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Muhammad Ali Biography

The Early Years:

Cassius Clay started boxing as an amateur in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 12. By the age of eighteen he had already had 108 amateur fights, winning 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves championships; two National Golden Gloves championships and two National AAU titles. He competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division shortly after his 18th birthday.

Cassius Clay

Following the Olympics triumph, Cassius teamed up with veteran trainer Angelo Dundee and started his professional boxing career. Cassius Clay's first professional fight was in 1960, at the age of eighteen, with a win over Tunney Hunsaker. In subsequent early bouts, it was quickly apparent that Cassius possessed unbelievable hand and foot speed for someone his size.

Working with Dundee he developed his lightning trademark jab and strong right hand. His style was unique; holding his hands low, evading punches to the head by leaning away and displaying fast footwork and hand speed not normally associated with heavyweights. He danced and floated around the ring mesmerising opponents with his speed of hand and feet.

Out of the ring Clay was equally unique. In an era when fighters left the speaking to their managers, Cassius refused to keep quiet earning himself the name 'The Louisville Lip'. He posed for the cameras, talked in rhymes, and boasted that he was not only the greatest, but also the prettiest of all time, he even predicted the round in which he would stop opponents. He was young and brash, supremely talented and lit up the boxing world.

Cassius blazed a trail through the heavyweight division beating all top ranked contenders; Alex Miteff (TKO6), Willi Besmanoff (TKO7), Sonny Banks (TKO4), Don Warner (TKO4), George Logan (TKO4), Billy Daniels (TKO7), Alejandro Lavorante (KO5), Archie Moore (TKO4), Charlie Powell (KO3), Doug Jones (10), Henry Cooper (TKO5).

Having emerged as the number one heavyweight contender, on 25 February, 1964 Cassius Clay was given a title shot against  Sonny Liston the Heavyweight Champion of the World. 

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston:

Many observers gave Clay little chance against big, bad Liston who had a formidable reputation and had intimidated the heavyweight division, knocking out all contenders (Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Mike DeJohn, Roy Harris, Albert Westphal) and eventually winning the title by stopping Floyd Patterson in one round on 25 September, 1962. A year later, Patterson was given a rematch, but was stopped again in brutal fashion in one round. At the time Liston was considered unbeatable.

Sonny Liston entered the ring against Cassius Clay as an 8 to 1 favourite - no one gave the 22 year old Clay a chance against one of the most brutal Heavyweight Champions of all time. Upsetting the odds, Clay dominated Liston throughout the fight. Using his footwork and hand speed, Clay was too quick and agile for Liston who struggled to land clean blows, while Clay scored with quick combinations. After six rounds it was all over. Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh, claiming an injured shoulder, handing Clay the championship. In the melee following the end of the fight Clay screamed repeatedly at cameras, "I shook up the world, I shook up the world!". Clay, in beating Liston, became the youngest boxer, (age 22), in boxing history to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion, a mark that stood until Mike Tyson won the title from Trevor Berbick on 22 November 1986.

After the victory, Clay announced to the world that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that his name was Cassius X. The X representing the unknown name that was taken from him by the slave owners centuries before. The national response was immediate, negative and intense. Shortly afterwards he was given the name Muhammad Ali by the Nation of Islam founder, the Honourable Elijah Muhammad.

Now Muhammad Ali, a rematch with Liston was scheduled for 25 May 1965.  As with the first Liston fight, the rematch was shrouded in controversy as Ali knocked out Liston in round 1. Some thought that Liston took a dive, others insist that it was Ali's quick, chopping punch, (named the anchor punch by Ali), to the side of the head that knocked Liston out. Then after flooring Liston, Ali did not immediately move to a neutral corner. Liston eventually rose from the canvas and the fight resumed. It was only when Nat Fleischer, editor of 'The Ring', shouted from the ring-side that Liston had been down for at least a count of ten, that referee Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the fight.

Following the Liston victory, Ali was a busy Champion, almost as if he sensed that time was short. Between 1964 and 1967, Ali took on all-comers and dominated the heavyweight division; Floyd Patterson (TKO12), George Chuvalo (15), Henry Cooper (TKO6), Brian London (KO3), Karl Mildenberger (TKO12), Cleeveland (Big Cat) Williams (TKO3) and Ernie Terrell (15). This was Ali at this devastating best....


In 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating, Ali was called up for induction into the Armed Services but refused induction on the grounds of religious beliefs. This refusal led to the now-famous Ali quote, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong..." 

