How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World

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He was, in the beginning, the end of the way of the old. Nobody had moved in a ring like Muhammad Ali – a motile bronze sculpture. “I’m something new,” he said. “The game’s alive.” In 1964, when he still had another name, he was suddenly the world heavyweight champion. Then, just as suddenly, as a man with a new and strange name, he turned that prominence into a political stand, as he aligned himself with the most feared black nationalist movement of the time and went on to resist service in the Vietnam War. “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” he told author David Remnick much later. “I had to show that to the world.” But part of the world – in particular, America – wasn’t ready to accept that example. “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” wrote one famous sports reporter, Jimmy Cannon. In 1967 the boxing establishment stripped Ali of all claims to his title, and the U.S. sought to imprison him.

But as Ali himself said, “Things changed. Things changed. And I helped that, too.” In 1996 he appeared at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, as the world’s most universally acknowledged hero, his disrepute long before faded into dust. He had been a 1960 Olympic gold medal winner but claimed he’d discarded the prize in disgust over racism. The story was a parable, but the medal was gone just the same. During a basketball intermission in Atlanta, the president of the International Olympic Committee presented him with a replacement for the lost prize, on a ribbon that draped from his neck. Ali studied the trophy for a moment, smiled, and lifted it to his lips with his right hand – his left hand trembling steadily – and kissed it. He said no words for the occasion. Muhammad Ali no longer spoke in public – he had been too ravaged by the parkinsonism that was a result of his many years in the boxing ring.

Critics, fighters, journalists, and government and boxing authorities had once tried to silence Ali, to avert the changes he was helping bring about. He fought against those efforts, so hard that it contributed to damaging the physical ability that had made him proud and fearsome in the first place. It was a terrible thing to see those effects, but Ali allowed only himself to set his bounds or to undo them. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who once famously tried to shatter those bounds, later came to recognize what impelled Ali. “He found something to fight for,” said Foreman, “other than money and championship belts. And when that person finds something like that, you can’t hardly beat them.”

This is a story of how a young man took fear – personal fear, and dread instilled by the history of his people in America – and transmuted it into something that fear itself should be afraid of. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, the firstborn child of Cassius Clay Sr. and his wife, Odessa. Odessa was light-skinned – she had some white lineage in both her parents’ families, which Ali later attributed to rape, though that wasn’t the case. She was a genial woman who worked as a cook and housecleaner for highborn white families and tried to impress dignity on her children. Some believe Ali probably inherited his good humor from her.

Cassius Clay Sr. had a different heritage and temperament. He was a black man named after a white 19th-century plantation owner who became an ardent abolitionist and freed his slaves. Clay Sr. took pride in this legacy, but he knew as well that life in white America, in the border state of Kentucky, had checked his hopes. He had wanted to be an artist; instead, he was a sign painter. He also harbored no illusions about the realities of race in the American South. Ali recounted his father telling him of the horrible fate of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black from Chicago who was beaten and shot in the head in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 for speaking to a white female cashier at a grocery store. The images of Till’s mutilated corpse stayed in young Ali’s mind. “In one,” he said in his autobiography, The Greatest, “he was laughing and happy. In the other, he was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets.” He later told Gordon Parks, in Life magazine, “I used to lay awake scared, thinking about somebody getting cut up or being lynched.”

Clay Sr. couldn’t rid himself of frustration, suspicion, and resentment. When he brooded, he drank and saw other women. When he came back home, he could be menacing; Odessa called the police more than once. Growing up in tension, fearing a parent’s volatility, can leave a young person with painful but shrewd premonitions about possible danger and with acute impulses to protection. It can also leave him wanting to build shelter in some other part of his life.

In October 1954, when Clay was 12, he was upset to discover that his gleaming new bicycle had been stolen. He sought a policeman, who was coaching boxing at a nearby gym, and told the officer he wanted to beat up the thief. The policeman, an older white man, Joe Martin, told Clay he had better learn how to fight first. In a picture from that period, the young, slight-looking Cassius Clay wears an expression that is nervous and unwavering at the same time. He won his first bout and informed his family he would be champion. Clay Sr. wasn’t happy that his son was receiving the benefit of a white tutor; he saw himself as the force that formed his son. When Cassius later told his father, “I made myself,” the statement almost led to blows. Cassius spent less time at home and more in the gym: a place where his dread could be transformed. “He’d build himself up into a regular frenzy,” Joe Martin told author Mark Kram, “letting that fear out by tormenting his opponent.”‘

After fighting 108 bouts by age 18 (winning 100 of them) and garnering two national Golden Gloves championships, Clay boxed for the 1960 U.S. Olympics team in Rome and returned home with a gold medal. He later wrote in The Greatest that he threw the award into the Ohio River after realizing that some restaurants still refused him, as a black person, service in Louisville. Though he indeed encountered racism at home (“On my side of the veil everything was black….” he’s said. “I knew that there were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas”), he never truly disposed of his gold medal; he simply forgot where he put it. But the story exemplifies his gift for inventing his own mythology and connecting it to bigger matters.

Race notwithstanding, many in Clay’s hometown recognized his potential. In 1960 a consortium of all-white local businessmen formed to sponsor the young boxer and protect him from the corrupt influences in professional fighting. In December of that year, the group sent Clay to Miami to work with Angelo Dundee – one of boxing’s most respected trainers. “Angelo understood immediately,” said Ali biographer Thomas Hauser in PBS’s Made in Miami, “that Cassius did things all wrong from a technical point of view, but he could get away with them because of his speed and his reflexes.” One of Clay’s most egregious traits was holding his arms low, which could leave him without guard against fast-arriving blows. Also, whereas many fighters slipped – that is, dodged – punches by ducking or quickly moving their head to the side, Clay often pedaled rearward rapidly, pulling his neck back at an acute angle, his eyes fixed on the incoming missile, measuring the evasion to within an inch or less. It was a move that could leave a boxer off-balance or place him out of range for launching counterattacks, but Clay compensated with an unusually long reach. Ring commentators sometimes anticipated that this technique would land him flat – though those occasions were rare to the point of proving historic. Whatever his anomalies, Clay knew how to get a jab in and how to make it sting. “He flicked it,” said Ferdie Pacheco, who met Ali in Miami and served as his doctor for many years. “He called it snake-licking.” This, too, was a hallmark of Clay’s style; he aimed almost exclusively at a fighter’s head, not at his body. Clay himself, though, did not like being hit in the face. “Your face and teeth is all your life,” he told the New York Times’s Robert Lipsyte.

