Athlete, activist, rebel, poet, legend—Muhammad Ali stood larger than life in the imagination of hundreds of millions of people around the world. A gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics, he won the heavyweight championship at age twenty-two by conquering Sonny Liston in dramatic fashion. In the weeks after the upset victory, he confirmed his membership in the Nation of Islam and told reporters he would no longer answer to his “slave name”: Cassius Clay. The political establishment stripped him of his heavyweight title when he refused induction into the United States Army during the height of the war in Vietnam.
Ultimately, Ali returned to reclaim his crown, prevailing in epic fights against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman. His talent and charisma—and above all, his adherence to principle—made him a cultural icon and one of the most beloved sporting figures of all time.
But that is only half the tale. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is also the story of Ali, the man. Author Thomas Hauser got closer to Ali than any previous biographer. His work—told in Ali’s own words and those of hundreds of family members, friends, rivals, and others who interacted with “The Greatest” over the decades—reveals a deeply spiritual, complex man, whose public and private battles, including his struggle against the devastating effects of Parkinson’s disease, gave new meaning to the word courage and changed forever our conception of what makes a champion.
Heralded by the New York Times as “the first definitive biography of the boxer who transcended sports as no other athlete ever has,” Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most charismatic and controversial superstars.
This ebook includes rare photos authorized by Muhammad Ali Enterprises.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
His Life and Times
By Thomas Hauser
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Thomas Hauser and Muhammad Ali
All rights reserved.
Each day at 5:00 A.M., a forty-nine-year-old man rises from bed on a small farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Quietly, as mandated by the Qur'an, he washes himself with clear running water. Then he puts on clean clothes, faces Makkah with his hands at his sides, and says to himself, "I intend to perform the morning prayer as ordered by Allah, the Lord of all the worlds." Outside, it is dark. The only sounds are the wind in winter and the blending of birds and insects when the weather is warm. The man changes position. "Allahu Akbar. Pure and glorified are You, O Allah. Blessed is Your Name and exalted is Your Majesty, and there is nothing worthy of worship except You. I seek refuge with Allah from Satan, the accursed."
The man is Muhammad Ali, the most recognizable person on earth. For half a century, he has walked among us, his face as familiar as that of a close friend. Somewhere in time, he captured a blend of mayhem and magic that carried him deep into the collective psyche of us all. The world didn't just see or hear Ali; it felt him. And if he hasn't always been part of the landscape, it somehow seems that way now.
One of life's lessons is that dreams and fantasies aren't bound by the same rules as reality, but time and again Ali made them coincide. In the ring, he was the most beautiful fighting machine ever assembled. One mark of a great champion is the ability to win his title at a young age and hold on to it until he's old. When Ali made his professional debut, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, and several countries in which he later fought didn't exist at all. Ali fought through the terms of seven presidents, holding center stage for twenty years. In all of boxing history, only two men won the heavyweight championship at a younger age. And only one prevailed in a heavyweight title bout when he was older than Ali, who at thirty-six years eight months toppled Leon Spinks to recapture his crown. All told, Ali challenged for the heavyweight championship five times and successfully defended it on nineteen occasions. And in the process, he altered the consciousness of people the world over. Ali was black and proud of it at a time when many black Americans were running from their color. He was, to some, the greatest hero to come out of the Vietnam War. With the exception of Martin Luther King, no black man in America had more influence than Ali during the years when Ali was in his prime.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., as Ali was once known, was born in Louisville General Hospital at 6:35 P.M. on January 17, 1942. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., earned a living painting billboards and signs. According to court records, Ali's paternal grandparents could read and write, and all four of his paternal great-grandparents were listed as "free colored" on Kentucky's census rolls. While historical records offer no proof that members of the Clay family were held as slaves, in all likelihood at one time they were. Ali's mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked as a household domestic when her children were young. One of her grandparents, Tom Moorehead, was the son of a white Moorehead and a slave named Dinah. Mrs. Clay's other grandfather was a white Irishman named Abe Grady, who emigrated to the United States from County Clare, Ireland, soon after the Civil War and married a "free colored woman" whose name is unknown.
Muhammad Ali: "My mother is a Baptist, and when I was growing up, she taught me all she knew about God. Every Sunday, she dressed me up, took me and my brother to church, and taught us the way she thought was right. She taught us to love people and treat everybody with kindness. She taught us it was wrong to be prejudiced or hate. I've changed my religion and some of my beliefs since then, but her God is still God; I just call him by a different name. And my mother, I'll tell you what I've told people for a long time. She's a sweet, fat, wonderful woman, who loves to cook, eat, make clothes, and be with family. She doesn't drink, smoke, meddle in other people's business, or bother anyone, and there's no one who's been better to me my whole life."
