3 Fights That Changed Muhammad Ali’s Life That You Probably Never Heard Of

1. Cassius Clay v. Corky Baker, July 1958

Corky Baker was the biggest, strongest, baddest young man in the West End of Louisville. He had fists the size of grapefruits. He wore a biker’s jacket. He was known to lift cars to impress girls. When Corky Baker heard there was a teenager on Grand Street who claimed to be good with his fists, Baker issued a challenge. Cassius Clay accepted. “You’re crazy if you get in the ring with him,” one friend of Clay’s said.

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Clay had only been boxing two years, but he believed in his talent. Clay wasn’t the strongest kid in the neighborhood. He wasn't even the strongest kid in his own home. That honor belonged to his brother Rudy. But Cassius had incredible speed and a relentlessly punishing jabbed. He believed that a boxer would beat a brawler like Baker every time.

The buildup to the fight was tremendous. The West End was abuzz. A huge crowd turned out to watch. When the bout began, Baker set out like a man bent on murder, swinging wildly and bulling forward with his head down. Cassius pounded him with long left jabs and skipped away until Baker was exhausted, his nose bloodied and one eye blackened. “This ain’t fair!” Baker shouted in the middle of the second round before staggering out of the ring and out of the gym. Clay learned not to be afraid of bigger and stronger men—a lesson that would serve him well six years later when he faced Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

2. Cassius Clay v. Doug Jones, March 13, 1963

Even before he became a Muslim and before he refused to join the U.S. armed forces, Clay was unpopular with boxing fans. He was a loudmouth upstart at a time when young black men were supposed to show respect.  So when Clay faced Harlem’s Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden, a huge crowd turned out hoping to see Clay get his face rearranged. Never before in the history of the Garden had a fight sold out in advance, but this one did, and it wasn’t even a title fight. Clay knew why, and he expressed it in a poem:

People come to see me from all around
To see Cassius hit the ground.
Some get mad, some lose their money,
But Cassius is still as sweet as honey.

In round one, it looked like the paying crowd was going to get its wish. Jones hit Clay with a left hook that sent Clay spinning into the ropes. Somehow, the young fighter stayed on his feet and started jabbing, keeping Jones away. The fight was terrific. The crowd’s rage grew round by round. Clay won by a unanimous decision, but the fans didn’t like it. They hurled beer cups, programs, and peanuts. Clay raised his arms and yelled back at the haters. Then he picked up a peanut and ate it.

He didn’t mind being disliked. In fact, he was beginning to get the idea it was good for business.

3. Ali v. Earnie Shavers, September 29, 1977

It was a mistake for Ali, at age 35, to get in the ring with Earnie Shavers. It was a mistake for anyone at any age to get in the ring with Earnie Shavers. Shavers wasn’t the most gifted boxer in the world, but he had a punch that landed like a tire iron. He was one of the greatest pure punchers the sport had ever seen. Shavers hit so hard, an opponent said, “he could turn July into June.” He could also turn a human brain into porridge.

Ali, meanwhile, hadn’t been the same since his gruesome fight with Joe Frazier in 1975—the Thrilla in Manila. He should’ve been retired by 1977. He certainly should not have been fighting men like Shavers. Over and over, through fifteen rounds, Shavers hit Ali with sledgehammer blows. Over and over, Ali wobbled but did not fall. In the end, judges gave Ali the unanimous decision, but it was a hollow victory. After the fight, he stretched out on a long table, holding his head as if he were trying to keep the room from spinning. His father bent and spoke into his ear. “Quit, son,” he said, “before you get hurt.” Ali said he couldn’t quit. He still needed the money. He would go, disastrously, to fight four more times.

Want More Ali?

Author Jonathan Eig set out to write the first unauthorized biography of Muhammad Ali, covering not just the champ’s fights but every important aspect of his life. His goal? Simple: To write the Greatest Biography of All Time. That meant interviewing all of the key people in Ali’s life, and maybe even talking to the legend himself. It took four years to write, and hundreds of interviews with people like Don King and Larry Holmes, as well as Ali’s wives and family members. In his podcast, Jonathan Eig tells us about the stories that didn’t make it into the book — the story of him Chasing Ali. Listen to podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher