The Wild and Colorful Life of Mike Tyson, Boxing’s Most Dangerous Fighter
Unless they grew up under a rock, everyone has heard of Mike Tyson. While sports fans know him for his incredible boxing career that cumulated in an illegal move–the infamous ear incident–even more recognize him from his stint in the movie The Hangover.
The talented fighter has a face tattoo that is immediately recognized the whole world over. But beyond his illustrious career, he has a complex, turbulent personal background and a fascinating family life to this day. Continue to get all the stranger-than-fiction facts about Mike Tyson’s life.
Three White Tigers
Never one to rest, Mike Tyson found ways to occupy himself even when he was in jail. He was fond of tigers and exotic cars, both of which are flashy, a bit on the dangerous side, and outrageously expensive. While behind bars, he found out over a phone call that his car dealer was in touch with tiger traders, and he didn’t pass up the opportunity. Soon, his car dealer brought him three white Bengal tigers that would become his famous pets.
They didn’t stay with him for too long, though. Mike Tyson went bankrupt in 2003, and he was forced to let go of his tigers. As if their $70,000-purchase-price wasn’t steep enough, they cost a hefty $4000-a-month to maintain. Nobody knows where they were transferred afterwards, or who their next owner was.
A Childlike Love of Pigeons
Tigers aren’t the only animals that Mike Tyson has a soft spot for. Surprisingly, he’s fond of pigeons. This goes all the way back to his childhood when he was forced to develop a tough skin as other kids teased him “for being fat and ugly,” in his own words. It didn’t help that he grew up without a father.
Pigeons turned out to be his greatest source of happiness as a child. In fact, he’d adored them since he was nine-years-old. Even as an adult, this love never waned, and he liked caring for pigeons and letting them fly free instead of capturing them and keeping them in cages.
The Fighter Unleashed
At one point, Tyson had around 35 pigeons that he kept in Jersey City, New Jersey. After all, beyond bringing him joy pigeons played another important purpose in Tyson’s life: they kickstarted his boxing career.
Tyson hadn’t always seen himself as a fighter. However, this changed when a bully decided to taunt him by pressing on his weak spot. Right in front of Tyson, the bully grabbed one of Tyson’s beloved pigeons and snapped its neck. Without a second thought, Tyson lunged forward and attacked him, deeply affected by seeing pain inflicted on something that he loved. Years later, he would say that this awakened in him the urge to fight and eventually to step in the ring.
Not All Bullies are Human
Given his childhood, it’s not a surprise that Tyson has a strong dislike for bullies—even if they aren’t humans. During the 1980s, he was on a date with his then-wife Robin at the New York Zoo when he noticed a silverback gorilla. Even compared to other gorillas, silverbacks are intimidating, standing 6-feet-tall and weighing as much as 450 pounds.
What caught Tyson’s eyes was the silverback’s behavior. It was bullying other smaller gorillas in the cage. This irked Tyson, who went up to the attendant and offered $10,000 to enter the cage and punch the silverback right in the nose. Objectively, this might not have been a wise move because the silverback was much stronger than Tyson. The attendant had the foresight to refuse his request.
From Punching to Biting
One of Tyson’s most popular boxing opponents was Evander Holyfield. The first time that they faced off was on Nov. 9, 1996, during a WBA championship. Despite what the crowd expected, Holyfield managed to win against Tyson.
The year after that, Tyson was back with a vengeance for Holyfield vs. Tyson II. This fight took place on Jun. 28, 1997, amidst a roaring audience at the MGM Grand Garden Area, Las Vegas. The fight would go down in history because of Tyson’s unique tactics. When he had Holyfield locked in a clinch during the third round, he shocked the crowds by aggressively bit off a 1-inch piece of Holyfield’s ear and then spat it out on the ring. This would become known as the infamous “Bite Fight”. There was an initial pause as Holyfield was given medical attention, but then the fight continued on as before.
The End of His Heyday
Tyson wasn’t backing down that easily. He bit Holyfield a second time, which finally got the fight called off. Holyfield was proclaimed the champion, while Tyson was given a punishment much worse than losing–he wasn’t allowed to compete for 18 months, and he had to pay $3 million in penalties. Whether because of the time spent away from competition or lack of morale, Tyson never regained his original fighting talent after that. Despite facing opponents less skilled than before, his record was inconsistent, and he never fought in a WBA championship again. In fact, he was defeated badly during the WBC finals when Lennox Lewis knocked him out.
In 2021, it was announced the Tyson and Lewis would once again meet in the ring. Tyson returned to the sport in November 2020 when he fought with Roy Jones Jr, a bout that ended in a draw. Next, he was supposed to fight Evander Holyfield but that never came to be. So, he decided to return to one of his biggest former opponents – veteran Lennox Lewis.
