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June 4, 2016

14 Astonishing Things You May Not Know About Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali aka Cassius Clay, the legendary boxer who proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and was among the most famous and beloved athletes on the planet, died Friday in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 74

On February 25, 1964, the brash 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay stunned the sports world by defeating reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida. The 7-1 underdog, who would become known as Muhammad Ali, fulfilled his promise to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Explore 14 surprising facts about one of the greatest sporting figures of the 20th century.

1. He never turns down an autograph request.

As a young boy, Cassius Clay asked his idol, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson for an autograph. Robinson rudely told the boy "I don't got time." Young Cassius never forgot how hurt he was by Robinson's rejection. To this day, he has never once turned down a request for an autograph. He even has a special P.O. box for anyone who wants his autograph.

Muhammad Ali signing autographs for Volendam girls. 8 March 1976.

2. He used to race the school bus.

As a kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius didn't ride the bus to school like other kids. Instead of riding, Cassius would literally race the bus to school every morning.

Cassius Clay, 20 year old heavyweight contender from Louisville, Kentucky, poses for the camera on May 17, 1962 in Long Island, New York.

3. A stolen bicycle started 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. Six weeks later, Clay won his first bout in a split decision.

A 12 year old Muhammad Ali when he was known as Cassius Clay.

4. He was originally named in honor of a white abolitionist.

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 abolitionist, a second cousin of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, edited an anti-slavery newspaper, commanded troops in the Mexican-American War and served as minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln. In defying Southern conventions of the time, Clay faced more than death threats. He was beaten, stabbed and shot by political opponents but lived to the age of 92.

Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, is seen with his trainer Angelo Dundee at City Parks Gym in New York, Feb. 8, 1962.

5. Before becoming known as Muhammad Ali, he changed his name to Cassius X.

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 a holy name. That name, Muhammad Ali, was bestowed on March 6, 1964.

Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles.

6. Ali was banned from boxing for three years.

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, and he returned to the ring by knocking out Jerry Quarry in October 1970. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in a unanimous decision.

The headlines on The Houston Post in June 21,1967.

7. Ali starred in a Broadway musical.

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. “He does himself proud.”

Buck White poster, 1969.

8. He recorded an album of spoken verse.

The loquacious Ali was boxing’s poet laureate, composing verses in which he taunted opponents and praised himself. His iambic pentameter 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.”

Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke.

9. 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.

Muhammad Ali pictured during training for his fight against Al 'Blue' Lewis in Dublin in 1972.

10. He fought one of his most famous bouts at 4 a.m.

In 1974, a 32-year-old Ali earned a title shot against undefeated 25-year-old champion George Foreman. Seeking to generate positive publicity for his country, Zaire’s dictatorial president Mobutu Sese Seko paid each fighter $5 million to stage the fight in his capital city of Kinshasa. In order for American audiences to watch the fight live in prime time, the bout began in the early morning hours before the sun dawned on Africa. In what was dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali won in an eight-round knockout to regain the heavyweight title that had been stripped from him seven years prior.

Muhammad Ali Vs George Foreman: Rumble in The Jungle, 30 October 1974.

11. He only wore Elvis' robe once.

Elvis Presley gave Ali a boxing robe as a gift, with the words "The People's Champion" inscribed on the back. Ali wore it to his next fight, but he lost. He never wore the robe to fight again, thinking it was bad luck.

Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley.

12. Ali helped give us Rocky.

In 1975, Ali fought a little-known boxer named Chuck Wepner ("The Bayonne Bleeder"). Ali was a heavy favorite, and he did win, but it took him the full 15 rounds to get the decision. Wepner's courage in going the full distance with the famous world champion inspired a young, unknown writer/actor named Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay for his classic film Rocky. Rocky's opponent in the film, Apollo Creed, was based on Ali.

Muhammad Ali vs. Chuck Wepner: The Cleveland boxing match that inspired Sylvester Stallone's Rocky.

13. His Olympic gold medal may be at bottom of the Ohio River.

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. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, at which he lit the cauldron in the Opening Ceremonies, Ali received a replacement gold medal.

Cassius Clay, second from right, on the medal stand after winning gold in the light-heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

14. The gloves he wore to defeat Liston earned him more money than the victory itself.

In 2014, almost 50 years to the day after Ali captured the heavyweight championship for the first time, an anonymous buyer purchased the gloves he wore to defeat Liston in the seventh-round technical knockout for $836,000. Ali was paid $630,000 for that victory over against Sonny Liston in 1964.

Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston at St. Dominic’s Arena in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965.


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