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Muhammad Ali
A Reading A–Z Level Z Leveled Book
Word Count: 1,637
Create a timeline of the major events in
Muhammad Ali’s life. Write a description
of each event.
Social Studies
Research to learn more about another
person who spoke up for human rights.
Make a poster about the person that
includes the information you learned.
T• W
Written by Mike Vago
for thousands of books and materials.
Words to Know
civil rights
human rights
Supreme Court
Front cover: Cassius Clay trains in Watford, United Kingdom, for a fight
with British champion Henry Cooper in 1963.
Title page: Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali trade blows during a 1965
fight that resulted in Ali keeping his title as heavyweight champion.
Page 3: Cassius Clay takes a punch from six-year-old British boy Patrick
Power in 1963. Patrick was taking boxing lessons to learn to defend
himself against bullies.
Written by Mike Vago
Photo Credits:
Front cover: © Trevor Humphries/Stringer/Getty Images Sport Classic/Getty
Images; title page, page 6: © Bettmann/Getty Images; page 3: © Keystone/
Stringer/Getty Images Sport Classic/Getty Images; pages 4, 5, 8 (right), 11:
© AP/REX/Shutterstock; page 7: © Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images;
page 8 (left): © AP Images; page 9: © A. Y. Owen/The LIFE Images Collection/
Getty Images; page 10: © Charles Harrity/AP/REX/Shutterstock; page 12:
© Hulton Archive/Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images; page 13: © Supplied by
Globe Photos, inc./REX/Shutterstock; page 14: © Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/
Getty Images; page 15: © Michael Cooper/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Focus Question
Who was Muhammad Ali, and what is he
remembered for?
Muhammad Ali
Level Z Leveled Book
© Learning A–Z
Written by Mike Vago
All rights reserved.
Fountas & Pinnell
Reading Recovery
Cassius Clay exchanges words with Sonny Liston at the weigh-in before
their title fight in Miami Beach, Florida, on February 24, 1964.
Table of Contents
A New Champion
A New Champion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Childhood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Going for the Gold . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Muhammad Ali . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Refusing to Fight . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
The Comeback . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Two Amazing Fights . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Retired but Still Fighting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
In 1964, the heavyweight boxing champ, Sonny
Liston, prepared to defend his title . Liston was so
tough that some boxers were afraid to face him .
No one expected his latest challenger to win .
While most boxers stood still and hit hard,
Cassius Clay danced around the ring, throwing
quick jabs . And while most boxers let their fists
do the talking, Clay invented creative taunts,
including a poem about punching Liston so hard
he would fly into space: “Who on Earth thought,
when they came to the fight / That they would
witness the launching of a human satellite?”
Fans thought Clay was all talk, but his insults
were part of a larger strategy to enrage Liston
so that he would make mistakes in the ring .
Clay’s agile style let him dodge Liston’s hardest
swings while Clay wore him down with quick
jabs . After six rounds of taking punch after punch,
Liston called it quits . Cassius Clay became the
heavyweight champion of the world . But his story
was just beginning . Soon he would change his
name to Muhammad Ali—and make that a name
history would remember .
Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942
in Louisville, Kentucky . His family
was middle class, but the Clays had to
deal with the crushing realities of
segregation on a daily basis . At that
time, restaurants and stores in many
parts of the South refused to serve
Black people . If they were allowed
into movie theaters at all, Black
Cassius Clay
Americans had to sit in the balcony .
began boxing
at age twelve.
Black Americans who asserted their
equality or autonomy were often the targets of
violence by angry mobs of white people .
A more personal hardship set Cassius on the
path to boxing . When he was twelve, someone stole
his bike . Cassius told neighborhood police officer
Joe Martin that he wanted to beat up the thief .
Martin suggested he fight in the boxing ring
instead . With Martin as his boxing coach, Cassius
began training and won his first fight later that
year . At fourteen, he won the novice category in the
Golden Gloves, the country’s best-known amateur
boxing tournament . Cassius’s school sponsored
boxing matches, and he was so confident in the
ring that his principal started introducing him as
“the next heavyweight champion of the world”!
Though Cassius Clay stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.9 m) tall and weighed
215 pounds (97.5 kg), his blinding speed made it difficult for opponents
to land punches against him.