Clay’s manner became hard for other fighters to cope with. In early 1961, Swedish fighter and former world champion Ingemar Johansson spent a few minutes sparring with Clay at Dundee’s gym. “Come on, what’s the matter,” Ali taunted him. “Can’t hit me?” Johansson told Dundee, “Get him the fuck away from here, and never, ever put him back in here again. I can’t touch him. Nobody is going to touch the guy!” Clay’s treatment of Johansson foretold what became, in varying ways, his most notable quality: He wouldn’t pay deference to conventions or to boxing’s popular heroes and ranking candidates. Instead, he goaded and bewildered them. He learned this tactic after witnessing wrestler Gorgeous George’s outrageous character in Las Vegas in the summer of 1962. Gorgeous George was flamboyant: He would strut into a wrestling ring wearing beautifully coiffed waves of blond hair and then genuflect derisively to the heckling crowd. “And all the time,” Ali told biographer Thomas Hauser, “I was saying to myself, ‘Man I want to see this fight. It don’t matter if he wins or loses.'”

But whereas Gorgeous George was a jester villain, Clay was a serious aspirant – plus he was a young black man. Black athletes were expected to act respectfully toward competitors – especially white ones – and never to display arrogance or to boast in triumph. That had been the case after the notorious Jack Johnson, in the early 1900s, used to diminish other fighters – including white champion Tommy Burns – so effectively he could conduct casual ringside conversations in the process. After Johnson, no black was allowed to compete for the title until Joe Louis won it in 1937. But Louis had to abide by a code of humility, and that system had been held in place ever since. Now, in the early 1960s, Cassius Clay ridiculed rivals and trumpeted his abilities before an increasingly skeptical press. “To beat me,” he declared, “you have to be greater than great.” He said this with
exaggerated and humorous swagger, but the self-praise deeply annoyed many. When Clay upped the ante by beginning to predict – with uncanny accuracy – the round in which he would defeat an adversary, the seeming arrogance of it drew even more disdain. Joe Louis cautioned him, “Boy! You better not believe half the things you say about yourself.” The guidance didn’t deter Clay. “By the end of 1963,” he said, “I will be the youngest champion in history.”

Clay’s braggadocio stirred an excitement that hadn’t been seen for any boxer in years. Those who watched him develop as a professional in Miami and saw him defeat 18 competitors in the period from late 1960 to summer 1963 – losing to nobody – received him as the anointed hope. “Everybody thought that this is our guy,” Ferdie Pacheco later said. “This guy’s going to be the guy.” By late 1963, Clay was headed for a title match with the man he called “the big ugly bear”: heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, the most forbidding man in boxing history, and the most disreputable. Liston had a criminal past – he’d learned to box in prison – and even though he held the title belt, rumors tied him to the organized-crime element in boxing. It was a terrible image: For generations, the heavyweight champion had signified larger issues of national character, but Liston, as Joe Flaherty put it in the Village Voice, was “a blatant mother in a fucker’s game.”

Cassius pursued Liston hard for a title shot, sometimes in foolhardy ways. On one occasion he followed Liston into a Las Vegas casino where the champion was losing at dice. Promoter Harold Conrad, who was present, said Clay kept making fun of Liston’s bad luck. “So Liston throws the dice down,” Conrad told Ali’s biographer Hauser, “walks over to Clay, and says, ‘Listen, you nigger faggot. If you don’t get out of here in 10 seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.'” When Sonny arrived in Miami in early 1964, set to fight Clay on February 25, the challenger met him at the airport and followed him into the city. Liston pulled his car over and said, “I’ll punch you in the mouth. This has gone too far!” Clay still followed. “Get your last look,” he told the crowd outside Liston’s gym. “I’m the real champ.”

Behind his bravado, though, Clay harbored doubts about being able to overcome Liston. “He can hit a guy in the elbows and just about break his arm,” he said. However, the young challenger also had a secret source of inspiration. In fact, Cassius Clay had a hidden life that was about to become notorious.

By early 1964, Cassius Clay was just starting to address the dilemma of race in America, though he’d been developing strong views on the subject. Whereas most civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King Jr., notably – counseled nonviolence to black Americans, Clay didn’t subscribe to those ideals. “I’m a fighter,” he told the New York Post’s Pete Hamill. “I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business…. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.”

Clay had been studying the doctrines of the Nation of Islam, more popularly (and disparagingly) known at the time as the Black Muslims. He responded to the organization’s declaration that American blacks needn’t seek assent for civil rights – rather they should be proud of their racial identity and govern their own ends. The public face of the movement was Malcolm X, who since 1954 had served as chief minister at the Nation’s Harlem mosque and as a right-hand man to the organization’s leader, the soft-voiced but steel-minded Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm spurned the goals of American civil rights campaigners as too conciliatory. In the last year of his life, he famously said, “We declare our right on this Earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this Earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” Many politicians, journalists, law-enforcement members, and even other black leaders regarded Malcolm X as the most dangerous voice in America. That voice, though, had an appeal for a young man who used to lie awake at night fearing the nightmare fate that had befallen Emmett Till.