Cassius Clay, Sr.: "He was a good boy. Both them boys, him and his brother, were good boys growing up. They didn't give us any trouble. They were church boys, because my wife brought them to church every Sunday. She was a good Baptist. I was a Methodist. But my daddy used to say to me, 'Let them follow their mother because a woman is always better than a man.' So that's what I did, and their mother taught them right; taught them to believe in God and be spiritual and be good to everybody. He was a good child and he grew up to be a good man, and he couldn't have been nothing else to be honest with you because of the way his mother raised him. Sunday school every Sunday. I dressed them up as good as I could afford, kept them in pretty good clothes. And they didn't come out of no ghetto. I raised them on the best street I could: 3302 Grand Avenue in the west end of Louisville. I made sure they were around good people; not people who would bring them into trouble. And I taught them values—always confront the things you fear, try to be the best at whatever you do. That's what my daddy taught me, and those are things that have to be taught. You don't learn those things by accident."
Odessa Clay: "I had a pretty hard life when I was young. My mother and father separated when I was a child, so I never saw much of my father or knew much about where he came from. My mother had three children and couldn't raise us all, so very often I stayed with my aunt. I started working to buy clothes so I could go to school. And then, when I was sixteen, I met Mr. Clay. He was walking home from work while I was talking to a friend one afternoon, and my friend—she knew him—called across the street and told him to come over and say hello. He's four years older than I am, so that would have made him twenty at the time.
"We called Muhammad 'GG' when he was born because—you know how babies jabber at the side of their crib—he used to say 'gee, gee, gee, gee.' And then, when he became a Golden Gloves champion, he told us, 'You know what that meant? I was trying to say Golden Gloves.' So we called him GG, and sometimes I still do. When he was a child, he never sat still. He walked and talked and did everything before his time. When he was two years old, he'd wake up in the middle of the night and throw everything from his dresser onto the floor. Most boys run around flat-footed or walk; GG went around on his tip-toes all the time. He used to stuff cake in his mouth and his mouth would be full, but he'd still say, 'More cake, Mommy; more cake.' And by the time he was four, he had all the confidence in the world. Even when he played with older children, he always wanted to be the leader. He'd tell them, 'Okay, today I'm going to be the daddy.' Then his little brother, Rudolph, was born. And if I had to spank Rudolph, GG would run and grab me and say, 'Don't you hit my baby.' One time, he tied a string to our draperies in the bedroom, and ran the string out the window around the house to his own room. Then he waited until we were ready to go to bed, and pulled on the string to make the curtains move. Everything he did seemed different as a child. He even had measles and chicken pox at the same time. His mind was like the March wind, blowing every which way. And whenever I thought I could predict what he'd do, he turned around and proved me wrong.
"He had confidence in himself, and that gave me confidence in him. He started boxing when he was twelve, and we'd sit at night, and he'd tell me how someday he was going to be champion of the world. It made me nervous watching him in the ring, but I believed that he could take care of himself. Then he joined the Nation of Islam, and I felt, well, this is the land of the free; worship as you please. If that's what he wanted to do, it was all right. The important thing was that he had a belief in God. The controversy with the Army worried me a lot. I wanted him to join, because at the time, I thought that was the right thing to do, but he had to make up his own mind. And now I worry about his health. I think rest is the best thing for him. When he gets his rest, you can tell the difference. But that's in God's hands, and I can't tell you what God is going to do. I always felt like God made Muhammad special, but I don't know why God chose me to carry this child."
Cassius Clay, Sr.: "When the boys got older, I took them with me on jobs; taught them how to paint pretty good. Before he started fighting, Muhammad could lay out a sign. Draw letters, do the spacing, mix the paint, and fill it in right. That was my living before I had a heart attack. I can't do too much now. But I was an artist, not just a sign painter. I was born painting, and if it wasn't for the way things were at the time, a lot more people would have known what I could do. I don't have a favorite of the paintings I've done. To be honest with you, they're all good. One time, I had these paintings I did in the basement. They were like snow scenes. I don't know where they are now; I haven't got them anymore. And by having lights turn on them, Christmas lights on a motor, it looked like you had an orange sun, and the sun and clouds were moving across the snow. My paintings are in most of the churches down here. Almost every Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, has a mural I done for them."
Rahaman Ali (formerly Rudolph Arnette Clay): "Louisville was segregated, but it was a quiet city, very peaceful and clean. There wasn't much crime; no drugs; very little drinking or prostitution.
Things were different from the way they are now. Growing up, the only problems Muhammad and I had with whites were if we were walking in a certain part of town. If we were in the wrong place, white boys would come up in a car and say, 'Hey, nigger, what are you doing here?' I never got into any fights. No one attacked me. It wasn't like in the Deep South, but people would call us nigger and tell us to get out if they thought we were someplace we didn't belong.