Tough As Nails From the Start
Mike Tyson was no stranger to the world of competitive boxing when he first entered. He had grown up well accustomed to aggression, violence, and survival in a hostile environment Tyson’s childhood was the opposite of ideal. When he was two years old, his father left, and his mother had to raise him and his siblings on her own. Relying on public housing, they struggled financially and lived in an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn. Both the streets and the building that they lived in were unfit for children.
On top of that, Tyson’s mother was extremely abusive, beating him up frequently in addition to assaulting him verbally and emotionally. At the same time, Tyson also faced enemies from outside, fighting with men in their thirties even at twelve-years-old. Later on, when he was a teenager, his mother died. Tyson’s childhood was brutal and tragic, to say the least, and it steeled him for the boxing ring.
Growing Up with Drugs and Crime
Without supportive parents or significant role models, Tyson was mostly left to fend on his own. Even during his childhood, he had already racked up a hefty criminal record, engaging in burglary and petty theft. He took up drugs early on, snorting coke for the first time at age 11. By the time he was 13, he had already gone through a whopping 38 arrests.
During his teenage years, he was called an uncontrollable psychopath who had no empathy and desire to abide by the law. He stayed so often in the Bridges Juvenile Center that it practically became his second home. He hated it with a passion, describing it as a rat-infested hellhole.
Always a Rebel
Although the Bridges Juvenile Center saw Tyson often enough, he was still too much for them to handle. His next stop wasn’t any better. He was transferred to Tyron School for Boys, a reform school in New York for juvenile delinquents. Even there, Tyson continued to act up, throwing violent outbursts and attacking everyone, including guards and other kids. His tactics were direct and explosive, from pouring scalding hot water to punching people directly in the face.
As he would recount later in Iron Ambition, he was widely perceived as a crazy guy—someone who was sick in the head and whom you’d better stay away from. School and books did not agree with him, and his penchant for speaking with his fists would carry over to later life.
High Anytime, Anywhere
Tyson might have tried out cocaine at 13-years-old, but even as a baby he was already given alcohol—without his consent. Drugs came next, and he would have a hard time shaking these off for the rest of his life, referring to himself as a “full-blown corkhead.”
Regardless of how much he prioritized winning, Tyson wouldn’t get off drugs. Many of his most intense fights happened while he was high, facing off against great opponents like Danny Williams, Andrew Golota, and Lou Savarese. Perhaps the most striking display of this was during the Lennox Lewis vs. Tyson conference when he bit Lewis on the leg. He chalked it up to being high on cocaine, but the outburst earned him a penalty of $335,000.
Outsmarting Drug Tests
To qualify for official boxing competitions you have to undergo thorough tests, and one requirement is being drug-free. Tyson found a clever workaround. He explained to E! News that he used a fake penis and filled it up with someone else’s urine instead, ensuring a drug-free test result.
As for how he got away with this, he relied a bit on human psychology. He would unzip his pants and try to pee in front of the drug tester, but the testers usually protested, looking away and covering their eyes. This gave him the perfect opportunity to substitute with the clean urine instead.
Love Affairs in Prison
Another notable incident in Tyson’s history was being thrown into prison for rape. He was judged guilty in 1992 of raping Desiree Washington, a contestant in Miss Black America. His punishment for this was 10 years in prison—a heavy sentence that anyone would dread.
However, this passed quickly for Tyson, who didn’t seem to be as affected by it as he should have. For one, instead of whiling away his time on sleeping or doing rigorous exercise inside his cell, he consistently slept with one of the female guards. He didn’t have to stay long, either—he was released after only three years.
Special Treatment Behind Bars
Tyson said that he “had some good days” during his time in prison. While his affair with the guard was meant to be short-lived, she did become pregnant with his baby—although she didn’t go through with the pregnancy. Tyson reportedly spent much of his time in prison romping around with the ladies.
He mentioned his female counselor, saying that they’d “do it for a long time.” In fact, he was so tired from having sex all the time that he didn’t have the energy to exercise, instead resting by staying inside his cell. He was also spared from the standard prison diet, dining on lobster instead.
The rest of Tyson’s time was devoted to reading. He turned to grand works of literature and philosophy, immersing himself in writers like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Marx. However, he had an aversion to Hemingway, whom he thought was “too much of a downer.”
Out of all these, one book, in particular, had a profound influence on him: the Quran. It resonated so much with Tyson that he converted to Islam, taking on the name Malik Abdul Aziz and even embarking on the Hajj—the Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca—once he was out of prison. In an interview with Fox 411, he said: “God doesn’t need me. I need Allah.” While in prison, he actually appreciated the solitary confinement, spending 23 hours each day alone, so he could focus on studying Islam and deepening his spirituality.