Malcolm hadn’t heard of Cassius Clay when they first met in 1962. The Nation viewed boxing as a practice that exploited young black men. But he was taken by Clay’s authentic enthusiasm and saw in him a popular figure who might advance the Nation of Islam’s appeal for other young black Americans. It was Malcolm X, more than anybody, who addressed Clay’s uncertainty. “This fight is the truth,” Malcolm told him in Miami before the match. “It’s the Cross and the Crescent fighting in a prize ring – for the first time…. Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?” Clay had tried to keep his new alliance secret, but in early February, Cassius Clay Sr. told a Miami Herald reporter that “Cassius had become a Muslim; that they’d brainwashed him to hate white people, and as soon as the fight was over, he was going to change his name.” Under pressure from the fight’s promoters – who threatened to cancel the bout – Malcolm X left Miami, though he returned the day of the match and sat ringside with R&B singer Sam Cooke and his manager, Allen Klein.

Clay had started to signify something unsettling, even threatening, in the American moment. As a result Sonny Liston found himself, for the first time, with a mandate from boxing pundits: to put the loudmouth upstart in his place. It wouldn’t be a pretty business. The champion had a crushing left punch: “It’s gonna go so far down [Clay’s] throat,” said Liston, “it’ll take a week for me to pull it out again.” Malcolm X, though, had rekindled Clay’s faith in himself. The morning of the match, Cassius crashed into the weigh-in ceremony, yelling, “You ain’t got a chance…. You whupped!” One reporter said the fight should be called off, that Clay was hysterical and was endangering himself.

Cassius Clay was 22 the night of his first fight with Sonny Liston. The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg, listening to the radio on his way to Miami’s Convention Hall, heard: “[Clay] has been seen at the airport, and he’s bought a ticket to go to South America.” He heard another report that Florida’s governor wanted the fight called off “because he doesn’t want blood on his hands.” Seated later in the ringside press section, Izenberg heard similar speculation, and then looked over his shoulder and spotted Clay. “There he is,” he said, “standing in the aisle, wearing his shirt, trousers, hasn’t changed. He’s as cool as a cucumber. And I say to myself, ‘Hey, we have all gone for something here.’ But he still can’t win this fight.” New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, also in the press section, had been instructed by his newspaper to map the shortest route to the hospital. “I understood perfectly,” he said, “that I’d never see Cassius Clay again.”

When the fighters met at ring center, though, perceptions changed. “This is the first time we had really seen them,” said Lipsyte. “There was a collective gasp: Cassius Clay was much bigger.” Once the bell rang, the challenger moved immediately into his opponent, hitting with blindingly fast and precise jabs, and he circled constantly – making himself a shifting target. Liston threw hard but desperate swings, sometimes off-target by a foot or more; Clay’s recoil reflexes were better than fight fans had witnessed before. Plus, though it had often been noted that Ali’s spry and strong legs were his best tool in the ring, he had tremendous strength, using his shoulders to push the full reach and momentum of his fists. Near the round’s end, Clay let loose with a volley of punches that landed from unpredictable angles. Liston was stunned. Commenting after the round at ringside, former champion Joe Louis said, “I think this is one of the greatest rounds of any fight we’ve seen in a long time…. Clay completely outclassed Sonny Liston in this round.”

In the second round, Clay caught Liston with a sharp uppercut to the right cheekbone, drawing blood. “Starting in the third round,” Ali later said, “I saw his expression, how shook he was that we were still out there, and he was the one cut and bleeding…. I saw his face up close when he wiped his glove at that cut and saw the blood.” Between the third and fourth rounds, Liston reportedly took a dishonorable course. In King of the World, author and New Yorker editor David Remnick relates the tale that Liston instructed one of his cornermen to “juice his gloves” – that is, apply a strong liniment or coagulant that, if it made contact with the eyes, would burn and temporarily blind. It worked: Clay left the fourth round blinking wildly, his eyes hurting intensely. He wanted to stop the fight – “He was telling us to cut the gloves off,” said Ferdie Pacheco. Angelo Dundee had to hold him back from complaining to the referee about Liston’s dirty fighting. He knew that if the bout was stopped, it might be impossible for Clay to get another chance at the title. The trainer instead washed out the young challenger’s eyes and stood him up for the next round. At that crucial moment of Muhammad Ali’s career, Dundee pushed him forward, saying: “Big daddy, get in there; this is your night.”

In the fifth round, Liston caught Clay and pounded his torso ­savagely – “snorting like a horse,” said Ali – but the challenger could absorb the worst of it. In the sixth, Clay worsened the cut he’d opened earlier under Liston’s eye. “Sonny’s face was a mess,” reporter Robert Lipsyte said, “and he couldn’t do a thing to stop this terrible thing that was happening to him.” At the round’s end, a disheartened Liston told his trainers, “That’s it,” and spat out his mouthpiece. The fight was over: Cassius Clay was the new world heavyweight champion. He pushed through the crowd that swarmed him to the ringside where reporters sat, looking shocked. “Eat your words,” he told them. “I told you and you and you. I’m king of the world. You must all bow to me!” Moments later he asserted: “I shook up the world!” The press hated him for it. Two days after the event, the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Clay was “shrilling to the world in tones that seemed to echo a thousand little Hitlers through all the ages of man.”

In defeating Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay had – in the words of baseball’s Jackie Robinson – “outsmarted a scary man.” But he had also upset a proud press, most of whom regarded his victory as both an anomaly and an affront. Among those who most resented the new champion was Jimmy Cannon – probably the most influential sportswriter since World War II – who wrote scathingly: “Clay is part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear…and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from dad every first of the month.” Despite his disdain, Cannon had one thing right: Major changes were under way. Earlier that same month, February 1964, the Beatles had appeared for the first time before an American audience, on Ed Sullivan’s variety TV show. Several days later, while visiting Miami for another Sullivan broadcast, promoter Harold Conrad arranged for the band to visit Clay’s gymnasium – though against the advice of John Lennon. “The other guy’s going to win,” he said. (Sonny Liston, sitting in the audience at the Beatles’ Miami show, said to Conrad, “Are these motherfuckers what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose.”) Clay and the Beatles got along well, joking, mugging, reveling in the joy of their irreverent ascendancy. Pictures of that meeting, by British photographer Harry Benson, capture an early moment of a new history and its new luminaries. But there was so much more to come: In the years ahead, that joy would be supplanted by anger, hurt, recrimination, and cultural and political upheaval.

