The 11th December 1981 saw legendary American boxer Muhammad Ali’s illustrious 21-year career was brought to an end as he took the ring for the last time to fight in the bout dubbed ‘Drama in Bahama’, facing fellow heavyweight, Jamaican pugilist Trevor Berbick. Today we look back at the story of “The People’s Champion”, the only man in history to win the heavyweight crown three times.
Born Cassius Clay on 17th January in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started boxing following an incident with a police office after his bike had been stolen. He soon began to build a name for himself on the amateur stage and in 1959; he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light-heavyweight division.
In 1960, Ali competed for the US boxing team at the Olympic Games in Rome. Well known for his footwork and powerful jab, he went on to win his first three bouts and was then victorious in the gold-medal fight against Zbigniew Pietrzkowski from Poland, with Ali turning professional shortly after.
His bold persona was clear for all to see, with Ali naming himself “the greatest” and famously suggesting that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, however, this confidence publically was coupled with a crippling spiritual dilemma behind closed doors. Joining the Black Muslim Group, the ‘Nation of Islam’ in 1964, it was at this point that he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, he faced a legal battle due to his refusal to participate in his compulsory military service during the war in Vietnam. He was found guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military, but later successfully cleared his name after a lengthy court battle.
Ali made his boxing comeback in 1970 after his forced hiatus, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. It was in 1971 that he would dominate the headlines again following what was suggested to be the “Fight of the Century” between himself and Joe Frazier. The fight went for fifteen rounds before Frazier managed to drop Ali to the ground, and Frazier then went on to win by decision.
Billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali took place in another legendary fight in 1974. Organized by promoter Don King and held in Kinshasa, Zaire, Ali fought the reigning heavyweight champion George Foreman. For once, Ali had been considered the underdog to his younger, powerful opponent, but he silenced his critics by defeating Foreman and once again became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Ali was reunited once more with his old rival Joe Frazier in 1975 in the “Thrilla in Manila” fight, in which Ali emerged victorious following more than 14 rounds of frenetic action, avenging his most famous defeat in 1971. His career began to take a downturn in the late 70s however, losing to Leon Spinks in 1978 and getting knocked out by Larry Holmes in 1980. In 1981, Ali fought his last bout, losing his heavyweight title to Trevor Berbick. He announced his retirement from boxing the next day.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an illness which has been linked to the head trauma sustained during his boxing career. In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honour for his services to philanthropy.
As we look back on his highly successful career, we should not forget the contrast between Ali the highly confident boxer and the Ali stood up for what he believed in and refused to fight in the conflict in Vietnam.