The Tribal Tattoo Makeover
One of the most distinctive features of Tyson’s appearance is the tribal tattoo displayed prominently on his face. The curved design wraps around his left eye, extending from his forehead to his cheekbone.
In 2003, when his boxing career was close to ending, he walked into a tattoo parlor in New York. The goal was to give himself a new look. There was no deeper symbolism behind choosing the tribal tattoo, except that he thought “it was so hot.” The tattoo has been with Tyson since then. He’s proud of it, explaining that it had brought many good things to his life and people have been referring to it as the Mike Tyson. Somehow, Tyson found that the tattoo represented him well, and it became a part of his public image.
Mao on His Right Bicep
There are numerous tattoos from Tyson’s neck down as well. One tattoo that was indirectly caused by his time in prison is on his right bicep, showing the face and name of Mao Zedong. Because Tyson wasn’t allowed to speak much while in solitary confinement, he had plenty of time to delve deep into Mao’s works and his particular brand of communism.
This left quite an impression of Tyson, enough for him to get a tattoo of Mao years after. He had the chance to visit Mao’s remains on a trip to China, and he respectfully observed that he felt insignificant while in such close proximity to Mao. The tattoo of Mao on his arm may draw questions, but it undoubtedly suits Tyson well.
A Kindred Spirit in Che
Mao isn’t the only political figure tattooed on Tyson. On the left side of his stomach lies a very clear portrait of Che Guevara. A major Communist leader like Mao, Che played a prominent role in the Cuban revolution, and his face has become iconic for countercultural revolutionary movements.
Although Tyson never spoke openly about how he came to have the tattoo, he most likely learned more about Che as well while in prison. In a way, his choices of tattoos do have some parallels. Tyson’s arena may not be politics, but he has also amassed a reputation for being radical, pioneering, and strong-willed, so it’s not a stretch to assume that he appreciates the same qualities in Che and Mao.
A Family Tragedy
In 2009, Mike would go through the worst tragedy any parent could ever experience: the death of a child. His young daughter, Exodus, just four years old, died in a sudden accident at her family home in Phoenix; she was fooling around on the treadmill when the looped cord that stops the machine somehow wrapped around her neck, cutting off her air supply. Though she made it to the hospital, she tragically died soon after.
Mike opened up about the experience, speaking about how he blamed himself for his daughter’s death. Said the champ, “I have become a member of an exclusive club no one wants to join. I have been told the pain never stops but you get over it. I am going through a process, trying to heal. I am in denial, because I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know what to do or say. I appreciate everybody who supported me.”
Despite having earned a fortune through his boxing career, Tyson still found himself scrounging for money at times because he’d lost most of it through penalties and reckless spending. But he seemed to draw opportunities constantly. During the filming of The Hangover he was invited to make a brief appearance—and he readily took it because the pay was a whopping $100,000 for a cameo role. The film would turn out to be a major success, with its $35 million production cost offset by $470 million in profits.
Aside from the additional income it provided, Tyson also wanted to try acting. He had another moment in the sequel, for which he got paid $200,000. However, Tyson wasn’t in the best condition then—he was overweight and constantly high on cocaine. It didn’t stop him from still showing up on the screen, though.
Music Video Star
Tyson also appeared in the music video of Madonna’s song “Iconic,” which was released in 2015. The song followed an unconventional format, initially featuring snippets of Madonna and Tyson speaking rather than singing. Tyson said that he went to Madonna’s studio without knowing what exactly he’d do, and performed his scenes spontaneously in one go.
While Tyson isn’t as known for striking one-liners as Muhammad Ali, he still makes a strong impression. In fact, Tyson was inspired by Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator that Hitler took a cue from. Tyson had seen Mussolini on TV and admired his body language, marveling at how he could captivate even those who couldn’t understand the words. For him, Mussolini embodied “street swag,” and he sought to emulate this in his acting.
Learning Swag from Mussolini
Getting even a single scene right the first time around doesn’t happen often when filming, and Tyson was well-aware of this. He pointed out that other people had to drink or smoke before they enter a recording studio, while he simply strode in with relaxed confidence and didn’t dilly-dally. “Everyone thought it was cool,” he proudly commented.
Having an inspiring figure to model himself after seemed to have worked well, never mind that it was a notorious dictator. Mussolini may not be the first person that comes to mind for street swag or smooth acting, but strange as it sounds, Tyson pulled it off effectively.
His Abandoned Mansion of ’80s Excess
Mike Tyson is known for many things. From physical attributes (face tattoo) and legendary talent (one of the best heavyweight boxing champs of all time) to long-lasting controversy (his rape charge and conviction, the famous ear-biting). Altogether, they paint the picture of Tyson as the definition of excess, and his 1980s mansion is nothing if not a testimony to that fact (let’s just say it has tiger cages in the yard).