When Clay met reporters the day after he won the championship, he came off as a different man – more subdued, sober-tempered. “My mouth has overshadowed my ability,” he said. One reporter asked, “Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?” Clay responded, “Card-carrying – what does that mean?…I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be.” It was a pivotal statement. “When I first heard that on television…,” said boxing historian Gerald Early, “it was like an electric current went through me. I never heard a black man say anything like that, least of all an athlete.” The new champion went on to declare that his name was no longer Clay; black American surnames were often inherited from the family names of white slaveholders. “I will be known as Cassius X.” He was the shock of the new black, rejecting the authority of what was sacred in America. Cannon wrote that Clay was using boxing as “an instrument of mass hate…as a weapon of wickedness.”

The world heavyweight champion’s allegiance to the Nation of Islam disturbed many. Clay’s father, for one, resented it deeply and claimed that the organization was taking a share of his son’s money. (The Nation denied this, but Herbert Muhammad, the son of leader Elijah Muhammad, soon became Cassius’s manager, charging as much as 40 percent of his income for services.) One night, a drunken Clay Sr. showed up at Cassius’s training site with a knife, threatening to “kill all the Black Muslims.” What the father didn’t understand – or perhaps did, deepening his rage – was that his son had found in the Nation of Islam a new kind of family he hadn’t known before. In Malcolm X, in particular, Cassius had discovered a comrade and role model, but it proved to be the most troubling relationship of his life. Cassius knew that tensions had recently emerged between the fiery minister and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had been growing disillusioned and was ready to move on. Others in the Nation, though, pointed to the friendship with Cassius Clay, “a fool fighter,” as irresponsible on Malcolm’s part. Leader Elijah Muhammad had believed there was “no way Clay could win” against Sonny Liston and wanted the Nation to keep a distance from him. Clay would have to choose between Malcolm’s renegade ways and Elijah Muhammad’s rule.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X spoke publicly of his separation from the Nation of Islam. He would start a new action group and hoped to work with other civil rights leaders – such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – with whom he’d earlier been forbidden to work. In response, minister Louis Farrakhan, who had replaced Malcolm with Elijah Muhammad, pronounced that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off.” Days later, Elijah Muhammad openly embraced Cassius and bestowed on him a new name: Muhammad Ali, meaning “beloved of God.” (The New York Times, among others, refused for six years to acknowledge the honorific, still referring to Ali as Cassius Clay.) The young fighter’s proud acceptance of the designation made plain his choice between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. The two former friends spoke only once more, later in the spring of 1964, during a chance encounter outside a hotel in Ghana. Malcolm told Ali, “Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest.” Ali replied, “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.” Then Ali turned his back and walked away. Malcolm looked emptied. “I’ve lost a lot,” he said to his companions. “A lot. Almost too much…. Be kind to him for his sake and mine. He has a place in my heart.” In the months that followed, Ali sought to downplay the former friendship. “No one listens to Malcolm anymore,” he told the press.

Ali and Sonny Liston were scheduled for a rematch in Boston on November 16, 1964, but three days prior to that, the young champion suffered an abdominal hernia, resulting in a five-month delay. On February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X stepped to a podium to speak to an audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, three men brandishing guns approached and shot him to death. Within minutes speculation spread that the Nation of Islam – particularly Louis Farrakhan – had been involved in, or sanctioned, the killing. (Farrakhan said in 2009, on 60 Minutes, “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21 [1965]…and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.”) That same night, Ali’s Chicago South Side apartment caught fire. Some thought the event was an immediate strike against Ali for his rejection of Malcolm. Others, though, including Ali’s young wife, Sonji, suspected that the blaze might be a warning from within the Nation of Islam that the boxer should stay faithful to his new family. In the years that lay ahead, Muhammad Ali would displace Malcolm X as one of America’s most provocative observers of the paradoxes of racial life in America, even taking on similar speech cadences. But at the time, Ali expressed no sympathy for Malcolm X’s death. It wasn’t until 2004, in his book The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey, that Ali would say, “Turning my back on Malcolm X was one of the mistakes I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry.”

The second Sonny Liston match proved even more startling than the first. In part owing to threats of violence and reprisals, Boston refused to reschedule the event; other cities also would not accept the meet. Promoter Harold Conrad finally booked the fight into a small youth center in the northeastern town of Lewiston, Maine.

Odds again heavily favored Liston. “Nobody was convinced,” said Robert Lipsyte, “that Cassius Clay had really beat Sonny Liston.” Ali entered the ring to loud booing and, after the bell sounded, took to circling Liston adeptly, as he had in the first match. What took place near the end of his eighth circle around Liston resulted in one of the most scrutinized and debated film clips of the 1960s. In a moment when Liston was hurling a clumsy punch and his balance was susceptible, Ali threw what looked like a swiping right graze at his opponent’s head. Liston crumpled to the canvas, where he stayed for several seconds, sprawling, rolling, groping. It happened so fast that many thought it had never happened at all – that Liston had been dropped by what became known as the phantom punch. However, a video camera on the far side of the ring caught clearly the force of the impact: “You can see Liston’s neck and his spine just shudder,” said one analyst. Confusion overtook the moment. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott tried to shove Ali to a corner to begin a time count on Liston. Ali, though, was as shocked as everybody else. He towered over Liston, a gloved fist cocked, yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker!” Liston finally rose reluctantly, but he doubled over in fright when Ali resumed his assault. A moment later Walcott stopped the match, after learning that Liston had been on the mat long enough to be counted out. Ali had won his first defense of his heavyweight title in a minute and 42 seconds. The audience broke out in a loud chorus of booing. Liston, they thought, had thrown the match. Ali himself had doubts. “It was a good punch,” he later said, “but I didn’t think I hit him so hard he couldn’t have got up.”

