Muhammad Ali's Heavyweight Championships

by Robert Alley

Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, is widely considered to be one of the best boxers of all time. He was named by ESPN as the third greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, behind only Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth. Ali won the heavyweight boxing championship three times over a period of 14 years.

Amateur Career

Muhammad Ali's boxing career began when he was still Cassius Clay. He started boxing at age 12 and won two national Gold Glove championships and one Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national light-heavyweight title. Clay grabbed the attention of the world at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where defeated four opponents to win the light-heavyweight gold medal at age 18. He turned professional when he returned to the United States and began his pro career in October 1960.

First Heavyweight Title

Cassius Clay won 20 straight matches as a heavyweight from October 1960 until June 1963. This earned him a fight against the world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. The fight took place on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida. Clay was a 7-1 underdog, and before the fight, 43 of 46 sports writers predicted Liston would win. Clay won his first heavyweight championship after Liston failed to come out of his corner and fight for the seventh round. Following his victory, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

Second Heavyweight Title

Ali defeated Sonny Liston in a rematch in 1965, and went on to defend his heavyweight title eight more times through March 1967. In April of that year, he was drafted. Ali refused to be inducted into the army, and boxing officials stripped him of his title. His subsequent conviction for refusal to serve was reversed by the United States Supreme Court, but Ali did not box again until October 1970. He regained his heavyweight championship on October 30, 1974, when he defeated George Foreman in Zaire. The fight with Foreman (in which Ali was again a 7-1 underdog) was called "The Rumble In The Jungle." Ali introduced a new strategy he called "Rope A Dope." He leaned against the ropes, covered up and allowed Foreman to throw punches. The idea was to wear out Foreman, and it worked. Ali won with a knockout in the eighth round.

Third Heavyweight Title

Muhammad Ali held the heavyweight championship from October 30, 1974 until February 15, 1978, when he lost a split decision to Leon Spinks, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist. During his second title reign, Ali defended his title ten times, including defeating Joe Frazier in Manila on October 1, 1975 in a famous fight called the "Thrilla in Manila." Following the loss to Spinks, a rematch between the two boxers was scheduled for September 15, 1978 in New Orleans. Ali won a unanimous decision and thus became the heavyweight champion for the third time in his career. He retired following this victory and vacated the heavyweight title. However, an aging Ali returned to fight (and lose) two more times.