Constructed and lived-in in the 1980s, Tyson was forced to sell it in 1999 after his jail stints (for rape in 1992 and assault in 1999) left him financially in the lurch and struggling. It has laid abandoned for decades, and in 2013, photographer Johnny Joo was able to finally enter and photograph the wreckage that was once lavish (if not a bit woefully decorated) home fit for an entertainment king. The mansion finally found an owner who wanted to do something with it in 2015. The plot twist? The new owner is none other than The Living Word Sanctuary Church, which has turned it into a house of worship.
Money in, Money out
Tyson had a lucrative career, earning even more than $300 million a year at one point. Despite his huge cash flow, he became bankrupt in 2003, incurring a debt of $23 million. This is a common story among athletes and celebrities. Many of them who started out broke tend to engage in reckless spending after gaining a fortune at a young age, assuming that their money will never run out.
In Tyson’s case, he poured a fortune into luxury cars, glamorous mansions, top-of-the-line jewelry, exotic animals, and even prostitutes. His finances then bottomed out and went the opposite direction, digging him further into debt. However, he did manage to find new gigs and projects, and now he’s trying to earn his way back up.
Nintendo released one of the most prominent boxing video games ever in October 1987. It featured Mike Tyson as the final character that players had to get through, once they’d already mastered other levels of the game. The difficulty of winning against Tyson could be extremely frustrating—any attack from Tyson within the first 90 seconds would send you sprawling onto the canvas, regardless of what your own stats are.
While appointing Tyson to this boss role seemed like a no-brainer, it was actually a strategic and very risky move on Nintendo’s part. They crafted the character when Tyson was still an underdog, without any championships to his name yet. He turned out to be the youngest heavyweight champion yet at twenty-years-old. Nintendo’s decision paid off big time, and they got it for cheap, too—they only paid $50,000 for the right to base a character on Tyson for 3 years.
A Ranch for Potheads
With Mike Tyson’s long-term penchant for drug use, it’s not unexpected for him to launch a business venture related to it. In collaboration with a few business partners, he’s building a one-of-a-kind, cannabis-themed ranch in California, the state being a national pioneer in legalizing cannabis use.
The 40-acre ranch—aptly named Tyson Ranch—is set in California City, around 60 miles to the southwest of Death Valley. An end-to-end operation, it’s meant to have a factory for edibles, a shop that visitors can easily frequent, and an amphitheater, as well as sites for glamorous camping. Nothing like this has been launched in the country before, so there’s a fair deal of anticipation about it.
Where Music Meets Cannabis
The ranch isn’t officially open to the public yet, but Tyson gave a teaser by holding a music festival within the property—complete with loads of marijuana to smoke, of course. The Kind Music Festival took place over a day, with artists such as Starcrawler, Miguel, and Ferg taking the stage. Many of the festival-goers might not have been completely familiar with the lineup, but they did enjoy the music combined with the abundant supply of food and pot (and more food).
The festival was envisioned to attract a sizable crowd in the California deserts, and although it wasn’t comparable yet to older, more established festivals like Burning Man and Coachella, it did make for an indulgent, carefree experience; especially since there were barely any regulations. Tyson has more expansive plans for the next round, which might feature bigger names such as Migos and Drake.
Achieving an NYT Bestseller
Tyson might never have predicted it when he was young, but his second book, Undisputed Truth, was an all-around hit, reaching the New York bestseller list. The response was largely positive, and the book’s topic—Tyson’s life, almost fiction-like in its violence and theatricality—proved to be a fascinating read, thanks in part to the well-honed writing skills of his co-author Larry Sloman.
The events in Tyson’s life are anything but boring. He went from a kid struggling in the worst areas of Brooklyn to a world-famous athlete with enormous money and glory to his name—and then back down again when he went bankrupt. Undisputed Truth is his second book, with the first being Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato. Tyson is a naturally fascinating figure, and if he’s planning to release a third book, it’s interesting to see what he’ll talk about next.
Three Wives and Seven Kids
All in all, Tyson has had three wives from diverse backgrounds. His first wife was model and actress Robin Givens. Beset with arguments all throughout, their marriage lasted for only a year, and Tyson had to pay $10 million for the divorce settlement. Next, he married Monica Turner, a pediatrician who did her residency at Georgetown University Medical. His third and current wife is Lakiha Spicer, a former felon. Talking about his relationship with Spicer, who goes by the nickname Kiki, Tyson said: “If I don’t have a wife, I’ll kill myself. That’s real talk. I need somebody to listen to. I’m a soldier. I can’t think on my own. I need somebody to do it…I know myself.” Tyson credits Kiki for helping him mentally and physically and says he can’t live without her.
