Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest boxers of all time.
He was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and began training as an amateur boxer when he was 12 years old. At the age of 18 years, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, then turned professional later that year, before converting to Islam after 1961.
At the age of 22, in 1964, he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in a major upset. He then changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, to Muhammad Ali. He set an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement.
Ali was one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century and remains the only three-time lineal champion of that division. His records of beating 21 boxers for the world heavyweight title (shared with Joe Louis), as well as winning 14 unified title bouts (shared with former welterweight champion José Napoles), were unbeaten for 35 years.
Ali is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times. He has been ranked the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.
He was also ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, and the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN Sports Century.
Ali was clearly a performer, but he was also a visual artist, of a genre which could generously be called outsider art. Looking at his works circa 1979 on the virtual Museum of Uncut Funk, there is an irrepressible joy in it.
The artwork is childlike in its use of bright, expressive, crayon-like colors. The crowds watching him fight in Sting like a Bee are represented with white, yellow and brown smiley faces.
Muhammad Ali was a cultural force to be reckoned with; the star of boring’s golden era, when high culture met low culture and the two came together. Ali brought together black and white intellectuals and artists across the board – from Hunter S Thompson to Norman Mailer to George Plimpton to James Brown – and mixed with boxing’s regular cast of scoundrels.
Ali was a great supporter of African American artists and performers, and – more importantly – he inspired countless artists. His face quotes and likeness was a meme generator of their day. Ali inspired multiple songs, not just Johnny Wakelin’s Black Superman (“Muhammad, was known to have said/You watch me shuffle and I’ll jab off your head/He moves like the black superman/And calls to the other guy I’m Ali catch me if you can”), but also R Kelly’s The World’s Greatest and Muhammad Ali by Faithless.
Muhammad Ali artworks visualize one of Ali’s greatest quotes:
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Most adults don’t have the courage to display themselves as artists – and famous people are very unlikely to show art that would seem amateur or childlike. But Ali made himself to be free both as a champ in the ring and on a canvas.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, at the age of 39, Ali focused on religion and charity