"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see."
"When you are as great as I am, it is hard to be humble."
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky) is a retired heavyweight boxer famous for combining strength, skill, brilliant tactics, and elegant but incredible braggadocio. He was named "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated in 1999. He took up boxing as a teenager after a police officer and boxing coach advised the 12-year-old Clay to learn how to box before he tried to "whup" the guy who stole his bike. Fighting for several years as an amateur, he won gold at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome at the age of 18; he decided to leverage that medal into a professional career. He fought professionally for 18 years (with a three-year sabbatical when his license was suspended due to draft resistance. The U.S. Supreme Court would overturn his conviction) in 61 bouts, retiring with 56 wins, 37 by way of knockout. Three of his five losses came in the last three years of his career, when he was well past his prime and starting to show early symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Along the way, Ali won three heavyweight titles, defeated every top heavyweight contender from 1964 to 1975, and earned the distinction of being called one of the greatest boxers (if not the greatest) of all time. Although he fought with an orthodox stance, Ali fought with an unorthodox style, relying on his agility to dodge punches, rather than blocking them outright, and possessed incredible hand speed and stamina. Ali was also a hard puncher, as his 37 knockouts can attest. He was also a master of the psychological elements of boxing, frequently taunting his opponents and 'calling' his knockouts (by stating the round he believed the KO would happen before the fight). In the latter half of his career, Ali slowed and began to demonstrate his ability to hang in with tougher punches. Along with an ill-advised fight with a martial artist, misdiagnosis of a thyroid condition, and misguided attempts to fight top heavyweights while far removed from his prime, this contributed to Ali's decline and later Parkinson's disease.
Aside from his achievements in the ring, Ali is a noted philanthropist and social activist. His name change came from his conversion to the Nation of Islam, and he was good friends with Malcolm X (he would convert to orthodox Sunni Islam in 1975, just over ten years after Malcolm X, and would later become a Sufi). Ali was convicted of draft resistance in 1967 due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam (Although in all likelihood, he would have served his time entertaining troops in exhibition matches like Joe Louis did in World War II), and referred to himself as a 'conscientious objector'. His boxing license was suspended, causing his involuntary hiatus for three years before the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction and he was reinstated. Lesser known are his contributions to his hometown of Louisville, which has come to embrace him wholeheartedly.Meaningless aside The other really famous person of the era from Louisville, Hunter S. Thompson, was a very big fan, and got unusually full access to him before one of his early 1970s fights.
Ali still makes periodic appearances in public, but Parkinson's disease has ravaged his body and repeated head trauma has ravaged his mind. He is no longer the eloquent, witty speaker he once was (in fact, he can't speak at all anymore), and is largely restricted to a wheelchair. His most famous relatively recent appearances were the 1996 Olympic Torch lighting and holding the Olympic Flag for the 2012 games.
There have been numerous books, movies, magazine articles, advertisements and video games that have featured Muhammad Ali or depicted him. He was even the star of a Saturday Morning Cartoon in the 1970s, and had his own pinball machine in the 80s. In one of his most famous pop culture appearances, he literally gave Boxing Lessons to Superman! The most prominent work to feature Ali in recent months was an ESPN documentary about the buildup for his fight with Larry Holmes in the twilight of his career.
Above anything else, Muhammad Ali was a fierce competitor, to Determinator levels. In the most iconic photograph of Ali (seen above) he really is shouting at Liston, "Get up and fight, sucker!"
Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: A good part of it was a ploy to unnerve/anger his opponents and make them more likely to make mistakes, but there's no doubt that he was, at least during his career, ridiculously arrogant. Also, just to point it out... he could more than back up his claims. Joe Frazier most likely wouldn't have been able to beat him had he not studied Ali's fighting style and come up with strategies tailor-made for use against Ali. See Smug Super below.
Badass: Understatement of the century. He's considered one of the best boxers of all time, if not the very best. It's telling that of his five losses, he immediately bounced back and beat the fighters who had beaten him, and only Parkinson's kept him from doing so with his last two fights.
Badass Boast: Muhammad Ali was a shameless self-promoter. Nobody really minded his boasting (his tendency to put down his opponents, however...), though, because nobody could really argue, and he's thrown out some great lines:
Muhammad Ali: I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty, and can't possibly be beat!
Ali: I should be a postage stamp: That's the only way I'll ever get licked.
Badass Pacifist: He refused the draft in Vietnam because he had recently converted to the Nation of Islam and found joining in the war to be antithetical to his beliefs.
Ali: Ain't no Viet-cong ever call me "nigger".
