10 Interesting Facts About Muhammad Ali

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Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali is arguably one of the most significant figures in sports in the 20th century. He fought as a professional heavyweight boxer 61 times and won 56. He also became an icon of the counterculture generation and a figure of pride for the African American community. You may be familiar with some of Ali’s greatest fights, but how much do you really know about his life? In this article, we are going to look at 10 interesting facts that you may not know about the prized American boxer.

1. Ali’s birth name came from a white abolitionist.

Although mostly remembered as Muhammad Ali, the famous boxer wasn’t born with that name. He was originally named after his father, who was named after a prominent southern white abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. Clay had inherited 40 slaves from his father, but he decided to emancipate all, as he was strongly anti-slavery. He would go on to found the Republican Party in Kentucky and work alongside Abraham Lincoln in the struggle towards the abolition of slavery.

2. Ali briefly changed his name to Cassius X.

After beating Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali made public his membership in the Nation of Islam. With Malcolm X by his side, Ali, who was then still named Cassius Clay, announced that he would no longer be called as such, instead, he would now be named Cassius X. The new name only lasted a few months, until 1965 when Elijah Muhammad gave him his holy name and the name by which most know the heavyweight champion: Muhammad Ali.

3. Malcolm X may have been influential in Ali’s victory over Liston.

Malcolm X photographing Muhammad Ali
Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after he became World Heavyweight Champion in 1964.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

It is said that Malcolm X may have been influential in Ali’s victory over Liston in their first bout. Ali, who had become close with Malcolm X, was supposedly led to believe by Malcolm X that he was invincible and that it was prophesied that Ali should win. How great of an impact did it have on Ali’s victory will remain unknown, but together with the already confident and charismatic Ali, Malcolm X’s reassurance may have enough to convince Ali that he in fact was destined to win that night.

4. Ali was dyslexic.

A small yet interesting fact about Ali is that he suffered from dyslexia. One interesting event related to his dyslexia was when Ali, who had previously registered for conscription on his 18th birthday, was reclassified as Class 1-Y instead of 1-A due to sub-standard spelling and writing skills. Ali spoke of the whole incident stating that “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest!”.

5. Ali’s Olympic gold medal was not enough to spare him from racism.

Ali on the Podium at the 1960 olympics
Gold medalist Muhammad Ali on the podium after his win at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1960 Summer Olympics, 18-year-old Ali traveled to Rome representing the United States. He would go on to win the light heavyweight gold medal and return to the United States as a champion. This, however, would not be enough to spare him from racism, as he would be refused service at a Kentucky diner, even by wearing his recently won medal, solely on the fact that he was black. It is said that Ali threw the medal into the Ohio River after quickly becoming frustrated with the whole incident.

6. Ali had some Irish blood.

Ali’s great-grandfather, Abe Grady, was an Irishman that settled in Kentucky in the 1860s. He married a freed slave and eventually had a family. Ali’s mother, Odessa Lee Grady Clay, was Abe Grady’s granddaughter. Ali would travel to Ireland and learn more about his ancestral name and clan, O’Grady.

7. Ali’s draft evasion case went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

A recently converted Muslim, Ali was subject to conscription during the Vietnam War. He declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the war. Ali would be arrested for committing a felony by refusing his induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. He was found guilty and convicted yet he remained free. In 1971, the Supreme Court received his case and decided to overturn his conviction unanimously. The whole issue made Muhammad Ali an icon within the counterculture generation, who sympathized with his anti-war and anti-draft sentiments.

8. Ali starred in a Broadway show.

Ali’s 43-month forced exile from the boxing ring would lead the renowned boxer to have his own adventure within the arts. The Broadway musical, “Buck White”, would see Ali as the title role of a militant black lecturer. It saw a total of seven performances, resulting in a significantly brief stage career for Ali. The reviews noted that Ali had an overall good performance. 

9. Ali recorded a spoken verse album.

Ali was known for his various poetic verses taunting his opponents and praising his own feats. In fact, Ali’s verses were so popular that Columbia Records felt the need to have its own share on the whole deal. In 1963, the label released a spoken word album titled “I Am the Greatest”, featuring Ali’s sole poetic performance with musical accompaniment.

10. Ali’s gloves earned more than he did after the fight with Liston.

The legendary fight between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali made more than just Ali famous, his gloves became iconic too. That night, after Ali’s triumph over Liston, would earn him some $630,000, while 50 years later, the selling of his gloves would go up to $836,000.

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