4 of the Greatest Ways to Teach about Muhammad Ali


Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer acknowledged as the “athlete of the century,” has died. Here are some strategies for bringing “The Greatest of All Time” to your classroom. (Sports Illustrated)

Use our resources to learn a little about one of icon’s most iconic moments—the Rumble in the Jungle.

1967, the year this iconic photo was taken, was a momentous one for its subject, the boxing great Muhammad Ali. In 1967, Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, and as a result was denied his boxing license and passport. Ali did not return to the ring until 1970. Photograph by Ira Rosenberg, courtesy Library of Congress
1967, the year this iconic photo was taken, was a momentous one for its subject, the boxing great Muhammad Ali. In 1967, Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, and as a result was denied his boxing license and passport. Ali did not return to the ring until 1970.
Photograph by Ira Rosenberg, courtesy Library of Congress

Discussion Ideas

  • Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was declared the “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated. What were Ali’s athletic contributions?
    • Speed! Ali moved like a fleet-footed dancer, “his white-tasseled feet a blur to match his whizzing fists.” His dazzling speed, agility, and endurance served him in an offensive as well as defensive position in the ring. Some opponents comment on Ali’s style:
      • “I found myself getting dizzier and dizzier every time he hit me. He throws punches so easily that you don’t realize how much they hurt you until it’s too late.”—Charlie Powell
      • “When he was young, he moved his legs and hands at the same time. He threw his punches when he was in motion. He’d be out of punching range, and as he moved into range he’d already begun to throw the punch. So if you waited until he got into range to punch back, he beat you every time.”—George Chuvalo
      • “Ali was so smart. Most guys are just in there fighting, but Ali had a sense of everything that was happening, almost as though he was sitting at ringside analyzing the fight while he fought it.”—Arthur Mercante (referee)
    • Rope-a-dope. Using this strategy, Ali purposely allowed himself to be hit in what seemed to be a losing fight. But by positioning himself to be hit directly against the elastic ropes girding the boxing ring, he allowed the ropes—not his own body—to absorb much of the punches’ energy. (Yes, Ali won by physics.) Eventually, his opponent punched himself to exhaustion and Ali used his speed and endurance to triumph. The rope-a-dope was most famously and successfully employed in what may have been Ali’s greatest achievement, his victory over a younger, bigger, defending champion, George Foreman—the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
    • Ali won 56 out of his 61 professional fights, 37 by knockout.
    • Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of the World three times: 1964, 1974, and 1978. He remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion. This is a big deal: In boxing, lineal describes a world championship title held initially by an undisputed champion and subsequently by a fighter who defeats the reigning champion in a match at that weight class. This is even more noteworthy in the era, Sports Illustrated says, of heavyweight boxing’s golden era of “ungodly competition”: Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman.
    • Ali was an Olympic gold medalist, winning the light heavyweight championship at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.


  • How did Muhammad Ali contribute to the political dialogue of the 20th century?
    • In the words of Sports Illustrated, “he had convictions and he stuck to them.” For example:
      • Ali refused to support the war in Vietnam, the dominant political event in the United States in the 1960s-1970s. As Sports Illustrated explains, “Ali explained his objections, not just on religious grounds but also racial. ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger,’ he explained. And, perhaps more famously: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.’”
      • Ali never recanted his position, even after it cost him his boxing license and, as a result, three years in the prime of his career and athletic abilities. (His title was reinstated after the Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in Clay v. United States, writing “the court said the record shows that [Ali’s] beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understand them.”
    • Ali was a Muslim. Cassius Clay—the name under which he won his gold medal—was raised a Baptist. He changed his name at age 22, when he joined the Nation of Islam. In 1975, he left the Nation for mainstream Sunni Islam, and in his last years, he embraced the mystical Sufi branch of Islam. For years, he was probably the most well-known American Muslim in the world and faced suspicion and hostility from people making assumptions about his patriotism.


  • 3. CULTURE
  • How did Muhammad Ali contribute to the social and cultural dialogue of the 20th century?
    • Ali provided a powerful new model of African American pride and achievement. In the words of basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then a young Lew Alcindor), “I remember the teachers at my high school didn’t like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent … made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him.”
    • Ali was one of the earliest and easily most-accomplished trash-talking athletes in modern sports. Until Ali, SI says, “no athlete, certainly no black athlete, dared be so brazen, so bombastic, so certain in his appeal, so independent of tradition … Can you imagine, in such a deadly game, a fighter who pauses for a pugilistic break dance, a shuffle in which his white shoes skim the canvas? For that matter: white shoes?”
    • Ali was an international superstar. Born the descendant of slaves in Louisville, Kentucky, he gained worldwide acclaim at the Rome Olympics in 1960s. He brought boxing to unheralded international appeal with well-marketed bouts in the Philippines (the Thrilla in Manila!), Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire, the Rumble in the Jungle!), Bahamas (Drama in the Bahamas!) Malaysia, Puerto Rico, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.
    • Ali was a celebrity as much as an athlete. He marketed himself as the GOAT: Greatest Of All Time, a trademark that appeared on his licensed material. He appeared on television, in films, even animated cartoons as versions of himself.


  • How did Muhammad Ali contribute to the language of 20th-century sports?
    • Ali’s wit was as fast as his feet, and he left the century with some of its best
      • similes and metaphors, starting, of course, with:
        • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.
        • I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
        • I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked.
        • I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And throw thunder in jail.
      • Trash talking:
        • If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.
        • How tall are you? So I can know in advance how far to step back when you fall down!
        • He’s (Sonny Liston) too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!
        • I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.
      • Words of wisdom:
        • The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.
        • Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.
        • It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
        • It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.
        • I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.


Sports Illustrated: Muhammad Ali—boxer, activist, provocateur—dead at 74

New York Times: Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century

Slate: The Best Stories Ever Written About Muhammad Ali

When We Were Kings

National Geographic: Rumble in the Jungle

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