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
Going for the Gold
Muhammad Ali
Clay was quickly becoming the best amateur
boxer in America . At age seventeen, he won the
Golden Gloves championship and the Amateur
Athletic Union’s national title . The next year, he
had his first fight in another country—the 1960
Olympic Games in Rome, Italy . The eighteen-yearold had never flown before and was so scared that
he brought a parachute! But he wasn’t scared in
the ring, where he won the gold medal .
Two years earlier, Clay had watched civil
rights leader Malcolm X speak about Islam and
had come away impressed . The two became
friends, with Malcolm acting as a mentor to Clay
as he explored a new faith and embraced the civil
rights movement . By the time Clay claimed the
heavyweight championship, his name was the
most famous one in boxing . But it wasn’t a name
he wanted to be called anymore .
After Rome, Clay started fighting for money
and not just medals . As he won fight after fight,
he began taunting his opponents as he had seen
pro wrestlers do . He would make up rhymes
boasting of victory . When he fought Jim Robinson,
he predicted, “This guy
must be done / I’ll stop
him in one,” and sure
enough, Clay knocked out
Robinson ninety seconds
into the first round . Clay
won nineteen fights in a
row before beating Liston
and winning the title .
After fighting Liston, Clay converted to the
religion of Islam and took the name Muhammad
Ali in honor of Islam’s prophet . He told reporters,
“Cassius Clay is a slave name . I didn’t choose it
and I don’t want it . I am Muhammad Ali, a free
name—it means beloved of God, and I insist
people use it when people speak to me and of me .”
Cassius Clay fights a Polish boxer during
the 1960 Summer Olympic Games.
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
Two leaders of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. (left) and
Malcolm X (right), both had a deep impact on the young boxer’s thinking.
Ali speaks with the press before his trial.
Refusing to Fight
In the mid-1960s, the United States began
drafting young men to fight in a war in Vietnam,
a country in Asia . When Ali’s name was called in
the draft, he refused to comply, although he knew
that was against the law . He objected to fighting
on religious grounds, saying that war was against
the teachings of his new religion . He also argued
that he shouldn’t fight for a country that didn’t
treat him as an equal citizen . Having experienced
racism his whole life, Ali was ready to take a
stand against it . He asked reporters, “Why should
they ask me to . . . drop bombs and bullets on
brown people while so-called Negro people
in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
Negro was a term used in much of the twentieth century
to refer to people of African heritage. Since the late
1960s, it has been considered offensive and has mostly
been replaced by the terms Black or African American.
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
Muhammad Ali gives a speech at an anti-war rally at the University
of Chicago on May 10, 1967.
Speaking out against both the war in Vietnam
and racism in America made Ali a hero to many
people . But the boxing establishment didn’t want
its most famous fighter stirring up controversy .
The same day he was arrested for refusing the
draft, Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title
and banned from boxing .
During his time away from boxing, Ali spoke
at colleges about the war and the civil rights
movement . He became as well known for his
eloquent moral arguments as he was for boxing .
Giving up his career for his conscience won him
respect, even from some people who disagreed
with him .
The Comeback
Ali continued to defend his refusal to be
drafted as the case moved through higher courts .
After three years, a judge ruled that the boxing
establishment had to let Ali back into the ring,
though his Supreme Court case was not yet
settled . After two warm-up fights, he challenged
the new heavyweight champ, Joe Frazier, a tough,
relentless fighter who had never lost a match . Ali’s
challenge for the title was hyped as the “Fight of
the Century .”
The fight lived up to the hype . But for Ali, it
was the reverse of the Liston fight . His speed was
no match for Frazier’s
strength . Frazier
rattled Ali with his
strong left hook,
knocking him down
several times . The
judges awarded the
match to Frazier . It was
the first professional
fight Ali had ever lost .
Ali crouches on the canvas after
slipping in the eleventh round
during his comeback fight against
Joe Frazier in 1971.
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
Three months after the loss, Ali won a more
important victory . The Supreme Court ruled
that he had the right to refuse the draft as a
conscientious objector . Like other Americans
who objected to fighting in war for religious
reasons, Ali deserved to have his beliefs respected .
His moral stance inspired Americans from all
walks of life to stand up for their beliefs as well .
Do You Know?
