Muhammad Ali, the world champion boxer and global icon, died on June 3 at the age of 74. Throughout his grand, globe-spanning life, Chicago would play a particularly pivotal part in Ali’s personal transformation from the little boy born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, to one of Islam’s most popular proselytizers.
Much of Ali’s Chicago experience was lived on the city’s South Side — from the Nation of Islam’s mosques and bakeries and schools to the Hyde Park mansion — but some of his most formidable early Chicago moments occurred on the Near West Side, just a pre-fight’s jog away from neighborhoods like West Garfield Park and North Lawndale and Austin.
Ali first visited Chicago, according to Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, in the late 1950s to compete in Golden Gloves tournaments at the old Chicago Stadium on Madison Street. According to heavyweight boxer Ernie Teller, who witnessed the young Clay compete on Madison, the braggadocio that would later become world-famous was already on full display.
“He ran his mouth a lot,” said Terrell, whom Steinberg quotes from another interview. Before one Golden Gloves fight in 1957, Ali told “every light heavyweight to stand up,” Terrell said, before recalling Ali’s early boldness.
“‘I just want to tell you, you know who’s going to win this thing? It’s gonna be me.’ He just left us standing there looking at each other,” recalled the heavyweight. “That’s the first time I noticed him.”
“I am the greatest,” Ali said after he became famous. “I said that even before I knew I was.”
Muhammad Ali in his own words
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.
“We were brought here 400 years ago for a job. Why don’t we get out and build our own nation and quit begging for jobs? We’ll never be free until we own our own land. We’re 40m people and we don’t have two acres that’s truly ours.
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.
“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”
— Ali speaking in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
— Ali speaking in March 1967 about his decision not to enlist in the army to fight the Vietnam War
“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
— Ali on his 1973 loss to Ken Norton
“… I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could — financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
— A 33-year-old Ali during a 1975 Playboy magazine interview