Muhmmad Ali was larger than life both in and outside of the boxing ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories and had a tremendous influence on American culture. Take a look at some of the lesser-known facts about the man simply known as "The Greatest."
1. He was named after his father, who was named for a white abolitionist.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who published an anti-slavery newspaper—and fielded death threats for his contrarian views. Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln, who later invited him to become a major general with the Union Army. Clay would agree only if Lincoln emancipated enslaved people under Confederate rule.
But Clay's legacy is a bit more complex than it first appears. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in a 2016 piece for The Atlantic, even as Clay argued against slavery, he still enslaved people on his family's estate. A 1980 story in The New York Times reported that Clay enslaved more people in 1865 than he had inherited nearly four decades earlier. By remaining Cassius Clay, Ali believed he would be keeping "my white slavemaster's name visible." In 1964, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
2. His draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.
In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam and joined the Nation of Islam. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.
3. He received a replacement gold medal.
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (which was edited by Toni Morrison), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement medal when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
4. He was an actual superhero.
In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save an individual’s life. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.
5. Ali starred in a Broadway show.
In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant Black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives offstage in reality."
6. He recorded a Grammy-nominated album about tooth decay.
Ali’s playful disposition endeared him to children, which is probably why he was enlisted in the battle against poor oral hygiene. In 1976, Ali recorded The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, an album that warned listeners about consuming too much sugar. Ali was joined by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ossie Davis, and sportscaster Howard Cosell. It earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording for Children.
7. Ali once fought an NHL player.
Ali formally retired in 1981 after losing a decision to Trevor Berbick. While some consider it his last-ever fight, it wasn’t his last time throwing punches in a ring. In 1983, Ali agreed to face off against NHL star Dave Semenko of the Edmonton Oilers. Semenko was teammates with Wayne Gretzky and considered to be the hard-hitting bouncer of the team. Ali and Semenko agreed to a three-round exhibition bout with the proceeds going to charity. While it was not a serious affair—Ali kept his blue track suit on—the two battled to a draw.
8. Ali was a referee for WrestleMania I.
In 1985, less than five years after retiring, Ali agreed to make an appearance at the first-ever WrestleMania. As a guest referee for the main event, which took place at Madison Square Garden, Ali made sure participants Hulk Hogan, Mr. T., Paul Orndorff, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper were obeying the rules. Ali, however, wasn’t necessarily interested in law and order himself. To avoid getting injured, he was told to remain outside of the ring. He decided to climb in anyway, forcing WWE (then WWF) personnel to run out and get him back to his spot. Ali would later appear in a sensational wrestling spectacle organized in North Korea in 1995 that drew a reported 150,000 to 190,000 attendees.
9. He was the first boxer to appear on a box of Wheaties.
In 1999, Ali made history once more, this time by being the first boxer to ever appear on a Wheaties box. The popular General Mills breakfast cereal had long been marketed using high-profile athletes from major sports: Ali was the first time a pugilist received the honor. General Mills featured Ali a second time, in honor of the cereal’s centennial, in 2021.
10. He played himself in his own biopic.
Biopics about famous and influential figures are commonplace, but few filmmakers have ever dared to cast the actual person. It’s a testament to Ali’s charisma that producers of The Greatest (1977) didn’t think any actor could do the role justice: Ali played himself in the film, which is based on his 1975 autobiography and charts his career ascension beginning with the 1960 Olympics on through his famed 1974 fight with George Foreman, which became known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The supporting cast featured veteran actors Robert Duvall as promoter Bill McDonald and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X. For all his energy, however, Ali couldn’t quite pull off the teenaged version of himself: Actor Phillip “Chip” McAllister appeared instead.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.