The national furore over Ali's comment and his refusal to be inducted into the Armed Services, caused virtually every state and local entity in America to cancel Ali's boxing licenses. He was stripped of his championship title, his passport was taken and the threat of imprisonment for his action loomed over him while his case was litigated. Following the Zora Folley fight in 1967, Ali did not fight again for 31/2 years while his case went through the courts. During this time he continually spoke out against the Vietnam War and reverted to the college lecture circuit. During his enforced exile he called himself "The People's Champion" and continued to be recognised as the world heavyweight champion in Great Britain and Japan.  

The Fight of The Century:

Ali's exile from boxing had left a void in the heavyweight division. During this time Joe Frazier came to the fore and destroyed the heavyweight competition with his aggressive, non-stop punching style. On February 16th 1970, Joe Frazier stopped Jimmy Ellis in five rounds winning the WBA and the vacant WBC Heavyweight titles and gained universal recognition as World Heavyweight Champion for the first time since Ali was stripped of his title. Following the Ellis fight Frazier then knocked out undisputed Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster in two rounds at the Cobo Arena in Detroit in November, 1970.

By 1970 public opinion on the Vietnam War had started to shift and on August 12, 1970, while his case was still on appeal, Ali was granted a boxing license by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission allowing him to box in the state of Georgia. On October 26th 1970, Ali fought for the first time in 43 months, in Atlanta Georgia and stopped the number 2 ranked Jerry Quarry in three rounds.

Shortly after the Quarry fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license. On 7 December 1970, three weeks after Frazier's destruction of Bob Foster, Ali fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, New York. After a tough 14 rounds, Ali stopped Bonavena in the 15th. Following the Ali-Bonavena bout, the hype and build-up exploded and the world demanded an Ali-Frazier showdown.

On December 30th 1970, Joe Frazier (with a record of 26-0) and Muhammad Ali (with a record of 31-0) signed to face each other for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World. The fight was scheduled for March 8th 1971 at Madison Square Garden and was dubbed 'The Fight of The Century'. The fight captured the world's imagination and ended up grossing over 30 million dollars. Never before in boxing history have two undefeated Heavyweight Champions met when both were at, or close to, their respective prime and both with a legitimate claim to being the heavyweight champion of the world.

Not only was this a fight featuring two undefeated heavyweights, who were both in their prime, but they were both genuinely great fighters who had dominated the heavyweight division with only fate keeping them apart. The hunger for the fight was further intensified by the polar differences between their fighting styles and their personalities. The only thing they shared in common was that they were both undefeated. As the hype built, tickets for the fight were like gold dust - Frank Sinatra, unable to acquire a ringside seat, took photos of the match ringside for Life magazine.

The fight more than lived up to the hype. During the first five rounds, Ali threw and landed some of the hardest punches and swiftest combinations that he had on any other fighter in his career. But Frazier kept on coming - by continuously bobbing and weaving to avoid Ali's combinations, he slowly managed to get inside and work Ali's body. By the eighth round this started to take effect and Ali had slowed to a walk.

Going into the ninth round, it appeared that Frazier was taking the play away from Ali and the tide was turning in his favour. Then Ali suddenly exploded with a series of stinging right hands and well-placed hooks stunning Frazier. Joe recovered and by round 10 the fight was still in the balance.

During the final rounds Frazier came on strong and Ali's three and a half year lay-off started to catch up with him. Then 24 seconds into the fifteenth and final round, Ali was set to throw a right uppercut when Frazier beat him to the punch and connected with a brutal left-hook - Ali was down. Remarkably, Ali was up before referee Arthur Mercante could pick up the count at three, but for the rest of the round Frazier was all over Ali, and won what was the biggest round of the fight for either fighter. Frazier had retained the title on a unanimous decision and Ali had suffered his first professional loss. 

The Exile Ends:

As public opinion on the war continued to shift and in June 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Ali's favour, reversed his conviction and upheld his conscientious objector claim. Ali was free of the spectre of jail, and to travel to box anywhere in the world. The exile was over and the second part to his career began as Ali started his journey to regain The Heavyweight Championship of the World.

The Heavyweight division was now at its strongest for many years. Ali's quest to regain his title began with a series of wins; Jimmy Ellis (TKO12), Buster Mathis (12), Jurgen Blin (KO7), Mac Foster (15), George Chuvalo (12), Jerry Quarry (TKO7), Alvin Lewis (TKO11), Floyd Patterson (TKO7), Bob Foster (KO7) and Joe Bugner (12).

In 1973 Ali fought Ken Norton and lost by a split decision in 12 rounds even though Ali's jaw was broken during the fight. Ali won the rematch, also by a split decision, on September 10, 1973, which set up Ali-Frazier II, a non-title rematch with Joe Frazier, (Frazier had already lost his title to George Foreman). The bout was held on January 28, 1974, with Ali winning by a unanimous 12-round decision.

