Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Knockout Kentuckian!

"Ali sizes up opponent with reaching left" [undated]
James Edwin Ed Weddle Photographic Collection 1948-1981
Available on KDL

Well, a technical knockout (TKO) anyway.

Today, in 1964, famous Louisvillian Muhammad Ali became the youngest boxer to win the Heavyweight title, at 22 years of age. Then known as Cassius "Louisville Lip" Clay, he took the title from Sonny "Big Bear" Liston, after Liston refused to return from his corner for the 7th round. It was prior to this match that Ali uttered his well-known line, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

With rumors swarming regarding Clay's association with Malcolm X, the following day (2/26/1964), he changed his name to Cassius X, renouncing the surname of his family's former slaveholders. [Note: Cassius M. Clay was named for his father who, in turn, was named after the 19th-century Kentucky emancipationist.] Within the following year, Clay changed his name again to Muhammad Ali, in relation to his Islam conversion.

Ali had an extremely successful boxing career. Before his first title - which he held for 3 years until it was taken away when it was stripped due to his refusal of the Army draft for religious reasons - he won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. He later regained the Heavyweight Championship twice, holding it for almost half of the 1970s. Throughout his life he has been passionately active in Civil Rights reform, using his celebrity to champion the cause, even after his 1984 diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.

His athletic and societal achievements have afforded him numerous accolades, including the 1997 Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Kentucky Athlete of the Century (1999, Kentucky Hall of Fame), and Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005). He even lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics! His social activism continues, as does his boxing legacy, through his daughter, Laila (she started her career in 2002).