There is very little that has not been written about the life of Muhammad Ali. He was a legend in the world of boxing, transcending the sport to become a global cultural icon. Even after his death, Ali will still remain in the memories of many and will be forgotten by few. However, there is still plenty of intrigue that surrounds the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and gold medalist at the Olympics.
His official biographer, Davis Miller, gives a unique insight into the things most of Ali’s fans do not know about.
Ali Changed His Name Several Times
Everyone knows that Cassius Clay chose to convert to Islam in the 1960s and to change his name to Muhammad Ali. What few people know is that he had prior rebranding plans. According to Miller, despite popular opinion, Muhammad Ali’s first name change was Cassius X, a name he adopted in February 1964, shortly after his fight with Sonny Liston. However, a mere two weeks later, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, gave him the name Muhammad Ali. Miller, Ali’s long time friend, says that the name could have originally been meant for Malcolm X, a radical leader who split from the group shortly after Ali joined.
Ali Was a Sufi
It is a commonly known fact that during the Vietnam War, Ali refused to join the US Army, resulting in him being stripped of his title. As a Muslim, he claimed to have religious reasons for foregoing military service. Ali had previously been associated with the militant goals of the pro-African American Nation of Islam, but he later switched allegiances to a more mystical Islamic sect.
He made his decision public in 2005, indicating that he felt a closer connection to the ideals of Sufism than any other branch of Islam. Defending his decision, Ali said that he believed Sufism was the most moderate sect that could be found in any major religion. This is because a major belief of Sufis is that harming any living being, brings harm to every other living thing and damages the world. According to Miller, Sufism was a fit for Ali, since he had been living a Sufi lifestyle long before he had even heard of the religion.
He Was Injured When Making His Comeback
Ali declined to serve in the military as a conscientious objector and, besides being stripped of his title, he was banned from the sport for nearly four years. His first fight, after serving his enforced exile from boxing, was against Jerry Quarry, who was at the time, the number one heavyweight contender. At the age of 28, Ali would then successfully return to the sport he loved, beating Quarry by a TKO, although the fight almost didn’t happen.
Ali took only six weeks to train for his big comeback fight. During his preparation, according to his long-time friend Jimmy Ellis, the former heavyweight champion injured one of his ribs. Despite being injured and in pain, Ali decided not to cancel the fight, fearing that if he did, he might not get a chance to fight again.
Ali Found New Ways to Communicate Due To Parkinson’s Disease
Muhammad Ali had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for over three decades, having been diagnosed with the ailment in 1984. Because of this, physical gestures had become vitally important to him. Miller says that he had learned to communicate using his hands, eyes and facial expressions. He adds that the Champ had learned to make a sound like a cricket by clicking his thumb and index finger. He would also blow on top of heads and would tickle visitors’ palms when he shook their hands. Although he could walk, he would often be found resting in a wheelchair or relaxing in an easy chair. This was a far cry from the irrepressibly animated character he was in his boxing heyday.
Ali Was an Amateur Magician
One of Ali’s most memorable quotes was, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” One of the most charming things about him was his rap rhymes chiding his opponents before each fight. However, he had other tricks up his sleeve as well. Until his Parkinson’s disease got worse, Ali would often amaze visitors with his sleight of hand magic tricks.
He could make scarves disappear and reappear; he would bite coins in half and later restore them, and would often surprise guests by appearing to float off the ground by rising up on one foot while flexing the other.
One time, shortly after his friend and fellow heavyweight fighter Eddie Jones had been introduced, Ali came into the ring and boxed a very relaxed and completely dazzling first round, during which he bounced dozens of straight right leads, hooks, jabs and uppercuts off Eddie’s face.
When the bell rang to mark the end of the round, a corner man removed his gloves and Ali went to the center of the ring. He then shouted to the crowd, “a man with no imagination has no wings,” pointing to the crowd with his fist. “He cannot fly.”
While still holding the outstretched fist that had been used to pummel his opponent for the past few minutes, Ali rolled it over, his arm bent at the elbow and slowly brought it to his chest. He then opened his hand and amazed the crowd by releasing a bird that flew up to the ceiling. It was an incredible experience that few in attendance will ever forget; just like so many will never forget the one and only Muhammad Ali.