Boxer (1942— )
The ESPN network, choosing its top athletes of the 20th Century, placed Muhammad Ali #3. The fighter was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville. Taught to box at age 12, he won 100 of 108 amateur fights and several national titles. At age 18 he added a gold medal from the 1960 Olympics. Back home in Kentucky, however, when a restaurant refused to serve him because of his race, Clay took the medal from around his neck and threw it in the Ohio River.
Turning professional, the handsome and skillful Clay brought style and verbal wit to boxing, then regarded as a vicious, squalid sport. Both quick and powerful, he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” In his 20th fight, not given much of a chance, he became the world heavyweight champion. A surprised nation was further shocked the next morning when Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and taken a Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.
By March 1967, his record stood at 29-0. One month later he refused to step forward for induction into the army during the Vietnam War, claiming conscientious objector status. “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said, adding, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” Condemned as unpatriotic and cowardly, Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Released on appeal, he waited three years for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the verdict.
Despite this long inactive period, after 18 years Ali had a professional record of 55-2. Now revered instead of hated, he had become the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times (1964-67, 1974-78 and 1978-79). But he stayed too long in the ring and lost three of his last four fights before retiring in 1981. Shortly after that, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Two decades later, Ali has been slowed by the disease but not defeated. Three decades after America reviled him for his religious and political beliefs, he was asked to light the Olympic Torch at the opening of the 1996 Atlanta games. In October 2003 the editor of Esquire magazine wrote that “he, like only a very few Americans, has existed for nearly his entire life at that rare nexus of celebrity, accomplishment, and infamy that makes one an American icon.”