Happy Birthday to Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, he began boxing at age 12. Six years later, he won the gold medal in the Olympics as a light-heavyweight. His boastful poetry made him a media phenomenon. His religious conversion made him controversial. His fighting made him a superstar. Here's Clay before his heavyweight title fight against the fearsome Sonny Liston:
Now Clay swings with a right
what a beautiful swing
and raises the bear
straight out of the ring;
Liston is rising
and the ref wears a frown,
for he can't start counting
'til Liston comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view,
the crowd is getting frantic.
But our radar stations have picked him up
somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
when they came to the fight
that they'd witness the launching
of a human satellite?
Yes the crowd did not dream
when they laid down their money
that they would see
a total eclipse of the Sonny.
At this website, you can see Ali's pre- and post-Liston fight rants, including his famous "I shook up the world" diatribe.
Ali became a controversial figure shortly after beating Liston: he joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name from Clay to Muhammed Ali, was persecuted by the US government for his refusal to fight in Vietnam ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong, none of them ever called me 'nigger.'") and lost more than three years (and his world title) during the prime of his career to the legal fight he should never have had. When he returned to the ring, he lost to Joe Frazier in Ali-Frazier I. He won Ali-Frazier II and III -- the latter was the famous "Thrilla in Manila."
A worldwide celebrity, Ali cemented his legacy as a superstar who transcended sports when he agreed to fight George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Foreman was the world champion who had waxed Frazier to gain the crown. Cheered on by throngs of adoring fans shouting "Ali, boumaye" (kill him, Ali), and less affected by the jungle heat than the larger and slower Foreman, Ali employed the Rope-a-dope to wear out the champion before winning on an 8th-round knockout.
Ali is a legend. The extent of the legend is reflected in this special report the BBC prepared for Ali's 60th birthday. Now, rattled by his long fighting career and slowed by severe Parkinson's Syndrome, weakened by spinal stenosis -- the narrowing of the spine that impinges the nerves (the injury that ended Michael Irvin's career), and fogged by the medications that help him get through the day relatively pain-free, Ali is far from the athlete who shook up the world 43 years ago. But, as one of his daughters notes, he's at peace. And he still has the aura of Ali, no matter where he may be.
Happy Birthday to The Greatest.