Sports History

Muhammad Ali: Undeniably Great

Jan 17 2021

On this day in 1942, Muhammad Ali (né Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He began boxing at twelve years old and rose quickly to national prominence, becoming an amateur boxing champion by the time he graduated high school. Ali gained valuable experience in the late 1950s—in 1958, he competed in the Golden Gloves tournament at Chicago Stadium and narrowly missed attending the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago, losing in the trials to Amos Johnson, who eventually won gold there. By the next summer, Ali qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won the light heavyweight gold medal, catapulting him to international fame and the start of his professional career. 

In 1962, Muhammad Ali attended a Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day event where the opening speaker was Malcolm X, a charismatic Nation of Islam (NOI) minister who spent the previous decade attracting new converts and establishing new temples around the US. The NOI was founded in Detroit in 1930 and moved to Chicago in the mid-1930s, where its headquarters has remained since. By 1964, Ali became a member of the NOI, shed his birth name of Cassius Clay Jr., and moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he lived for about twelve years to further his studies. 

While living in Chicago, Ali continued his boxing training. He used this jump rope, which he gifted to Sultan Muhammad, the son of his personal manager, Jabir-Herbert Muhammad. Sultan Muhammad served as the personal pilot and aide to NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, his grandfather. In 1985, Jabir-Herbert Muhammad received this limited-edition, gold-plated World Boxing Council belt buckle to mark Muhammad Ali’s reign as the greatest boxer of all time. The back bears Ali’s facsimile signature and the edition number 5,358. Both of these objects were loaned to the Chicago History Museum for our exhibition American Medina: Stories of Muslim Chicago.   

Listen to Muhammad Ali discuss his childhood and family, conversion to Islam, stance on the Vietnam War, and experiences in jail in his oral history interview with Studs Terkel.

From left: Muhammad Ali (hand on chin) wears a Fruit of Islam uniform as he listens to the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, speak to a crowd at the Saviours’ Day event in the Coliseum at 15th St. and Wabash Ave., Chicago, February 27, 1966. ST-19031786-0007, Chicago Sun-Times collection, CHM. Jump rope with autographed handle, United States, c. 1970. Commemorative World Boxing Council belt buckle, 1985. Both items courtesy of Sultan Rahman Muhammad. Muhammad Ali training in Chicago, published on page 9 of Muhammad Speaks, November 10, 1967. CHM, ICHi-177193A.

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