Tyson may have had seven kids, but none of them seem like they want to follow in his footsteps with a boxing career. It seems that no matter what he does in his life, epic highs and epic lows continue to follow him everywhere.
While Mike Tyson will probably be remembered as one of the scariest boxers in history, Muhammad Ali might be remembered as “The Greatest” or as “The People’s Champion.” Cassius Clay, or simply, Ali, the three-time heavyweight boxing champion was more than just a boxer. As an activist, a philanthropist, and even an entertainer, Ali has been universally recognized as one of the most iconic individuals of the 20th century. While his final record of 56-5 has been outdone by a number of fighters, Ali’s ability to “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” made him one of the greatest sports figures of all time, so let’s take a look at the incredible life of Muhammad Ali.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Ali was named after his father, who had been named in honor of a 19th-century farmer and anti-slave activist who released forty slaves that he inherited from his father.
A planter from Kentucky and founding member of the Republican party who battled against slavery and served under President Abraham Lincoln as the United States Minister to Russia. Those are big shoes to fill. Clay’s anti-slavery beliefs would find him numerous enemies and multiple death threats to himself and his family. Outlasting numerous beatings, stabbings, and gunshot wounds, the man is known as the “Lion of White Hall”, would survive until his death at the age of 92 as a result of general exhaustion.
Whoever decided to steal Cassius Clay’s bike in 1954 is owed a giant “thank you” from the champ.
At the age of twelve, Clay had his bike stolen and when he filed a report with the Louisville, Kentucky police department, he promised to lay a beating on the culprit. Fortunately, Joe Martin, the officer that filed the report, was a boxing trainer and took it upon himself to offer his services to Clay. Following just six weeks of training, Clay would find his hand raised in victory after his first match. Had that petty thief not needed a set of wheels, the history books may have been rewritten.
After competing in and capturing the gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division of the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, Clay would return to the United States where he would be rumored to encounter a group of Caucasian men after being denied service at what as deemed a “whites-only” restaurant.
At only 18 years of age, Clay defeated an opponent who was eight years older and had 231 fights under his belt. Although the story of the restaurant refusal remains true, as does the racial confrontation, the truth as to what happened with the medal is in question. It was originally said to have been thrown in the Ohio River in an act of rage, but several of Clay’s friends said that was untrue and that it was lost in a house move. Regardless, the International Olympic Committee would honor the champ with a replacement medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Good But Not Good Enough
When Clay initially enlisted in the military, he was classified as 1-A, which meant he was good to go for anything that the military needed him for. Two years later he would be reclassified as 1-Y.
As a result of his dyslexia, Clay failed the US Armed Forces IQ test because his writing and spelling skills were below standard. With a score of 78 on the IQ test, Clay’s status would be dropped to being fit for emergency services only. While his score wasn’t necessarily a proper reflection of his intelligence, Clay would claim “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
Standing up for What You Believe In
Although he would enlist in the United States military, Clay would renege on his commitment as a result of his religious beliefs.
The decision to do so not only impacted Clay but also created a backlash from his fans and public opinion throughout the country. As a result of his refusal to serve his duty, Clay would be banned from the boxing ring for three years by the New York State Athletic Commission. In addition to his punishment from the ring, Clay also faced up to five years of jail time and a financial fine. In August 1970, Clay would find himself not only avoiding a hard time but also a return to the ring after his license was reinstated by the New York Supreme Court. Two months later, Clay dominated Jerry Quarry in a three-round victory.
Whether you referred to him as Cassius Clay or Muhammed Ali, he was known simply as “The Greatest”, and he had no problem backing up the moniker.
Never lacking in self-confidence whether it was in or out of the ring, Clay became known for his pre-fight and political rhyming skills. As a result of his popularity on the mic, in 1963, Columbia Records would release “I Am The Greatest”, a spoken word album that featured the People’s Champion hit the shelves. Selling over 500,000 copies, the record showcased Clay’s trash-talking talent, blending rap and comedy with a live band and studio audience.
When Clay was on his sabbatical from the boxing ring, he found himself under a different spotlight as he took to the Broadway stage as part of the short-lived musical, Buck White.
Although this would be the first time that Clay performed in a theatrical role, acting was not new to him as he had previously had a bit part in the film, Requiem For A Heavyweight. Throw in Clay’s lyrical talents and it wouldn’t be hard to believe that he could have been a full-time Hollywood star. Unfortunately for Clay, his leading role as a militant black lecturer would only last a total of nine performances and four nights as despite decent reviews the show would be shut down.
The Bigger They Are
Never short on confidence himself, Wilt Chamberlain challenged Ali to a boxing match in 1971.
