1) Muhammad Ali was originally named Cassius Clay in honor of a nineteenth-century white farmer and abolitionist who emancipated the forty slaves he inherited from his father.
2) The thing that motivated him to become a boxer was his beloved bicycle. When it got stolen in 1954, 12 year old Ali reported the theft to a policeman who gave boxing lessons at a local community center. The officer, who was also a boxing trainer, suggested that Ali learn how to fight, and six weeks later Ali won his first amateur boxing match by a split decision.
3) He never turns down an autograph request.As a young boy, Cassius Clay asked his idol, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson for an autograph. Robinson rudely told the boy « I don’t got time. » Young Cassius never forgot how hurt he was by Robinson’s rejection.
4) Demonstrating his newfound conversion to the Nation of Islam and friendship with Malcolm X in February of 1964, Cassius Clay announced that he was revoking his “slave” surname and dubbed himself “Cassius X before becoming Muhammad Ali.
5) In 1967, during the Vietnam War, the heavyweight champion was not only arrested, but in addition the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison. He remained free though while the conviction was appealed. In 1970 the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated, and after 3 years Ali returned to the ring by knocking out Jerry Quarry in October 1970.
6) It was learned, many years after the fact, that there was also a secret war against Ali taking place behind the scenes. Declassified National Security Agency files showed that Ali was one of several individuals spied on during what was called “Operation Minaret.”
7) Ali was known for talking trash. He even composed his own verses in which he taunted his opponents and praised himself. People at Columbia Records were so impressed by his taunts that they decided to release a 1963 spoken-word album called I Am the Greatest, in which the twenty-one-year-old performed his “trash talking,” backed my musical accompaniment.
8) In 1975, Ali was watching the news on TV and a story came on about an elderly community that was closing because it didn’t have enough money. The next day the boxing champ went to the center and wrote a $100,000 check to keep the community center from closing. He also secretly gave a diamond ring worth thousands of dollars to a little girl in a wheelchair and routinely gave $100 bills to impoverished people he met on the streets.
9) He was involved in charitable work and philanthropy around the world, he also fought multiple times abroad. Ali fought 15 of his 56 professional bouts outside the United States, including his famous 1974 « Rumble in the Jungle » match against George Foreman in Zaire.
10) He Saved 15 Hostages From Saddam Hussein in 1990. After Hussein invaded Kuwait, he took 15 public hostages as a human shield against what he thought would be an inevitable United States invasion. Against the public attacks of the George H.W. Bush administration, Muhammad Ali flew into Iraq in an attempt to free the hostages. Hussein made Ali wait a week before even meeting with him, but eventually the leader spoke to the humanitarian boxer and allowed him to bring the 15 hostages home not because Hussein was such a big boxing fan, but because he respected that Ali had spoken out against the oppression and hypocrisies of the American government in the 1960s.
11) Since 2013, the Muhammad Ali Center in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, honors him with the “Three Days of Greatness.