Currently making headlines with the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky - Muhammad Ali - a.k.a. "The Greatest" has inspired millions of fans around the world.
The now-retired sports icon - considered to be the sport's all-time boxing champion - is famous for both his athleticism as well as for his political and social activism, which has endeared and outraged friends and foes in equal meaure.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in a middle class home in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, Clay began boxing at the tender age of 12 under the tutelage of a local policeman and boxing coach, Joe Martin. Under Martin's wing, Clay while still in high school went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves, which eventually led to his Olympic gold medal at age 18 as light heavyweight in the Rome Summer Olympics in 1960.
Clay soon caught the attention of boxing legend Angelo Dundee, who pushed the young fighter into the professional limelight assisted by Clay's own spectacularly effective self-promotion as he predicted his rise as "the greatest boxer of all time."
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee
Clay wasn't merely boasting.
He soon backed up his big mouth reputation (he was known as the ":Louisville Lip") by rising to the top of the profession through the early 1960's to become the number one contender against then-reigning champ Sonny Liston.
Although given little chance of victory, Clay nevertheless boasted that he would "float like a butterly and sting like a bee" to bring his opponent down - which he did, in seven rounds.
Now the self-proclaimed "King of the World," Clay continued to bolster his record with a first round knockout in a 1965 rematch against Liston, and a 12-round defeat of former world champ Floyd Patterson a few months later.
That same year, Clay was making headlines outside the ring when he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, renouncing Cassius Clay as his "slave name."
Professionally, Ali also held no punches the following year as he battled against no less than seven contenders for his title - defeating all including "British Bulldog" Brian London in a championship bout in England and Karl Mildenberger in Germany.
Returning to the U.S., Ali fought in a highly anticipated and talked-about match at the Houston Astrodome against Ernie Terrell, who had continually taunted Ali by refusing to acknowledge his new Islamic name. In response, Ali delivered a sound beating to his opponent in 12 rounds, and with each expertly-delivered punch the champ was heard to yell, "What's my name?"
Having maintained his number one position, Ali was in this same year stripped of his championship belt and his license to box when he registered as a conscientious objector and refused to serve in the American army during the Vietnam War.
"No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger," Ali bitterly confessed at the time. As he continued to straddle the worlds of mainstream America and radical black activism, he also made public appearances with Nation of Islam leaders Malcom X and Elijah Muhammad and declared his allegiance to them.
With his career ostensibly over, a Supreme Court victory in 1970 granted him the right to refuse military service for religious reasons, and granted him a license to box once more. However, his return to the ring would be difficult as Ali faced a highly anticipated comeback bout in 1971 against the equally skilled Joe Frazier.
Touted as the Fight of the Century, the fight lived up to its name, and it would take 15 brutal rounds before Frazier floored Ali with a left hook in the final round.
Refusing to quit, Ali went on to split two matches against Ken Norton (his loss to Norton was punctuated by a broken jaw) before rising again to finally regain his reputation as "The Greatest" from Joe Frazier in a 1974 rematch.
The Rumble in the Jungle, The Thrilla in Manila
With the help of promoter Don King, Ali next stunned the world with a highly-antipated bout against George Foreman, who had previously defeated Joe Frazier in a second round knockout.
Huge, formidable and undefeated, Foreman was considered the favorite to steamroll his way past Ali.
The fight, famously touted as "The Rumble in the Jungle," was held in Zaire on October 30, 1974 and featured Ali's now-famous "rope-a-dope" tactic that effectively tired Foreman into submission. By the eight round, Ali was able to deliver a stinging right for a final knockout.
Another rematch with Joe Frazier the following year was billed as "The Thrilla in Manila", and surpassed even The Rumble in the Jungle for thrills as the two foremost boxers in the world went punch-for-punch for a grueling 14 rounds. The fight was finally haulted by Frazier's trainers as Ali emerged victorious with a win by TKO.
As it turned out, it was a career pinnacle for Ali that many fans thought should have brought his career to a glorious end. But Ali fought on - to box in several lackluster matches in 1976, and against largely unknown opponents. In fact, that same year he logged his worst career performance ever against Jimmy Young, as an obviously out of shape Ali was awarded a highly contentious win by decision.
Ali continued to hold on to his title until a match with Olympic champ Leon Spinks in 1978, which resulted in a loss for Ali. It did, however, afford him an opportunity to regain his title for a record third time when he defeated Spinks in a rematch the following year.
In 1979, Ali finaly told reporters that he was giving up his title and leaving the ring for good. However, his retirement was short-lived following the announcement that Ali would try to regain the world heavyweight championship title for a record four times against Larry Holmes. However, it was not to be, as Ali went down in defeat in the 11th round by TKO.
Despite the loss, Ali still had one more fight in him. Billed as "The Drama in the Bahamas" Ali attempted to recall his glory days, but the match against the much younger and more prepared Trevor Berbick ultimately resulted in a 10-round loss by unanimous decision.
Ali retired permanently in 1981.
It was not the end that may fans had hoped for, but Ali's final departure was with a record of 56 wins, (including 37 knockouts) and only 5 losses in a career spanning more than 20 years.
A slow physical decline had already begun when Ali was officially diagnosed with Parkinson's disease or pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome in 1982.
The most poignant public moment since his retirement has been perhaps his appearance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when Ali lit the Olympic torch at the opening ceremonies despite an obviously halted gate and physical tremors. His appearance only confirmed his status as one of the most beloved athletes in the world.
Admired for his personal sense of intergrity and as a champion of civil rights and racial equality, Ali as a public figure still retains his charismatic, quick-witted style in interviews and public appearances.
When one of his nine children entered professional boxing, the Ali family legacy continued.
Surprisingly, it was daughter Laila who first began her professional boxing career in 1999. Ali's other children by his four marriages are Rasheedah, Jamila, Maryum, Miya, Khaliah, Hana, Muhammad Jr. and Asaad.
Ali currently lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan with his fourth wife, Lonnie Williams.
Most recently, it was announced that the Muhammad Ali Center in Ali's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky has been scheduled to open in November 2005 featuring personal boxing memorabilia as well as inspiring educational exhibits and community activities.