The Model for Apollo Creed
The 1976 movie Rocky was based on Chuck Wepner, a
low-ranked fighter who got to fight Ali for the title in 1975
and came surprisingly close to winning. Rocky’s on-screen
opponent, charismatic champion Apollo Creed, was based
directly on Ali.
Two Amazing Fights
Ali continued fighting for three years, winning
all but one bout, until he got to fight Frazier again .
He won, but by that point Frazier had lost the
heavyweight title to George Foreman, a young,
powerful new fighter . Like Ali, Foreman had won
an Olympic gold medal and become champion
without losing a fight . Ali challenged Foreman for
the title in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of
the Congo) in a fight called the “Rumble in the
Jungle .” Some consider it the greatest sporting
event of the twentieth century . Ali tried a new
strategy—leaning against the ropes and blocking
while Foreman tired himself out punching . Ali
dubbed this move the “rope-a-dope .” He enraged
Foreman by teasing him:
“They told me you could
punch, George!” Foreman
fell into the trap and tired
himself out, making it
easier for Ali to knock
him down . Muhammad
Ali was the champ again .
The following year, Frazier tried to win
the title back from Ali in a fight held in the
Philippines called the “Thrilla in Manila .” Ali
employed the rope-a-dope again, but this time
Frazier wore him down . It was a brutal fight that
Ali described as “the closest I’ve come to death .”
Frazier said, “I hit him with punches that would
have knocked a building down .” In the fourteenth
round, Ali threw everything he had at Frazier,
using the last of his strength to hit him with a
barrage of punches . Frazier threw in the towel .
Both men were so beaten up that Ali later said,
“We went to Manila as champions, and we came
back as old men .”
Ali kept his title for another two and a half
years before he lost it to Leon Spinks, but he
fought Spinks again a few months later and won,
becoming the only boxer to win the heavyweight
crown three times . Ali didn’t fight again for two
years, and when he did,
he lost the title for good to
Larry Holmes . At thirtyeight, his long career in
the ring came to an end .
Ali leans back against the ropes
to perform the “rope-a-dope”
maneuver during his fight with
George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
Ali won his rematch
against Leon Spinks in
1978 in a bout that
lasted fifteen rounds.
Retired but Still Fighting
After retiring from boxing,
Ali traveled the world speaking up
for human rights . In 1984, he was
diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a disease
that makes it hard for the brain to
control the muscles . As his health
declined, it became difficult for the
usually eloquent Ali to speak . But
in 1996, he returned to the Olympic
Games, this time to light the Olympic
flame in Atlanta, Georgia . Ali clearly
struggled to lift the torch, but as the
crowd cheered he held the flame
aloft, a fighter to the end .
Ali holds up
the torch before
lighting the
Olympic flame
at the opening
ceremony in
Atlanta, in 1996.
In 2016, Muhammad Ali died at age seventyfour . The once controversial champ had become
universally beloved . President Obama praised his
activism, saying “Ali stood his ground . And his
victory helped us get used to the America we
recognize today .” Ali wasn’t just the greatest
boxer who ever lived—he also helped transform
his country by fighting for what he believed in .
As Ali once said, “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 .”
Muhammad Ali • Level Z
activism (n.)
the work of or belief in bringing about
social or political change (p . 15)
civil rights
legal, social, and economic rights that
guarantee freedom and equality for all
citizens (p . 8)
conscience (n.)
an inner sense of right and wrong (p . 10)
objector (n.)
a person who refuses to serve in the
military because of religious or moral
reasons (p . 12)
diagnosed (v.)
identified as having an illness, injury,
or condition (p . 15)
drafting (v.)
ordering someone into military service,
especially during wartime (p . 9)
eloquent (adj.)
simple, powerful, and elegant in speech
or writing (p . 10)
human rights
the rights that are considered by most
societies to belong automatically to all
people, such as justice, freedom, and
equality (p . 15)
Islam (n.)
the monotheistic faith of Muslims,
based on the teachings of the prophet
Muhammad (p . 8)
racism (n.)
the belief that one race is better than
another; unequal treatment based on
such a belief (p . 9)
a policy of separating groups of people
from one another, often on the basis of
race (p . 6)
Court (n.)
the highest court of law in the judicial
system of the United States (p . 11)