muhammad ali
American boxing legend Muhammad Ali stood up for his convictions, even when they were unpopular, and went through several disappointments before his meteoric rise to the hall of fame. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dutch National Archives

Everyone knows the name Muhammad Ali – the American boxing legend who still inspires with his ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ class act in the ring. But he was once a teary-eyed 12-year-old, looking for a stolen bicycle and his purpose in life.

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Here are five things about Ali, that you probably didn’t know:

1. A stolen bike led him to boxing

When Ali was 12, and still went by the name Cassius Clay, he attended an annual convention of the Louisville Service Club in Kentucky, US. When it was done, Clay exited the building and looked for his new red and white Schwinn bicycle. It was nowhere to be found. Tearful and anxious, Clay asked around, and was directed to the basement of the auditorium by onlookers. That was where Clay’s life changed forever. The basement turned out to be a boxing gym, where a policeman by the name Joe Martin met the crying Clay and consoled him. He also asked him a question that would turn the course of his life: “Do you know how to fight?” Clay reportedly said no, but that he would fight anyway. So, Martin told him to learn about fighting “before you go and make any hasty challenges”. Clay followed his advice, and Martin took on the role of becoming his first ever trainer.

2. He refused to serve during the Vietnam War

In 1967, when Americans were asked to join the army, Ali refused to do so. He issued a statement saying it went against his personal convictions and noted: “I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. I do so with the full realisation of its implications. I have searched my conscience.”

3. He paid for his decision

The US government didn’t take his decision well. Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to the maximum sentence – a fine of $10,000 (Dh36,750) and five years in prison. The New York Boxing Commission even suspended his license. But in 1970, the New York State Supreme Court reinstated Ali’s license, and he returned to the ring.

4. Grammy nominated boxer

Ali proved he was talented in other fields, as well. In 1963, he released a spoken-word comedy album, titled ‘I am the Greatest’. The performance was live, before an audience of 200. His album was so well received, he was nominated for a Grammy Award. Ali then went on to collaborate in 1976 with singers Frank Sinatra, Ossie Davis, Howard Cossell and others, and to record another album, called ‘Ali and His Gang vs. Mr Tooth Decay’.

5. He never turned fans away

When a young Ali eagerly lined up to meet another American boxing legend, Sugar Ray Robinson, in 1960, he received a rude shock. He was turned away. This was incredibly disappointing, since Ali often called Robinson ‘the king, the master, my idol’. Later in life, Ali reminisced in an interview that this was the moment he vowed to never turn a fan away. It was a philosophy he followed throughout life, even saying once: “I’m the people’s champion. You can walk up to me and say ‘hello’ without paying.”

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