday night US time) at the age of 74, is considered the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.

He also had a penchant for showmanship and a larger than life personality which carried his reputation far beyond the boxing ring.

The Straits Times relives seven stories about The Greatest.

Muhammad Ali 11 days before his fight for the world heavyweight championship in Kinshasa on October 19, 1974. PHOTO: AFP

1. A bicycle thief started him boxing

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was 12, a bicycle his father had given him was stolen, and the angry boy told a police officer that he wanted to “run over” the bicycle thief.

“You better learn to fight before you start fighting,” the officer’s advice to Ali was.

That policeman was Joe Martin, an amateur boxing trainer who launched Ali’s career.

Muhammad Ali with his mother Odessa Clay during a training session three days before his fight for the world heavyweight championship in Kinshasa on October 27, 1974. PHOTO: AFP

His bike was never found, but Ali probably didn’t mind.

2. Fear of flying

The three-time heavyweight world champion wanted to retire from competing at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 after realizing he would have to go.

Coach Martin was able to convince him and he won the light heavyweight gold medal.

Reports say Ali bought a parachute and carried it throughout the flight.

Muhammad Ali (right) and George Foreman during their fight in Kinshasa, won by Ali, on October 30, 1974. PHOTO: AFP

3. Throw away his gold medal

Ali created an urban myth that he threw his 1960 Olympic gold medal into a river in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story.

The story goes that after winning the gold medal and returning home, he and his brother were kicked out of a restaurant because they were black.

Frustrated at still being treated like a second-class citizen in his own country, he threw away his medal, Ali said.

Muhammad Ali arriving at Paya Lebar Airport with his wife Belinda, his mother and members of his tour group on October 22, 1973. PHOTO: ST FILE

He later admitted that he had simply lost the medal. (He received a replacement medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.)

4. Say my name

Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali in 1964 but many, including the press, refused to use it at the time.

His talent was undisputed, but all of his other actions sparked controversy – converting to Islam, being a strong advocate for civil rights, and refusing to serve when drafted into the Vietnam War.

Boxer Muhammad Ali thanks spectators after finishing a five-round exhibition bout against Tony Doyle at the National Stadium on October 24, 1973. PHOTO: ST FILE

Before a fight between Ali and his opponent Ernie Terrell in 1967, Terrell kept calling Ali “Clay” to piss him off.

It has worked too well. Terrell was brutally beaten as Ali shouted “What’s my name?” At each turn.

5. Rocky inspired

One of his fights, with boxer Chuck Wepner, is said to have inspired Sylvester Stallone to create the acclaimed film, Rocky.

Ali has dabbled in showbiz himself. He recorded a spoken word album in 1963 and starred in a short-lived Broadway musical, “Buck White,” and appeared in movies and television shows. A biopic, Ali, was made about him in 2001.

6. Humanitarian

In 1991, Ali volunteered to travel to Iraq to negotiate the release of American hostages held by dictator Saddam Hussein.

He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and could not speak clearly, but went meeting after meeting, visiting schools and praying in mosques.

After a week, he ran out of drugs for Parkinson’s disease, but refused to return home without securing the release of the hostages.

Saddam eventually met him and freed the 15 Americans detained.

WBC and WIBA super middleweight champion Laila Ali is kissed by her father Muhammad Ali at the MCI Center in Washington on June 11, 2005. PHOTO: REUTERS

7. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Ali was as good at talking about his game as he was at boxing. He declared himself “The Greatest”, a nickname that marked him all his life.

His most famous quote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was spoken in 1964, before he won his first belt from Sonny Liston.

His bragging was well deserved as Ali had a unique style for a boxer of his size. He was quick and danced around his opponents, hitting them from unexpected angles.

His victory over Liston was seen as a huge upheaval at the time, propelling the 22-year-old to worldwide fame. He was then the youngest contender to win the heavyweight title.

This record was later broken by Mike Tyson, who won it at age 20.

SOURCES: New York Times, New York Post, The Guardian,,

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