Originally known as Cassius Clay, the three-time World Heavyweight Champion is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight championship boxers of all time. Muhammad Ali, who changed name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, is one of the most recognisable, influential and controversial figures in sporting history. Ali’s inner sagacious clown ensured that he was never shy of a word or short on confidence, and he has breathed some memorable quotations.
In a career largely defined by his three encounters against Joe Frazier and ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman, there has been preaching of peace, boasting of supremacy and scorning of adversaries. Here are the Sport.co.uk ‘Top Ten’ witticisms and annotations from the great fighter:
1. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is perhaps Ali’s most famous self-depiction. Prior to the 1974 George Foreman fight, he also added: “His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see,” to complete a rhyme.
2. Ali once chirped: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”
The self-assured fighter had the canny knack of not only exhaustedly inflating his own profile, but making his opponents feel infinitesimal.
3. Before his fight against Jerry Quarry in 1970 - a fight that inspired the first Rocky movie - Ali stated: “Nobody has to tell me that this is a serious business. I'm not fighting one man. I'm fighting a lot of men, showing a lot of 'em, here is one man they couldn't defeat, couldn't conquer. My mission is to bring freedom to 30m black people.”
Not one to take his existence for granted, the great boxer knew that he had to use his profile to aid more meaningful causes.
4. “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick,” Ali ostentatiously remarked before the 1974 Foreman fight, in plain but somewhat scruffy parlance.
Nevertheless, his point was clear and precise - this man was not going to lay down and die against the champ. Packaged as the ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ by Don King, Ali regained his title on October 30, by defeating Foreman in their bout in Kinshasa, Zaire - one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
5. Addressing his outlandish, brazen demeanour, Ali quipped: “A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I have seen the light and I'm crowing.”
6. Again, not one to be found stunted of confidence, the man considered the paramount boxer in history by many people and certainly by himself, said: “I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round.”
7. Ali once stated that: “Champions aren't made in gyms, champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
Addressing the importance of the marriage between nature and nurture, Ali understood the traits that separate a very good boxer from a great one.
8. “It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila,” bantered Ali, doing his bit to promote the 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ contest against Frazier.
This was the third Ali-Frazier battle and Ali viewed his opponent as past it. Ali's numerous slurs and demeaning poems increased the anticipation for the fight, and enraged a determined Frazier.
9. “When Ernie Terrell refused to call him Muhammad Ali in their 1967 encounter, the great fighter howled: “What's my name, fool? What's my name?" in the kind of vernacular that the A-Team’s Mr T would make famous in the eighties.
Aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made Ali a magnet for controversy, turning the candid but admired champion into one of that era's most recognizable but litigious figures.
10. Ali once posed the question: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs.”
Despite failing the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying tests in 1964, he passed the subsequent tests two years later, qualifying him to be part of the U.S. Army when the United States was involved in the Vietnam War. After refusing to join and publicly declaring himself a conscientious objector, he stated that “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an.”
He was found guilty on draft evasion charges, stripped of his boxing title, and his boxing license was suspended. He did not fight again for over three-and-a-half years.