Scheduled to take place at Madison Square Garden, the pre-fight press conference showed that Ali’s ego and confidence were just as big as his opponent’s physical stature. With concerns about how Ali would deal with the obvious size, power, and reach disadvantage, the undisputed champ responded to reporters with one word, “TIMBERRRRRR!” without losing eye contact with the NBA star. Knowing he had the upper hand, each time that Chamberlain attempted to answer a question, Ali would rattle him by whispering “timber” into his mic. This behavior would continue to the point that Chamberlain’s frustration level reached its limit and he walked away from both the press conference and the match itself.
Freedom to the City
Abe Grady, a Caucasian Irishman who immigrated to the United States in 1860 was better known as Ali’s great-grandfather.
After the Civil War, Grady would relocate from Ennis, County Clare to Kentucky where he would soon marry and start his family. A few years before passing away in 2016, Ali would return to his ancestor’s homeland where he would be honored with a Freedom of the City certificate. Traditionally given to a valued member of the community or a visiting celebrity, Ali would be granted the first award given to a male recipient since 1410.
Fear of Floating Like a Butterfly
For a man built with confidence and ego, and a willingness to take on opponents both inside and outside of the boxing ring, it seemed like Clay was a real-life superhero. Except for the fact that most superheroes are fearless and Clay was deathly afraid of one thing, flying.
However as a superstar boxer, Clay would have to fly all over the world, so to help deal with his fear, he went to an army surplus store and bought a parachute, which he would bring with him on every flight. Before Clay’s travel to Rome for the 1960 Olympic Games, he not only needed convincing and reassurance from his coaches but also the US Air Force. After receiving confirmation that there were no accidents on flights from the US to Rome, Clay would board the flight and ultimately return home with a gold medal.
The Big Bear
Five years after turning pro, Clay would find himself as the top contender for the heavyweight title held by Sonny Liston.
As a 7-1 underdog, Clay showed that he had little fear of a man who had ties to the mob and a criminal record for armed robbery and muggings. In addition to verbal jabs by Clay, during the pre-fight buildup, Clay would taunt his opponent, calling him “the big ugly bear” and stating that is “going to use him as a bearskin rug” and that Liston “even smells like a bear.” Claiming that he would drop Liston in eight rounds, Clay would win the bout with a seventh-round TKO, despite rumors that Liston attempted to blind his opponent in the fifth round with an illegal substance on his gloves.
What’s in a Name
On February 26, 1964, a day after capturing his first heavyweight championship with the victory over Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay changed his name to Cassius X.
As he believed that black American names were given by their slave masters, X’s identity would be short-lived as after converting to Islam, the man we all know as Muhammad Ali would be “born”. Standing alongside Malcolm X, Clay’s spiritual and political mentor, Cassius would take on his new name, which translated to “Praised One.”
Just like with Michael Jordan and Lebron James, it’s impossible to compare fighters from different eras to determine who was actually the greatest.
As the only two undefeated heavyweight champions in boxing history, both Rocky Marciano and Ali’s fighting stats would be entered into a computer program in 1969. Combining a series of probability formulas and seventy-five one minute sparring rounds, the computer calculated the ultimate winner. However, even the supercomputer could not give an official winner as to when the outcome was released on film in 1970, viewers in North America saw Marciano claim the title, while audiences in Europe saw Ali’s hand raised in victory.
Fight of the Century
Technically Ali had not lost his championship when he refused to participate in the military and with Joe Frazier holding the WBA World Heavyweight Championship, it would be the first time two unbeaten champions, one former, one current, would square off in the ring.
Nicknaming himself the “People’s Champion”, Ali would enter the fight with only two matches under his belt after a three-year absence from the ring. Despite all of Ali’s talk, Frazier was confident that he would walk away victorious, stating, “I made that New Year’s resolution in 1971 that I was going to dust that butterfly off. I was going to clip his wings. I was going to slow him down. I wanted to show him who was the greatest. It wasn’t just the big payday involved. I wanted to close his lips. I wanted him to get that license so I could shut him up.” Ali would come out to the bell swinging, winning the first two rounds, but Frazier would eventually settle in and win the contest under a “unanimous decision” ruling. This would be the only time in three meetings that Ali would lose to Frazier.
Big Brother’s Watching
From 1967 to 1973, the National Security Agency ran a secret operation that spied on American citizens. Code named MINARET, the espionage program targeted over 1500 Americans including Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, US Senator Howard Baker, and journalist Tom Wicker.
Although completely illegal, the program targeted many of the leaders in America throughout a variety of fields who criticized the US War in Vietnam and who could potentially be a threat to the President Of The United States. Let it be known that Jane Fonda was on this list as well and in no offense to the actress, it is hard to believe she was a threat to the leader of the US.
