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March 6: The day Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali6 min read

March 6, 2021 5 min read

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March 6: The day Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali6 min read

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Rewind with Owliver

March 6 was a game-changer in the life of this legendary athlete – literally! On this day in 1964, the lesser-known Cassius Clay became known as one of the most famous names in the sporting world, Muhammad Ali. Now, we’re sure you’ve heard of Ali – he was named ‘Sportsman of the Century’ for being one of the most famous boxers in the world! 

However, Muhammad Ali wasn’t always known by this name. Among the many incredible boxing achievements and strong social and political stands he took, his name change was also an important event in the history of the man they call ‘The Greatest’. 

On this week’s Rewind with Owliver, let’s look back at the life of Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016 at the age of 74. 

Stolen cycle sparks boxing dreams

Ali was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky in the US. His birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. He, like his father, was named after an important figure in the fight against slavery. Cassius Marcellus Clay was a 19th-century farmer and anti-slavery crusader who freed 40 slaves. This was part of a major movement across countries called the abolitionist movement. It was an organised effort to end the practice of slavery in the United States. Years of fights and struggles culminated in the Civil War, which marked the end of slavery in the United States. 

Ali after winning the Olympic gold medal

Getting back, from an early age, a young Clay showed that he wasn’t afraid of any kind of fight. He also experienced racial prejudice and discrimination firsthand. At the age of 12, Clay discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. After his bike was stolen, Clay told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. 

“Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people,” Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym. Clay then started training with Martin and soon began his boxing career. His first amateur bout was in 1954. 

Boxing career

Ali’s gloves are kept in a museum in the US for people to see

In his earliest fights, Clay won the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the Light Heavyweight Division.

By this time, Clay was already gaining recognition. In 1960, he travelled to Rome, Italy, to participate in the Olympics. He defeated all his opponents to win the Gold Medal. On February 25, 1964, Clay challenged Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the world. Back then, Liston was known for being the most powerful fighter of his time, however, in a legendary match in boxing history, Clay beat Liston and was crowned Heavyweight Champion of the world. 

For the next few years, Clay, who was by then Muhammed Ali, dominated boxing rings, beating some of the greatest in the game at the time. 

So why the name change?

The morning he defeated Liston for the heavyweight champion title, Clay shocked the world when he announced that he had converted to the religion of Islam, joining a group called the Nation of Islam. He rejected the surname ‘Clay’ as he said it was a reminder of his ‘slave’ name. He initially called himself Cassius X, but was officially bestowed the name Muhammad Ali on march 6, 1964. 

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

What’s interesting is that though Ali publicly announced his name change in front of the world, he never actually changed it officially. An investigation revealed that on his birth certificate, he was still Cassius Clay!

The Vietnam issue 

In 1967, Ali was drafted by the US Military to fight in the Vietnam War, which he refused. He declined to have anything to do with the war for religious reasons, saying war is against the teachings of Islam. As a result, he was arrested on charges of felony and was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He remained out on bail but his boxing license and heavyweight title were snatched from him. Thereafter, he took a three-year break from professional boxing.  

The comeback

Ali made his comeback to boxing in 1970. It was in the early 1970s that he fought some of his most memorable fights, which were also given some unique names! 

Ali throws a punch at Joe Frazier during a match called ‘Fight of the Century’

Three of Ali’s most famous fights include: 

Fight of the Century – The ‘Fight of the Century’ took place on March 8, 1971 in New York City between Ali and Joe Frazier. This fight went all 15 rounds with Ali losing to Frazier by decision. It was Ali’s first loss as a professional. 

Rumble in the Jungle – The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ took place on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire between Ali and George Foreman. Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round to regain the title of Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. 

Thrilla in Manila – The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ took place on October 1, 1975 in Quezon City, Philippines between Ali and Joe Frazer. 

Retirement and Ali’s later days

Ali with former US President George W Bush in 2005.

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, which was linked by experts to injuries he sustained while boxing. The former champion’s motor skills slowly declined, and his movement and speech were limited due to the disease. However, he continued to make public appearances while voicing his support for various charitable causes. 

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

Ali became famous for a lot more than boxing, and one of his claims to fame was his poetic abilities. ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see’ – these are possibly the most iconic lines the boxer invented! 

Sources: The Independant, India Today, Britannica, history.com

Photos: Kiddle, Sports Illustrated, EPA, Getty