Ali was now the number one contender and 7 years after being stripped of his title and entering exile in 1967 he had the chance once more to regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Ali was now 32 years old and faced his greatest challenge. 

The Rumble in The Jungle:

On 22 January, 1973 George Foreman challenged Joe Frazier the undefeated and undisputed World Heavyweight Champion. Before the fight Frazier was 29–0 (25 KO) and Foreman was 37–0 (34 KO). Foreman's record was formidable - 29 of his 37 fights finishing inside 4 rounds. Despite this, Frazier, as the champion, was considered favourite. Frazier was knocked down six times by Foreman within two rounds as George became undisputed champion.

Foreman won his first defence of the title in less than 2 minutes of round 1. He then took on the highly regarded Ken Norton, who had previously beaten Ali in their first fight. In an astonishing display of aggression and punching power, Foreman knocked out Norton in just two rounds scoring three knockdowns in the second round. The win made Foreman 40–0 with 37 knockouts.

It was Foreman, one of the most formidable heavyweights in boxing history, who now stood in Ali's way to regaining his heavyweight title. Don King promoted the fight which was to be held in Kinshasa, Zaire in the summer of 1974 and Foreman and Ali spent much of the summer training in Zaire to acclimatize. The fight was originally set to happen in September, but Foreman was injured and cut near his eye during training, pushing the fight back to 30 October.

Ali was considered to have no chance in the fight, not even Ali's friends, supporters and training camp believed that he could beat Foreman. Foreman was 3 to 1 on and many boxing commentators believed that at 32, Ali had reached the end of the road. Foreman was simply devastating, his last eight fights had all ended inside six minutes. Fight experts argued that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had given Ali four tough battles in the ring winning two of them, while Foreman had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in devastating fashion in less than two rounds.

Only Ali himself believed in his destiny and he seemed to take strength from being in Africa as he built a spiritual connection with the African people during his training throughout the summer of '74. Eight of Foreman's previous bouts didn't go past the second round but it was only Ali who saw this as Foreman's weakness.

Leading up to the fight, Ali had declared he was going to "dance" using his speed to keep away from Foreman and his superior boxing skills to outbox him. Most observers believed Ali's only chance of surviving the fight, never mind winning it, was to try and stay away from Foreman for 12 rounds. So the world and Foreman expected Ali to dance, but Ali realised that in the African humidity and against the younger and more powerful champion it was suicide to attempt this for 12 rounds. Ali changed up and as usual did the unexpected. At the opening bell, he seized the initiative with an audacious attack. He rushed at Foreman and began scoring with right hand leads, surprising Foreman who was expecting Ali to be on his toes and dancing away from him. Ali caught Foreman nine times in the first round with right leads, but failed to knock him out.

The Rumble in The Jungle

In the second round, Ali changed tactics again and retreated to the ropes, inviting Foreman to hit him, while counterpunching and verbally taunting the younger man. Foreman became enraged and pounded ferociously on Ali who lay back and covered up on the ropes. Ali's corner screamed at him to get off the ropes. The worldwide audience held its breath waiting for the inevitable knockout to come. But as Foreman threw wide shots to Ali's body, Ali covered up and countered with stinging straight punches to Foreman's head. Ali also leaned down on Foreman's neck as Foreman attacked, sapping the champion's energy. Foreman became more and more enraged and threw hundreds of punches in the first seven rounds - slowly the African conditions, Ali's stinging counter punches and constant taunting began to take effect.

As Foreman continued to hit him, Ali taunted him "Is that all you got, George? You disappoint me! My Grandma punches harder than you do... you supposed to be bad..!" Ali continued to demand Foreman to hit him harder. Then he opened up his gloves and said, "George, now it's my turn," as he sent stinging counter punches to Foreman's head. To compound the mind games, Ali started to stand between rounds as George watched slumped on his stool sucking in air in the humid African night.

By the end of the seventh round, Foreman was exhausted. In the eighth round Ali's moment came as he knew it would. Countering off the ropes Ali unleashed a devastating combination landing two beautifully timed straight right hands, a left hook and a perfect final right hand. Foreman staggered for a moment and then fell in a slow pirouette to the canvas. As the count reached 10 he could only half stand and the fight was over. Against the odds, Ali had regained the title at the age of 32 against one of the most formidable heavyweights of all time.

Ali's tactic of leaning on the ropes, covering up, and absorbing Foreman's body shots was later termed the "Rope-A-Dope". The "Rumble in the Jungle" was the subject of a 1996 Academy Award winning documentary film, "When We Were Kings", which perfectly captures the enormity of Ali's achievement that night. Also Norman Mailer who was ringside for the fight and spent time with Ali as he trained in Africa wrote one of the great boxing books, "The Fight".

