Top 10 Muhammad Ali Moments

Script written by Aaron Cameron Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Join WatchMojo.com as we count our picks for the top 10 Muhammad Ali moments. For this list, we'll be looking at highlights from the life and times of the man formerly known as Cassius Clay, but forever known as the original People's Champion, the Louisville Lip and the Greatest – the late, great Muhammad Ali. Special thanks to our users Daniel Fong or submitting the idea using our interactive suggestion tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by Aaron Cameron

Top 10 Muhammad Ali Moments


Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 Muhammad Ali moments.

For this list, we’ll be looking at highlights from the life and times of the man formerly known as Cassius Clay, but forever known as the original People’s Champion, the Louisville Lip and the Greatest – the late, great Muhammad Ali.

#10: Ali Takes on Saddam

By the end of his career, Muhammad Ali had faced and beaten the top heavyweights of his era. But none of those fights could prepare him for a challenger like Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and weeks away from full-on war with the United States, Hussein took 15 American citizens hostage. The men, many of whom were employees of a General Motors facility in Iraq, were being held in strategically important buildings as a safeguard from American bombing. Against all recommendations – including that of President George H.W. Bush – Ali went to Iraq to personally negotiate their release. Despite the odds, and the champ having run out of Parkinson’s medication days prior, Hussein surrendered all 15 men to Ali and three days later all were safely back in the United States.

#9: The First Three-Time World Heavyweight Champ

Ali’s first championship title win was impressive enough, demolishing 8-1 odds on favorite Sonny Liston in 1964. But by his retirement, Ali would be crowned Heavyweight Champ a record setting three times. After defeating Liston and claiming himself to be “the greatest” as well as “the prettiest thing that ever lived,” Ali was robbed of his title when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. After returning to boxing in 1971, Ali worked his way back up the card, finally securing a title shot against and beating then-champ George Foreman in 1974. Ali held the title until February 1978 when he lost to Leon Spinks, only to retake the title in a rematch the same year becoming - the first three-time world heavyweight champion.

#8: I Am the Greatest

If anyone wondered how Ali earned a nickname like “the Louisville Lip,” his 1963 spoken-world album should clear up the mystery. Released while he was still known as Cassius Clay “I Am the Greatest” arrived just six months prior to his name change, conversion to Islam, and first heavyweight championship. The album’s first eight cuts were labeled “rounds” rather than tracks and saw the ever-confident Ali boast, brag and even predict his title win in front of a live studio audience. Co-written in part with comedy writer Gary Belkin, the album earned a Grammy nomination and hit #61 on the charts, with Ali’s flow now seen as proto-rap. The LP’s title track, meanwhile, was spun off as a single – with the diss-track of all diss-tracks “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down” as a B-side.

#7: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

More than just a memorable catchphrase, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was a poetic, yet apt way of summing up Ali’s unusual boxing style. Rather than resemble anything remotely traditional, the early Ali style relied on speed and constant movement rather than brute force. Ali also had a tendency to duck back and make his opponent overextend or put themselves off balance; he was known as much for his fancy footwork as he was for his rapid-fire eye jabs. Post-exile, Ali took this approach even further with the rope-a-dope style. Rather than come in guns blazing, Ali would effectively become a punching bag until his opponent was completely worn out and ready to have his ass handed to them.

#6: Becoming Muhammad Ali

Starting around 1961, the man then-known as Cassius Clay became increasingly interested in the Nation of Islam, otherwise known as the Black Muslim movement, eventually being mentored by famed member Malcolm X. But, due to his boxing career, he was initially refused membership. This changed, however, leading up to his championship bout with Sonny Liston in 1964. Prior to the match, news of Clay’s conversion leaked and on February 26, 1964 – the day after defeating Liston – he publicly renounced his “slave name” and re-emerged as Cassius X before taking the name Muhammad Ali the following week. With his new identity, Ali became increasingly outspoken about race, civil and religious issues and frequently butted heads with the establishment of the day. 

#5: Thrilla in Manila

When Ali returned to boxing in 1971, he was entitled to a shot at reclaiming his championship. Pitted against “Smokin’” Joe Frazier in what was billed as the Fight of the Century, Ali entered the bout a relative equal, but left the match defeated. Four years later, Ali was champion again and it was now Frazier with his eyes on the prize. Dubbed the Thrilla in Manila, the Ali/Frazier matchup went 14 solid rounds in 120 °F / 49 °C heat. Ali dominated early, Frazier led the mid-rounds, but by the 10th round the tide had turned very much in Ali’s favor and Frazier gave just after the 14th round. During the match Ali lost 5 pounds due to the extreme heat, a situation he called the closest he’d ever been to death. 

#4: Lighting the Olympic Torch

The U.S. Olympic Committee managed to keep Ali’s participation in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games a secret, but the crowd made no secret of their admiration for the former champ. By 1996, Ali had been retired 15 years and although he was still a relatively young 54, the effects of Parkinson’s disease were starting to show. His body may have been working against him, his arms may have been shaking, but lighting the Olympic Torch and basking in the crowd’s love Ali stood proud, with as much command and dignity as he ever had in his youth.

#3: The Rumble in the Jungle

After missing his shot in 1971 against Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali had fought his way up the rankings to square off with then-heavyweight champ George Foreman in 1974. Known today as a cheery electric grill spokesman, the George Foreman of 1974 was a lean, mean, punch-throwing machine. For the big money show down in Zaire, Ali opted to use his now fine-tuned rope-a-dope technique rather than try to match Foreman’s power. Foreman wore himself out pummeling Ali with body shots while Ali sat back on the ropes and blocked, occasionally punching Foreman straight in the face. In the 8th round, the Greatest took things a bit more seriously, delivering a five-punch combo that sent Foreman to the mat and Ali to victory.

#2: Refusing Military Service

Ali was rejected for military service in 1964 based on a shockingly low IQ score; however in 1966 standards had changed. The champ was now eligible and suddenly faced the very real threat of being drafted. War, however, was against both his religious and social beliefs as well as his personal conviction, so Ali refused to serve, calling himself a conscientious objector. Arrested and found guilty of evading the draft in 1967, Ali faced a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. In addition, he was also stripped of his titles, license to box, and even his passport, leading Esquire Magazine to represent him as a martyr. The former champion stayed out of prison thanks to an appeal that eventually reached the Supreme Court. He spent his exile years giving lectures and even acting on Broadway to pay the bills.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Meet(s) the Beatles!
- The Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards
- Winning Boxing Gold at 1960 Rome Olympics
- Ali & Pope John Paul II Meet… and Trade Autographs

#1: The Sonny Liston Rematch

Muhammad Ali towering in victory over a crumpled Sonny Liston is among the most famous images in sports history. Happening just minutes into the match, it was just one of many things about the fight that was rife with controversy. Security issues – including the possibility of Liston being attacked by Nation of Islam members or Ali being killed by Malcolm X supporters – led the match to be held in small-town Maine rather than Boston, Mass. Ringside, much of the half-capacity audience never saw the so-called phantom punch that took Liston down – largely because many of them hadn’t yet made their way to their seats. Meanwhile in the ring, even Ali himself wasn’t sure the punch had connected when the fight ended amid confusion, with Ali failing to return to his corner, the referee neglecting to restart the count, and the bout continuing before Liston was declared KO’d.
 
Do you agree with our list? What was your favorite Muhammad Ali moment? For more knockout Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com. 
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