It is and was arguably one of the greatest boxing matches in history. On October 30, 1974, George Foreman, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world stepped between the ropes to face Ali in the match tagged the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
At this point in his legendary career, Ali entered the fight with a record of 45-2, while Foreman was undefeated at 40-0. With an estimated audience of one billion people around the world watching the fight on pay-per-view and television and 60,000 fans in the 20th of May Stadium, Foreman and Ali took to the ring in Kinshasa, Zaire at 4 am in the morning in order to avoid the African sun and for fans around the American fans to watch during prime time.
In 1974, the money that both Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were paid for the “Rumble In The Jungle” was a lot for the time.
With each fighter pulling in $5 million of the $100 million revenue, they were by all accounts incredibly underpaid. In comparison, the 2015 bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao saw the fighters pocket $180 and $120 million respectively. Taking it even a step further, in a match that was more gimmick than anything, Mayweather’s 2017 fight against Connor McGregor saw each man walk away with more guaranteed money prior to the fight than both Ali and Foreman combined and with Mayweather cashing a cheque for $275 million when all the smoke cleared. FYI, when Ali died in 2016, his fortune was worth at most, $80 million.
War of the Worlds
Long before Mayweather and McGregor squared off, Ali and Antonio Inoki would meet in the ring.
As one of the most famous Japanese wrestlers, Inoki was a fourteen-time champion and also a mixed martial artist. Under the impression that the match would be an exhibition, Ali was surprised when he saw Inoki taking his training seriously. Under a special set of rules that limited Inoki’s martial arts and professional wrestling skills, the two fighters would battle to a fifteen round draw that left the crowd in the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo, Japan in mixed emotions. Unfortunately for Ali, the impact of Inoki’s kicks would leave his legs with two blood clots that almost required amputation.
Man of Steel
Many people thought that Ali was a superhero himself, but DC Comics took it one step further when they released a one-off special in 1978 as Superman and Ali would partner together to stop an alien invasion of Earth.
In order to save their planet, Ali and Superman were forced to do battle with each other under the command of Rat’Lar, the alien leader. With Superman’s powers limited, Ali would take advantage, giving his opponent a surprise beating. Declared the victor, Ali would then battle the alien beast, Hun’Ya with the safety of Earth on the line. Of course, if Ali could defeat Superman, it came as no surprise that he should also be able to defeat an alien.
Desperate for Money
It was a fight that never should have happened in the first place, but many believe that the only reason why Muhammad Ali signed off on a match with Larry Holmes in 1980 was that he needed the money, although Ali would argue it was an attempt to win the heavyweight title for a record fourth time.
The eleven round fight was a train wreck and thankfully the bout came to an end when Angelo Dundee requested the official stop the fight. After receiving just $1.1 million, Ali sued promoter Don King for underpaying him. In typical shady King fashion, he would give one of Ali’s friends a suitcase filled with $50 thousand and a letter promising to stop the court case. Sadly, Ali would sign the letter and take the money.
Threatening to end his life, a Vietnam veteran was perched on the ninth floor of a building in Los Angeles in 1981. Thanks to Ali, the man would walk away from the near horrific event unscathed.
For whatever reason, a member of Ali’s camp just happened to be near the scene and called the fighter, who would show up a short time later in his Rolls Royce. Popping his head out of a nearby window, Ali spent over thirty minutes talking calmly with the man and eventually convincing him to come off the ledge. After walking down together to the applause of the awaiting crowd, of which some had previously been shouting for the man to jump.
As a spectator at the Ali vs. Holmes fight, the one that many said and wished never happened, Mike Tyson vowed to seek revenge on Holmes in Ali’s name. Seven years after the two legends squared off, Tyson and Holmes would do battle in the ring.
Although at the age of 38 and retired for two years, Holmes was enticed by the fight offer as it would include a $3 million payday and a chance to once again wear the WBA, WBC, IBF Heavyweight Championship titles. Prior to the fight, Ali would remind Tyson of his promise and with only seven seconds left on the clock, a series of punches from Tyson would drop Holmes for the third time in the fourth round leading to a technical knockout victory. Holmes would retire for the second time immediately after the fight, only to return to the ring again a short time later. At the age of 52, Holmes would enter the ring for the last time, defeating Eric “Butterbean” Esch in a ten-round fight.
The Negotiator II
Society knows Ali for his actions in the ring and for his political, cultural, and religious views, but few are familiar with the part he played in returning fifteen American hostages from Iraq prior to the Gulf War.
After spending a week in Iraq, in which his Parkinson’s medication would run out and he would be at risk of not being able to speak, Ali still managed to meet with children in schools and pray at mosques. Held captive by Saddam Hussein, the fifteen hostages would have Ali to thank for their release as The Champ and the Iraqi leader met in an internationally televised press conference in which Ali promised that he would return to the United States with an “honest account” of Iraq.
