‘The Greatest’ Ali passed away at 74.
Ali suffered for years from Parkinson’s disease, which ravaged his body but could never dim his larger-than-life presence. He was hospitalized earlier this week.
The boxer not only inspired a generation of sports persons but people all over the world and is hailed as one of the most inspirational and iconic game changers – right up there with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.
Although having lived all his life in the limelight, revered by millions, there are still some lesser known facts about the icon. Here are a few that might surprise you:
A red-and-white Schwinn bicycle launched his boxing career
When the 12-year-old Clay’s beloved bicycle was stolen in October 1954, he reported the theft to Louisville, Kentucky, police officer Joe Martin and vowed to pummel the culprit. Martin, who was also a boxing trainer, suggested that the upset youngster first learn how to fight, and he took Clay under his wing.
Named in honor of an anti-slavery crusader
The fighter, like his father, was named for Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th-century farmer and anti-slavery crusader who emancipated the 40 slaves he inherited from his father.
The morning after defeating Liston, the new heavyweight champion confirmed reports that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. With Malcolm X at his side, the champ told reporters that he had renounced his surname, which he called his “slave name,” and would be known as “Cassius X” until Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad gave him another name. That name, Muhammad Ali, was bestowed on March 6, 1964.
Ali was banned?
As the Vietnam War raged in 1967, Ali refused to serve in the U.S. military for religious reasons. The heavyweight champion was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title.
Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and fined $10,000, although he remained free while the conviction was appealed. In 1970 the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated.
During his 43-month forced exile from the ring, Ali took to the stage in the title role of the musical “Buck White.” The production opened inside New York’s George Abbott Theatre on December 2, 1969, but Ali’s stage career would be a brief one. “Buck White” closed four nights later after just seven performances. In spite of the limited run, Ali, who played a militant black lecturer, received decent reviews.
“He sings with a pleasant slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity,” wrote a New York Times reviewer.
‘Greatest but not smartest’
The US Army measured Ali’s IQ at 78. In his autobiography he said, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
Ali the singer?
Ali was boxing’s poet laureate, composing verses in which he taunted opponents and praised himself. His rhymes were was so popular that Columbia Records released a 1963 spoken word album called “I Am the Greatest” in which the 21-year-old rising star performed his poetry, backed my musical accompaniment, before an audience. The album also included two songs by the boxer, including a cover of the Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me.”
Ali has Irish roots
Perhaps not surprising given Ali’s gift of gab, but his great-grandfather Abe Grady was an Irishman who emigrated to the United States and settled in Kentucky in the 1860s. There he married a freed slave, and one of their grandchildren was Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady Clay. In 2009, Ali visited his great-grandfather’s ancestral hometown of Ennis, Ireland, and met fellow members of the O’Grady clan.
His Olympic gold medal may be submerged on a river bottom
After graduating high school, the 18-year-old fighter traveled to Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. Ali wrote in his 1975 autobiography that after returning to Louisville, he threw his gold medal off a bridge and into the Ohio River to protest the racism that he still encountered in his hometown. The account has been disputed, however, and it is believed that Ali lost the medal instead.