"Muhammad and I had a few fights between us. All brothers do. But it was nothing serious; more like tests of strength, wrestling. He always had to be the leader, and we let him because he was very intelligent and quick. Outside of boxing, he never played much sports. Now and then, we'd play touch football on the street, and he was fast. It was hard for the rest of us to make a tag on him because of his speed. But tackle football, he didn't like. He wouldn't play because he thought it was too rough. He was a great marbles player; he loved to shoot marbles. And that was it, except all the time, he used to ask me to throw rocks at him. I thought he was crazy, but he'd stand back and dodge every one of them. No matter how many I threw, I could never hit him."
In some ways, the Clays were a closely knit family, but as with most families, there were problems. Louisville police records reveal that Cassius Clay, Sr., was arrested four times for reckless driving, twice for disorderly conduct, once for disposing of mortgaged property, and twice for assault and battery. His penchant for women led to discord at home, and he sometimes turned violent under the influence of alcohol. On three occasions, Odessa Clay called the police for protection from her husband. Ali prefers not to talk about those times, but they weighed upon him, as did the "ugly etiquette" of the South. Segregation was a way of life in Kentucky, and reminders of second-class citizenship were everywhere.
Muhammad Ali: "When I was growing up, too many colored people thought it was better to be white. And I don't know what it was, but I always felt like I was born to do something for my people. Eight years old, ten years old; I'd walk out of my house at two in the morning, and look up at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do. I never got an answer. I'd look at the stars and wait for a voice, but I never heard nothing. Then my bike got stolen and I started boxing, and it was like God telling me that boxing was my responsibility. God made us all, but some of us are made special. Einstein wasn't an ordinary human. Columbus wasn't an ordinary human. Elvis Presley, the Wright brothers. Some people have special resources inside, and when God blesses you to have more than others, you have a responsibility to use it right."
The saga of Cassius Clay's red-and-white Schwinn bike has been told often over time. In October 1954, he and a friend rode their bicycles to the Columbia Auditorium, which was hosting an annual black bazaar called The Louisville Home Show. For much of the afternoon, they canvassed the floor, eating free popcorn and candy. Then, when it was time to go home, Clay discovered his bike had been stolen. Meanwhile, a Louisville policeman named Joe Martin was at work in the basement, teaching youngsters how to box.
Joe Martin: "I was down at the gym one night, and there was something else going on in the building, a display of merchandise that the Negro merchants put on once a year for their customers. And one night this kid came downstairs, and he was crying. Somebody had stolen his new bicycle, and of course he was very upset about that and wanted to report it to the police. And as I was a police officer, well, someone told him there's a police officer downstairs in the gymnasium, go down and tell him about it. And he was having a fit, half crying because someone stole his bike. He was only twelve years old then, and he was gonna whup whoever stole it. And I brought up the subject, I said, 'Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people that you're gonna whup.'"
"To all intents and purposes," Wilfred Sheed later wrote, "Cassius Clay was born at the age of twelve, the day he entered the gym and started fighting." As part of the Columbia Gym's amateur program, Martin produced a local television show called Tomorrow's Champions, which offered instant celebrity status to his young charges. Six weeks after joining the gym, eighty-nine-pound Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., made his ring debut, winning a three-minute, three-round split decision over another novice named Ronnie O'Keefe.
Joe Martin: "I guess I've taught a thousand boys to box, or at least tried to teach them. Cassius Clay, when he first began coming around, looked no better or worse than the majority. If boxers were paid bonuses on their potential like ballplayers are, I don't know if he would have received one. He was just ordinary, and I doubt whether any scout would have thought much of him in his first year. About a year later, though, you could see that the little smart aleck—I mean, he's always been sassy—had a lot of potential. He stood out because, I guess, he had more determination than most boys, and he had the speed to get him someplace. He was a kid willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve something worthwhile in sports. I realized it was almost impossible to discourage him. He was easily the hardest worker of any kid I ever taught."
Muhammad Ali: "When I started boxing, all I really wanted was someday to buy my mother and father a house and own a nice big car for myself. I figured if I could turn pro and get on Saturday night fights, I could make four thousand dollars just for one night. Then my dreams started to grow. In school, sometimes I'd pretend they were announcing my name over the loudspeaker system, saying 'Cassius Clay, heavyweight champion of the world.' Other times, I'd draw a picture of a jacket on a piece of paper, like a high school football jacket; only on back of the jacket I'd write 'National Golden Gloves Champion' or 'Cassius Clay, World Heavyweight Champ.'
"Joe Martin was the man who started me in boxing, but sometimes I trained with a black man named Fred Stoner. I trained six days a week, and never drank or smoked a cigarette. The only thing I ever did like drugs was twice I took the cap off a gas tank and smelled the gas, which made me dizzy. Boxing kept me out of trouble."
Excerpted from Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hauser. Copyright © 1991 Thomas Hauser and Muhammad Ali. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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