Dance Battler: An understated example as, earlier in his career, before he slowed down, he was so quick with his hands and so skilled with his footwork that he often looked like he was just dancing around his opponents. Hell, they don't call it the "Ali Shuffle" for nothing.
On the one hand, whenever the man went up against fighters thought to be invincible, with one exception he took them down. He did this several times in his career, but the most impressive example was his first fight with then-Heavyweight Champ Sonny Liston, who was a monster in the ring, and later George Foreman* Who had defeated both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the only two people who had beaten Ali by this point, in only the first two rounds, whom Ali fought well past his own prime. Ali says it best:
Ali: It is befitting that I leave the game just like I came in: beating a big, bad monster who knocks out everybody, and no-one can whup him.* In this case, we're talking about George Foreman. That's when that little Cassius Clay, from Louisville, Kentucky, came up and stopped Sonny Liston, the man who annihilated Floyd Patterson twice! HE WAS GONNA KILL ME! …but he hit harder than George. His reach was longer than George, he's a better boxer than George, and I'm better now than I was when you saw that 22 year old undeveloped kid, running from Sonny Liston.
On the other hand, Ali was on the receiving end of a downplayed version of this trope in The Fight of the Century: Ali, legendary as he was, had gone more than three years without stepping into the ring, and had only returned less than a year before the fight with Frazier. furthermore, he was past his prime and no longer as fast as he once was. Frazier, on the other hand, was at his peak and, like Ali, had a perfect record of wins, but he was still considered the underdog, if only slightly. He even studied Ali's style so that he could develop strategies to play on Ali's few weaknesses.note The two decisive hits Frazier got on Ali (the hits that got him a win by unanimous decision) were both thanks to his taking advantage of Ali's tendency to drop his right fist before throwing an uppercut Despite Frazier's own flawless Record, the fact that he was the underdog and he had to use strategies tailor made to counter Ali qualifies for this trope.
And then Ali turned this right back around on Frazier. After his first loss to Frazier, he was considered a has-been, and this mentality only became more widespread after Ali lost to Ken Norton, even though he avenged his loss six months later. Frazier, however, had defeated Ali, and his only loss was to George Foreman, a monster in the ring, so everyone thought he would win. While the tactics Ali used were contested by some, he still won by unanimous decision.
The Determinator: The man flat out refused to back down in the ring, and then we have his later career, where he insisted on fighting well past his prime and during the onset of Parkinson's Disease.
The Fighting Narcissist: At one point, when he was asked if he'd ever been in love, his reply was, "Not with anybody else."
Friendly Enemy: A sort of inversion with Joe Frazier. While Ali saw Frazier as a Worthy Opponent during their careers, Frazier disliked Ali. It was not until after both of their careers had long since ended that they reconciled and became friends, with Frazier apparently saying that if Ali needed anything from him, he'd give it.
Genius Bruiser: On top of being quite eloquent for a man who made a living out of punching people and getting punched, he was also quite the tactician in the ring, especially later in his career. For instance, he apparently always knew the best moment to clinch, and one referee even said that it was almost like he was sitting on the sidelines, analyzing his fights as they happened.
The Gift: One of the few boxers to really be far and beyond his peers during the Golden Age of Heavyweights. He was as fast as a welterweight and had enough power to hurt his opponents. But above all was his reflexes, which are still considered some of the best(if not THE best) of any fighter in the history of the sport. He's famous for casually dodging his opponents punches without trying and coming back with lighting fast combinations. At his prime he was undeniably the fastest heavyweight in history.
Guile Hero/Old Master: During many of his fights in the 70s. He still had his reflexes and hand speed, but could no longer dance around opponents all night long. So in addition to relying on his ability to soak up punishment instead of avoiding it for the first time, Ali also had to out think, out plan, and out maneuver opponents that he couldn't simply overwhelm. Tactics, guile, and efficient use of his strengths became as important as any of his physical gifts.
Hypocritical Humor: One time, in the lead-up to his fight with George Foreman, Ali said this:
Ali: I don't like that George Foreman! He talks too much!
Note that, at that time, George was the type who was more likely to give intense glares and terse responses than to shoot off at the mouth. Of course, that was part of the joke.
Jerkass Façade: What with all his arrogance, boasting, and taunting, Ali could come off as a real prick. While it's likely that he really was that arrogant, he's actually a pretty decent guy who always has time for his fans as well, and he's a dedicated philanthropist.