Liston lived in Las Vegas for the next several years, maintaining ties to underworld crime, still fighting and winning matches, though never to any glory. On January 5, 1971, his wife, Geraldine, returned home from a holiday trip and found her husband slouched against their bed, dead of an apparent heroin overdose. Ali’s biographer Hauser recounted a moment, years later, when Ali wished aloud that his early foe was still alive, that they might sit around and talk about what was past. After Hauser asked Ali what he would say to Liston, Ali replied, “Man, you scared me.”

Ali’s retention of the heavyweight title continued to rankle critics, including some in powerful positions. The champion was dismayed a few months later when told he was in danger of being drafted into the U.S. military, just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. In 1964 he’d been classified 1-Y, which meant he failed the standards of service (Ali could barely read and was probably dyslexic). But the classification had just been adjusted to 1-A: Ali was now eligible for the draft, without being subject to further testing. “Why are they gunning for me?” he asked, though there was never much question in anybody’s mind. The U.S. was likely trying to defuse the possibility that he might loom as a role model for other young black Americans. But when Ali reacted by proclaiming that he did not share the U.S.’s purposes in the Vietnam War, his influence on young Americans – both white and black – only grew. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he told a reporter. “They ain’t never called me nigger.” Ali’s comments were seen as outrageous, even traitorous. Boxing commissions, as well as war veterans associations and numerous politicians, said they would not tolerate any of his fights within their sway.

Ali applied for conscientious objector status – which would excuse him from military service – on grounds of the Nation of Islam’s religious beliefs. The Selective Service department ruled against any exemption, determining that Ali’s religion was “racist and political.” On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. military. Within an hour the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his title and any license to fight in the state. Other state boards quickly followed suit. Muhammad Ali was no longer champion anywhere within the United States and could no longer work in professional boxing or leave the country to work. Within weeks he was indicted on charges of refusing to serve and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the maximum penalty: a $10,000 fine and five years in federal prison. “[If] all that was left now was to serve the five-year jail term, and forget boxing, I was prepared,” he wrote in The Greatest.

For the next few years Muhammad Ali became one of the most popularly reviled but also one of the most popularly admired persons in America. The U.S. government’s wayward prosecution of him caused many – including black leaders who had earlier been troubled by his association with the Nation of Islam – to view him more sympathetically. Julian Bond, a social activist who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, said, “When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward, everyone knew it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think about it because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.”

On the day he was stripped of the title, Ali was already anticipating the long banishment ahead. “I strongly object,” he said, “to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand – either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice.”

Justice proved slow in coming for Muhammad Ali – and it could never really undo some injuries. The World Boxing Association staged a series of elimination bouts that, in February 1970, yielded a new champion, Joe Frazier. It was something of a hollow achievement. “Joe Frazier is the champion of nothing,” said sportscaster Howard Cosell. “The heavyweight champion of the world was, and still is, a man called Muhammad Ali.”

Ali’s three and a half years of exile from boxing spanned what might have been his peak period, in his mid-20s. In 1969, Cosell asked if he would consider a return to boxing. Ali said, “Why not? If they come up with enough money.” In July 1970 a Georgia state senator, Leroy Johnson, took on a bold project. Georgia had no state boxing commission, which meant that Atlanta could grant a license of its own accord. It was a fitting move: Atlanta was starting to emerge as the capital of a new, more progressive southern sensibility. But Georgia was hindered by Governor Lester Maddox, who had come to office on an anti-integrationist stance. (After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Maddox called King “an enemy of the country” and told state troopers that if any demonstrators got out of hand at King’s funeral to “shoot ’em down and stack ’em up.”) Atlanta gave permission for Ali to fight Jerry Quarry, on October 26, 1970. Maddox tried to stop the fight but found he had no legal grounds. He instead declared the occasion a “day of mourning” and said he hoped Clay got flattened in the first round. But the event at Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium proved a triumphant return. Ali was fleet and dominant, and in the third round he rendered Quarry – a hard-hitting fighter – too bloodied to continue. Weeks later, after a tougher but also more dazzling win over Argentine fighter Oscar Bonavena, Ali announced, “Now we have a chance to see who the real champion of the world is.”

It would be a true struggle. Joe Frazier was no less formidable than Ali. Like Ali, he was an Olympic gold medal winner, in Tokyo in 1964. In 1970, when Frazier won the heavyweight title, Ali claimed he didn’t begrudge him. “He wasn’t given this,” he said. After Ali’s title had been taken, Frazier told him, “It’s unfair. Whatever it takes for me to lend myself to you, I’ll be there for you.” In 1969, Frazier visited Washington, D.C., where he spoke to President Richard Nixon on the former champion’s behalf. “I was more than decent,” said Frazier. In The Greatest, Ali tells of a good-natured car ride the two men shared from Philadelphia to New York in the late 1960s. They talked about their inevitable appointment in a boxing ring. “After I whip your ass,” Frazier told Ali, “I’ll buy you some ice cream.” Ali was dumbfounded that anybody imagined beating him. Still, Ali wrote, “of all the people in my profession I would like to have had as a friend [Joe Frazier] was the one.” After that car ride, said Ali, “we never looked eye to eye.”

There would be good reason for that rift. Interestingly, Ali never disparaged a white opponent in racial terms, as he often did black opponents, whom he probably saw as more serious competitors. Instead, Ali transmuted black fighters into stand-ins for white America’s resistance to black enfranchisement. He worked this tactic with particular vehemence on Frazier, impugning his authenticity and purposes as a black man. “He’s the wrong kind of Negro,” said Ali in a TV interview. “He’s not like me, ’cause he’s the Uncle Tom…. He works for the enemy.” Ali meant some of this talk as promotion, but Frazier took it all literally. It hurt, and it felt like a betrayal. “I just wanted to bury him,” Frazier said.