The Thrilla in Manila:

After regaining the title against George Foreman in Zaire, Ali successfully defended the belt three times within three months. In March 1975, Ali faced Chuck Wepner in a bout that inspired the original Rocky film. While it was largely thought that Ali would dominate, Wepner surprised everyone by not only knocking Ali down in the ninth round, but nearly going the distance. Ali eventually stopped Wepner in the fading minutes of the 15th round. Following a title defence with Ron Lyle, in July Ali faced Joe Bugner, winning a 15 round decision.

Then on October 1, 1975, Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time, this time in Metro Manila in the Philippines in a bout promoted as 'The Thrilla in Manila'. The anticipation was enormous for this third and final clash between two great heavyweights. Ali believed Frazier was "over the hill" and used his usual tactics to unsettle his opponent, but maybe this time went too far using frequent insults, slurs and demeaning poems and naming Frazier the "Gorilla". All of this increased the anticipation and excitement for the fight, but also enraged a determined Frazier who trained to win at any cost.

Ali started the fight quickly walking flat-footed to the centre of the ring and unleashing a flurry of combinations on Frazier. Frazier was hurt a number of times by Ali's onslaught and Ali clearly won the opening rounds. Despite Ali's dominance, Frazier just kept smiling as he took Ali's punches and retaliated with hooks to Ali's arms and body. Slowly the tide began to turn as Ali started to tire in the searing heat - Frazier was unrelenting with hooks to body and head, prepared to take 3 shots to land one of his own.

The Thrilla in Manilla

By round 10 both fighters were showing signs of fatigue in the fierce heat and the pace had slowed. Angelo Dundee said after the fight: "Both guys ran out of gas, only my guy had an extra tank". Not for the first time, Ali found something deep inside him to come again. Ali punished Frazier with fast combinations to the head closing both Frazier's eyes but Joe refused to give up. By round 14 Frazier was almost blind as Ali unleashed a series of lefts and rights to the face and jaw staggering Frasier. Amazingly Frazier was still standing at the end of the round and made it back to his corner with swellings to the left side of his forehead and under his right eye. By now both eyes were closed and he could no longer see. Before the start of the fifteenth and final round Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, refused to let Frazier continue and stopped the fight. Ali, who was staggering with exhaustion, fell to the canvas and had to be helped to his feet.

The fight had lasted 14 gruelling rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit and both men had gone to their limit and beyond. Following the fight, Ali claimed that this was the closest to dying he had ever been. Ali's respect for Joe was made clear when he said, "I'll tell the world right now, Joe brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him." To many fight experts this was and still is the greatest title bout of boxing history.

The Curtain Call:

The final fight with Frazier took it's toll on both fighters and Frazier retired in 1976. Ali continued, but never again scaled those heights. In February 1976, Ali easily beat Jean-Pierre Coopman (KO5). In April 1976 he defeated Jimmy Young (15) and then, the following month, Richard Dunn (TKO5), which would turn out to be Ali's last knockout victory. In September 1976, at Yankee Stadium, Ali faced Ken Norton in their third fight, with Ali winning a close but unanimous 15-round decision. 1977 saw Ali defend his title against Alfredo Evangelista (15) and Earnie Shavers (15). It was after this fight that doctor Ferdie Pacheco left Ali's camp due to Ali's refusal to retire.

Then in February 1978, time finally caught up with Ali as he lost the heavyweight title to 1976 Olympics Champion Leon Spinks. On September 15, 1978, Ali fought a rematch in the New Orleans Louisiana Superdome against Spinks for the WBA version of the Heavyweight title, winning it for a record third time. Ali retired following this victory on June 27, 1979.

Sadly, he returned in 1980 to face the then current champion Larry Holmes in an attempt to win a heavyweight title an unprecedented four times. At 38 years old, Ali was in no condition to take on an exceptional champion who had learnt his trade as a sparring partner for Ali. Angelo Dundee refused to let his man come out for the 11th round, in what became Ali's only loss by anything other than a decision. Ali's final fight, a loss by unanimous decision after 10 rounds, was to up-and-coming challenger Trevor Berbick in 1981.

It was a career of remarkable highs, spanning more than 20 years from 1960 to 1981. Ali's record was 56 Wins, 5 Loss, 37 Knockouts, but this only begins to tell the story. In all of boxing history, Muhammad Ali stands alone. Ali had become the best-known athlete in the world and, very possibly, the best loved as well. To this day a true hero.

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