Collision in Korea
Invited by Antonio Inoki to be the guest of honor at the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, Ali was expected to play the role of goodwill ambassador.
Unfortunately for all involved, things did not turn out as planned. With their passports confiscated and a security team assigned to follow their every move, Ali and his friends got into a war of words with several North Korean officials who stated that North Korea would take out the US or Japan at a moment’s notice. Although Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s, his response, “No wonder we hate these mf’ers” was clearly understood by everyone at the table.
They may have been enemies in the ring during their one and only infamous fight in Zaire, Ali and Foreman would become close friends over time.
Years after their epic battle, Foreman would point out that Ali called him out of the blue and the two would talk about anything and everything, from religion to their children. The two heavyweights would remain close for the duration of Ali’s life and when The Champ struggled to walk up the steps to receive an Oscar for the film “When We Were Kings” in 1996, Foreman was there to assist him. In a 2003 interview, the former heavyweight champion would state, “Ali is the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Fittingly, the cast of “Ali” featured some of the biggest names in Hollywood, both in front and behind the camera, as well as a million-dollar-plus budget.
And while it would either be nominated or win a number of awards and be relatively positively received by audiences and critics, the movie could be considered a box office flop. Given the task of portraying the legendary boxer, Will Smith would be paid $20 million, which was more than Ali would ever be paid for a single event. With a box office intake of $87.7 million, the film focused on Ali’s life from 1964-74 and included the Fight Of The Century and Rumble In The Jungle fights.
CKX, a company known for purchasing an ownership interest in entertainment stars, athletes, and brands proudly purchased the rights to Muhammad Ali’s names and image in 2005 for $50 million.
While Ali would retain 20% interest in his name and image rights, Robert Sillerman, the chief executive of CKX would bring in between $4-7 million for his company based on Ali’s name and likeness from endorsement deals with companies such as Adidas and Electronic Arts.
Million Dollar Gloves
Just over twelve months after their first battle, Ali and Sonny Liston would square off in a much-anticipated rematch that would end in controversy.
With many fans hardly settled in their seats, the two fighters began circling each other, throwing some feeling out punches. While Ali would label it his “anchor punch”, critics and fans would call it the “phantom punch”, as the champ would drop his opponent at the 1:44 mark of the first round. In 2015, the gloves that Ali wore during the fight would be sold in a private auction for a record $965,000 to an anonymous buyer.
Love at First Sight
As with many celebrities, Ali was no stranger to fast-moving love life.
Upon meeting Sonji Roi, a cocktail waitress, love would be in the air as he would ask her to marry him just after their first date. One month later on August 14, 1964, the two would tie the knot, a union that would last just under two years due to differences in opinion as to religious beliefs. Ali would commit himself a second time to Belinda Boyd, who would mother his first four children. Legally Ali would marry for the third time in 1977, but technically it would be his fourth as he married another woman in an Islamic ceremony while still legally tied to Boyd. Veronica Porche and Ali would remain married until their divorce in 1986.
Like Father Like Daughter
As the most famous of Ali’s nine children, daughter Laila was his eighth child and second daughter to his third wife.
Making her in-ring debut in 1999, Laila would knockout her opponent in the first round. After her first nine fights, Ali would meet the daughter of one of her father’s most famous opponents in the ring, taking on Jacqui Frazier-Lyde in the first-ever women’s match to main event a pay-per-view. Throughout her eight-year career, Laila would remain undefeated, capturing the WBC, WIBA, IBA, and IWBF super middleweight championships along the way. Finishing her career with a 24 win record, including 21 knockouts, Laila would go on to a career on variety and reality television.
In addition to his multiple marriages, Ali also had countless lovers, whether he was legally married at the time or not.
With a combination of chiseled good looks to go along with an equally chiseled physique and an extremely charismatic attitude, not to mention his status as the greatest boxer of his era, it wasn’t hard to believe that Ali could have his choice of women. Shortly after Ali passed away, a former lover, Barbara Mensah, attempted to extort his estate for $100,000. With claims that she had footage of Ali being intimate with beautiful women during post-fight parties and her willingness to write a tell-all book about her two-decade love affair with Ali, it seemed like the woman was willing to do anything to gain a buck, but her proclamation was nothing that people didn’t already know.
Sportsman of the Century
In addition to a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease, Ali would spend the final years of his life battling a variety of illnesses and would ultimately be hospitalized with a respiratory illness that led to death by septic shock on June 3, 2016.
With countless tributes and ceremonies in his honor including ones from Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather. Following a private service, a public ceremony would be held with Will Smith, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, and George Foreman acting as pallbearers in front of an estimated worldwide viewing audience of over 1 billion people.