The psychic war between the two men affected everything about their title match, billed as “The Fight of the Century” and set for March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Audiences had always cared deeply if Ali won or lost, but this time he was seen to be about bigger purposes – in particular, the argument over the war in Vietnam. “I represent the truth,” Ali told Rolling Stone in 1971. “The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All the black militants…all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor.” By contrast, Joe Frazier took on the role of outmoded power, compliant duty. When the two men entered Madison Square Garden that night, they entered the arena of an America disunited. In the private moments before the match, Frazier sat in his dressing room and uttered a prayer: “Lord, help me kill this man because he’s not righteous.” Nothing, though, could discourage Ali. “If Joe Frazier whips me,” he said, “I’ll crawl across the ring and kiss his feet and tell him, ‘You are the greatest.'”

If in some respect the fight was about America more than it was about boxing, it was nevertheless through boxing that it would be settled. Frazier was arguably in his prime – an intimidating hitter who advanced on his foes like a train and bobbed and weaved as he pressed ahead, hard to hit. Early in the fight Ali showed that he could outmaneuver Frazier and could surprise him with the strength and precision of his punches. But Frazier pushed into him inexorably, as if he savored what Ali threw at him and intended to pay it back.

The momentum edged back and forth throughout the hour, like a tightly charted suspense tale. Then, in the 15th and last round, Frazier cracked the night’s mystery. With his left glove, he flicked Ali’s right bicep, making him drop his arm just enough, and then lunged forward with a full-force left hook to the jaw that felled him spectacularly. Ali hit the floor on his back, his legs stretched in the air, rolled to his left knee, then rose to full height – all in less than a two-count. “That surprised me,” Frazier said. Ali looked matter-of-fact, as if the instance had been a slight snag. However, the knockdown settled things for the judges: Frazier won a unanimous verdict and retained his world title, becoming the first man to beat Ali in his professional career. He also recalled Ali’s earlier promise. Back in his dressing room, Mark Kram reported in Ghosts of Manila, Frazier walked restlessly, tears streaming, and said, “I want him over here! I want him to crawl to my feet! Crawl, crawl! He promised, promised me! Crawl to me, crawl! Why aren’t you here?” Later, Frazier entered a hospital, where he remained for days (weeks, some said), suffering from deadly high blood pressure and extreme fatigue, among other debilities. At one point, a rumor circulated that Frazier had died. If it was true, Ali said, “I’ll never fight again.” Frazier didn’t die, but he came close to it; doctors monitored him constantly, fearful he might enter a coma. Frazier left the hospital many days later with few people having visited him.

The legendary fight that signified the enmity caused by Vietnam had a strange afterlife. Joe Frazier never really got over the bittersweet victory that almost killed him and that failed to win him the respect he needed. It was Muhammad Ali, instead, who accomplished an unforeseen transcendence that night. He had been knocked to the ground decisively, but by rebounding in that same instant, Ali redeemed his meaning as a hero: He was the black man who would not stay down, no matter what. 

Ali no doubt moved too quickly toward his appointment with Joe Frazier, but he’d had little choice: His legal appeal was headed for the Supreme Court of the United States, and if denied, he would have to enter a federal prison for up to five years. In April 1971 the court heard the arguments and decided that Ali should go to jail. But a pair of clerks prevailed on one Justice to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He came to a new view: The government’s argument that Ali’s religion was racist was a misrepresentation of the fighter’s true beliefs. The Justices reconsidered and agreed unanimously that the draft board had erred, that Ali was sincere; they overturned his conviction. Ali had won. He was now free. In effect, Malcolm X’s words had saved him.

In the years that followed, Ali still portrayed his fights as events of political and social consequence, and given his resonant symbolic power, that was true: He represented and inspired change with the spirit of his determination. In time, the Supreme Court verdict became a harbinger of how the American public and media began to see Ali: He was principled, and he had been willing to pay the cost of his defiance. In the documentary Facing Ali (2009), Canadian boxer George Chuvalo – who fought Ali both before and after his discharge from the championship – said, “I remember thinking, this must be a pretty strong guy, facing the wrath of the U.S. ­government.”

But it’s the trajectory of Ali’s boxing that best illuminates his meaning and history. His post-exile matches form a remarkable narrative, in which we see the depths of his will and pride; his courage and genius; his resolve, vulnerability, and long collapse. Those fights also represent his evolving scruples, sometimes for the worse – as in his treatment of Frazier – but for the better as well. In the 1960s, between his Liston victory and his banishment, he had sometimes displayed a shocking vindictiveness. When former world heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson, in 1965, and contender Ernie Terrell, in 1967, refused to address him as Muhammad Ali – in effect, disparaging his faith and conviction – they had to answer to the pain and anger that had built up in him since he became champion. Ali demeaned and devastated each of these men in the ring; he even severely injured Terrell’s right eye. When Howard Cosell, who was usually supportive of Ali, asked about the apparent malice against Terrell, Ali responded, “Malice? I’m out to be cruel. That’s what the boxing game is about.” But after his return to the ring – after giving up his title to oppose war and to advocate conscience – he was never again so physically ruthless. In 1975, in the late stages of a bout with Ron Lyle, he worried that he might destroy Lyle. “I knew I was winning,” Ali told Hauser, “…so I backed off. I lost all my fighting instinct and hoped the referee would stop it.” He told reporters afterward, “I’m not going to kill a man.”

Nevertheless, he still fought to win. In the early 1970s, following his loss to Frazier, Ali concentrated on what he saw as his most important exoneration: regaining the championship. Almost everything was working against him. He was 31 years old at a time when a younger generation of commanding fighters, who owed much to his inspiration, was emerging. To persevere, much less to thrive again, Ali would have to develop different defensive strategies. “He was still ahead of the pack,” said Ron Lyle, “but that’s when they started reaching him. Before that they wasn’t laying a glove on him.”