Kick the Dog: In the lead up to his third fight with Frazier, Ali's taunts became more and more personal and were often downright cruel, and many of them crippled Frazier's public image. While this was all to drum up public interest in the fight, Frazier's image was so damaged that he couldn't even make money off of endorsement deals and lived in a small apartment above his old gym. Ali himself regretted the things he said and tried to reach out numerous times, but Frazier continued to be justifiably bitter about the whole affair until a few years before his death. Even then, however, Ali apparently never directly apologized to Frazier, and took a long time to do so publicly.
Large Ham: Very large. Despite being surprisingly eloquent, almost all of his speeches were shouted. The only times his voice really dropped was when he was setting himself up for a climax or a particularly impressive declaration.
Lightning Bruiser: It says a lot about Ali that what people remember the most about a 6'3" Heavyweight fighter is his ridiculous speed. However, he still was a Heavyweight, and it wasn't wise to forget about his devastating hitting power. It was hard to tell, what with how little he actually got hit in most of his earlier fights, but he could take a ridiculous amount of punishment.
Mighty Glacier: He became a mild version of this after he passed his prime. He'd lost his foot speed and the combination of agility and endless stamina needed to dance around an opponent nonstop for 12 or 15 rounds, which forced him into changing tactics and to rely on other attributes. It was here that people really started to see his ridiculous endurance, his respectable power, and his guile in manipulating opponents into traps and making mistakes. And since he still had his hand speed, it was easy for him to punish those mistakes.
The Nicknamer: Many, many opponents would receive (generally derisive) nicknames from Ali before a fight, either based on their fighting style, physical characteristics, or way of handling themselves. For example Sonny Liston was "the big, ugly bear", George Chuvalo was "the washer woman" (because of one particular knockout victory for Chuvalo where his opponent was draped backward over the ropes and Chuvalo continued beating him like that, Ali compared it to watching someone using an old fashioned scrub/washboard) and George Foreman was "the mummy" due to Foreman's deliberate and sometimes clumsy movements. Chuvalo tried to turn it into an Insult Backfire, as when he was trying to get a fight with Ali he showed up at Ali press conferences dressed like a dowdy old lady and asking Ali why he Ali was so afraid of fighting "the washer woman".
He and Joe Frazier had this going. Ali respected Frazier immensely, but like all his opponents, he would regularly and publicly insult Frazier in the lead up to their matches, and these insults, often personal, led Frazier to dislike Ali.
To a lesser extent George Foreman, but all three were rivals to each other. All three were considered prodigiously talented in their own respects (Ali with skill, speed and wit, Foreman had inhuman power and strength, and Frazier was unrelenting, tough, and possessed unlimited stamina and will to win). Their personalities were very different as well: Foreman was very quiet, smoldering and intense, Frazier was quick-tempered and serious, and Ali was charming and very talkative. All three won Gold medals in the Olympics and all three ended each others undefeated streaks (Joe beat Ali, George beat Joe, and Ali beat George), but only Ali beat them both decisively.
Similar events happened with a few other fighters, including Oscar Bonavena and Ali's first fight with Floyd Patterson. The Patterson bout had added salt in the wound because Patterson had been one of Ali's heroes growing up. That fight is generally considered the other true Kick the Dog moment for Ali, and one sportswriter compared seeing the fight to watching a kid tear the wings off a butterfly.
Smug Super: Ali was arrogant almost to the point of being a jerkass, but there's no denying he could easily back up any of his claims.
Ali: There are no pleasures in a fight but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win.
Trash Talk: The undisputed master of this. He was especially notable because this was in the time when most fighters let their managers talk for them. It's unclear how much of this was bravado meant to unnerve his opponents, how much of it was (later in his career) just an integral part of his persona, and how much of it was downright arrogance, but it was definitely at least a bit of all three.
Warrior Poet: In a sense. One of the reasons his Trash Talk was so effective was because he was surprisingly eloquent.
One of the first was George Chuvalo, who he, after their match in 1966, said was the toughest guy he'd ever fought.
The man Ali respected more than any other was Joe Frazier, the first man to defeat him. Though for the most part Frazier disliked Ali for some of the extremely personal insults Ali sent his way, he at least respected his abilities as a boxer, and they apparently reconciled after both their respective careers had ended. Frazier said in 2009 that he no longer had any hard feelings for Ali, and Ali was even invited to Frazier's private funeral.
Ali: Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him. He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.
Ali had much more respect for fighters who mastered the technical side of boxing than those who simply relied on overwhelming physical attributes. As such he often praised those sorts of fighters after a bout and spoke of them with respect, even if they hadn't posed much of a threat to him.
You Fight Like a Cow: One of his tactics was to taunt an opponent (sometimes about their fighting ability, sometimes about something more personal) into getting close before tearing them apart with brutal combos.