Ali’s goal had been to beat Joe Frazier in a dramatic rematch – “because he beat me.” The fight eventually took place in January 1974, again at Madison Square Garden, but it was short of the meaning of their first bout. By this date America had begun to exit Vietnam; much of the country now shared Ali’s assessment of the debacle. Also, Frazier was no longer heavyweight champion: He had lost his title to George Foreman a year earlier in Jamaica. When Ali and Frazier met for their second contest, each was battling to win a shot at Foreman, as the means to repossess the championship. Ali prevailed over Frazier after 12 rounds in a unanimous decision.

But to take on George Foreman – at 26, six years younger than Ali – seemed reckless. By his own description, Foreman had been a dropout, shoplifter, car hijacker, and purse snatcher in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, until he entered the Job Corps and realized a talent for boxing. In 1968 he won a gold medal at the Olympics in Mexico City. By 1974 he was a battleship in the ring. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that he would simply walk up to an opponent and plow him down – except that’s what he did, time and again. When Foreman met Frazier in the ring, he crushed him to the ground six times in the first two rounds – twice in the last 20 seconds of the first round. After that, Foreman was seen as absolutely terrifying, the hardest-hitting heavyweight champion ever. When the Foreman-Ali fight was announced – to take place in Kinshasa, Zaire, on the west coast of Africa, on September 25, 1974 – the New York Times predicted: “Ali will be out in the first round.” Foreman thought so as well. “People telling me, ‘There’s never been a puncher like you, George.’ All those compliments, I started eating them. ‘I’m gonna fight Muhammad Ali – he’s the least of all these guys. I’m not nervous.'”

This was the inaugural extravaganza managed by Don King, who was intent on making himself boxing’s first major black promoter. By securing a deal from the government of the Republic of Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo and known since 1997 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to pay the fighters $5 million apiece, King engineered a championship fight where none had ever been presented before, in Africa. Zaire was governed pitilessly by General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who decreed himself the Father of the Nation; he’d appropriated the immense funds for the match – dubbed by Ali as the “Rumble in the Jungle” – from his nation’s treasury. Still, staging such a big event in an independent African state had an important benefit: It stood for the emergence of black empowerment, as the movement was gaining ground in much of the world. Ali immediately appreciated the meanings available in the location, and he laid moral claim to their provenance. “I’m not fighting for me,” he said. “I’m fighting for the black people who have no future.”

The much anticipated fight finally took place on October 30, 1974, in the Stade du 20 Mai outdoor coliseum before an enraptured crowd of 62,000, at 3 am. (The odd hour was necessary in order to accommodate American closed-circuit viewers.) In Ali’s dressing room, Ferdie Pacheco remembered, a mood of palpable dread prevailed. “The question,” he said, “was how much damage would George Foreman do?” The only one who seemed unconcerned was Ali. “I see Sonny Liston glaring at me 10 years ago at Miami Beach,” he said, “a fresh, powerful, taller, stronger Liston.” Meanwhile, in Foreman’s dressing room, wrote Norman Mailer in The Fight, one of his cornermen, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, also felt dread. “I was praying,” said Moore, “and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali. I really felt that was a possibility.”

Ali, it developed, proved right. As in the first Liston fight, he took command in the opening moments. He began by bouncing right and left around Foreman, throwing sharp mixes of punches that quickly stymied him. Foreman could hit incredibly hard, but that was part of his problem: Some head blows connected, but rarely with the expected effect; too often he hit air. Moreover, Ali’s guard style was now impregnable: He held his forearms and gloves up before his face, forming gates that Foreman couldn’t get past but that Ali could break from to land cutting blows over and under Foreman’s arms.

In the second round, Ali stole into the scheme he used for much of the rest of the fight: He began leaning back into the ropes, which were stretching from the Zairian heat. It’s the last place a fighter is supposed to find himself – a zone that leaves him easy to bludgeon and pick off. Ali’s strategy astonished everybody. “We all yelled at him to get off the ropes,” Ferdie Pacheco said. Ali later told Playboy, “I decided to go to the ropes and try to get George tired. George didn’t do nothin’ but attack – that’s the only thing he knows.” Ali later called the strategy rope-a-dope: The tactic depleted Foreman, while allowing Ali to rest.

By the end of the seventh round, Foreman had largely exhausted his own considerable bulk, until he arrived at that point where stamina and balance might collapse inward, past the recovery of will. It was almost four in the morning. “I’m getting tired,” Ali said to trainer Angelo Dundee. “Maybe I’ll just knock him out.” Dundee replied, “Why don’t you go ahead and do that? It might help the situation out.” There were 30 seconds left to the eighth round when Foreman hurled a looping swing against Ali on the ropes. Ali sidestepped it, and Foreman blundered, swapping positions with his challenger, as Ali clubbed him with a head-dazing right blow. Foreman tried to steady himself and go after Ali but stumbled into rapid-fire combinations that spun him around like a drunken ballet dancer – punches with enough impact to throw a spray of his sweat across the ring. The force and dexterity of Ali’s blows held Foreman upright but, at the same time, tumbled him downward in a dizzy, slow-motion-like crash, full-weight, a helpless giant, insensible. It was the most splendid finish in Ali’s career and one of the most magnificent recorded motions of the 20th century. The fight ended in exactly the last second of the eighth round. Years later, in Facing Ali, Foreman said, “Probably the best punch of the night was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down, stumbling, trying to hold myself, he saw me stumbling…. Ordinarily you finish a fighter off; I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand, and he didn’t do it. That’s what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought.”
Muhammad Ali was once again world champion, seven years after he’d been divested of his rightful title. The Foreman fight sealed his vindication – not just in America but also with an exhilarated reception throughout the world. It had been such an unlikely feat – a myth made palpable. “People like to see miracles,” Ali said. “People like to see underdogs that do it. People like to be there when history is made.”

Ali had planned to make the Foreman fight his last, but he defended his reclaimed title three more times, before he announced his retirement in June 1975. When a reporter asked, “What about Joe Frazier?” Ali grew bright at the prospect. “Joe Frazier! I want him bad.”

Few really expected a great bout when Ali and Frazier met a few months later, for the third and final time; both men were regarded as beyond their prime. But the personal drama between them was incontestable. The bout took place on October 1, 1975, in the Philippines, in Quezon City, outside Manila. Inside the Aranetta Coliseum, temperatures exceeded 110 degrees in the ring. Any doubt that this encounter would be momentous was immediately dispelled. These were combatants at the peak of their purposes, battling not simply for the right to a title but also for historic dominance. Frazier gave Ali the worst beating of his life, slamming his midsection, round after round, with blows meant to send his kidneys and heart into unbearable anguish. After the 10th round, Ali told columnist Jerry Izenberg, seated at ringside, that the ordeal was “the closest thing to death.” In Thrilla in Manila, Ferdie Pacheco said, “This is why people get killed in boxing, when the fight becomes more important than life and death.”

Ali had often shown amazing recuperative ability in a fight’s late stage. In the 13th round, he hit Frazier with a right punch forceful enough to send the rival’s mouthpiece flying across the ring to the fifth row of the press section. After the 14th, Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, told Frazier they were quitting. He did not want to see his fighter hurt for life or killed. “No, c’mon, Ed,” Frazier protested. “Don’t you stop the motherfucking fight.” Meanwhile, Ali was telling Angelo Dundee the same thing he’d said at the critical point of his first bout with Liston: “Cut the gloves off!” A friend of Frazier’s, sitting by Ali’s corner, overheard and tried to signal Frazier, but it was too late. Futch had halted the fight. Ali, hearing he’d won, looked astounded and numb. He stood up, raised his right arm in victory, and collapsed on his back. “Frazier quit just before I did,” he said years later.

In the post-fight press conference, Ali said of Frazier, “He is tough. He is a great fighter.” Ali made overtures of reconciliation, but Joe never forgave him. Instead, he claimed restitution from the infirmity that Ali has lived with over the years. “I’m proud to let them see how much damage I’ve done to this man, both mind and body,” Frazier has said. “Let them see.” Years later, Ali said, “Manila was the greatest fight of my life, but I don’t want to look at hell again.”
Since then, it’s been aftermath – some of it legendary, some heartbreaking. Ali fought 10 more fights after Manila. In February 1978 he lost his title to Leon Spinks, a novice professional. Ali was in torment – the night after the fight, he was running down the street at 2 am, yelling, “Gotta get my title back! Gotta get my title back!” He regained it from Spinks seven months later – the only man to win the world heavyweight championship three times. But by then he was already showing troubling signs: His speech, for one, was turning thick. “They say I slur, but I’m just talking black,” he said. He retired in mid-1979, but within months was training for a title match with the new champion, Larry Holmes. He never had a dominant moment in the fight, but he wouldn’t drop. Holmes just kept hitting at a man who had the will to die on his feet. Ali fought one more match, with Trevor Berbick, on December 11, 1981. He lost by decision. After 21 years as a professional boxer, he never again entered the ring. He would not have been allowed to; his impairment was now too evident.

“You can overstay your welcome in boxing,” George Foreman said in Facing Ali. “You can get physically hurt, wiped out, devastated mentally. Your brain can only take so many shots to the head.” Ali was eventually diagnosed at UCLA as having fallen prey to “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome” – an outcome that could not be repaired. His mental faculties stayed agile as ever, but his pace became a painful-looking amble, and in time he stopped speaking publicly. A terrible irony had invaded Muhammad Ali’s being: He had prided himself, throughout all his years of boxing, on avoiding head blows and facial scars. He instead had allowed fighters to pummel his midsection, his sides and arms, in defiance of the boxing dictum that if you “kill the body, the head will follow.” Yet it was likely those body blows, Ferdie Pacheco observed, that helped ruin his nervous system. Ali had absorbed his fears into a physical place where he could withstand them and make them work for him. All along, they were also working against him. Some – Frazier and others – believe that Ali’s impediments might be self-willed, if unconsciously: a penance for his elated mistreatment of so many other fighters, or maybe an atonement for his greatest public sin, his renunciation of Malcolm X after Malcolm had helped fortify his nerve to become champion. But this appraisal also implies that Muhammad Ali deserved some sort of comeuppance for his conceit and impertinence, though it was those same qualities that had made him such an electrifying iconoclast.

In William Klein’s 1974 film, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, there’s a sequence from just prior to the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston in Miami, in which a camera moves down a line of men who cite Liston as the odds-on winner, in a few rounds at best. The scene moves to black girls on a Miami street, clapping their hands to the beat of grinding rock ‘n’ roll, chanting “Liston! Liston!” Minutes later, after Clay has won, both young and adult black people surround his car, celebrating him. “Cassius Clay, the greatest man of all time,” says one man. In between those two segments, which represent the span of perhaps a day, history changed. Ali demanded respect and warranted it; he wouldn’t be refused, no matter the antagonism he met with. In the process he transformed the possibilities of pride, courage, and recognition for many other black people – in athletics, certainly, but also beyond. “One of the reasons that civil rights went forward,” television journalist Bryant Gumbel said, “was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

In January 2012, Muhammad Ali turns 70. He has had a long time – nearly half his life – to weigh his past boasts against unknown eternity. “I conquered the world,” he has said, “and it didn’t bring me true happiness…. Every day is a judgment for me.” Still, he knows he has justified his time here. Biographer Hauser told of a moment from 1990 when Ali watched a commentator on TV say of him, “If he had it to do all over, he’d live his life the same way; he’d still choose to be a fighter.” Hauser wrote, “Muhammad sat straight up in his chair and said, ‘You bet I would.'”

For years Muhammad Ali was history in motion, headed in the right direction, turning the improbable into victories we hadn’t thought possible. It couldn’t last forever, but to see that it could be done, that was something else. That was hope made flesh, and for longer than anybody expected, it could not be stopped.