We all know Muhammad Ali as the world’s best fighter in history, not only in the ring, but for racial and social justice in his life time. But while people may say his fighting career started with his first match against Tunney Hunsaker, the true start to his fighting career started with the victories of his challenges since his childhood. Before Muhammad Ali’s name was known as Muhammad, he was Cassius Clay. Growing up, Cassius struggled in school and found it hard to keep up with the other kids in his classes. He quickly became discouraged in school and found an interesting hobby when he was just a twelve-year-old boy whose bike had been stolen. His newly discovered talent for boxing had just emerged, but with so much going on, he continued in school even when his struggles were disabling. Later in life, Ali was tested for learning disabilities and was diagnosed with dyslexia, which made sense of the struggles that he faced throughout school. Learning disabilities went unrecognized due to little research, awareness, and material to treat learning disabilities.1

“As a high school student, many of my teachers labeled me ‘DUMB.’ Of course I knew who the real dummies were. I barely graduated from high school. There was no way I was going to college—I never even thought about it. I could barely read my textbooks.” – Muhammad Ali2

Question marks | Courtesy of Piqsels

Lets get this straight. Having a learning disability does not mean you are dumb by any means. Did you know that Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Leonardo da Vinci and many more brilliant people were dyslexic? Some of the most talented and highest achieving IQs are from people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. So what is dyslexia? The word dyslexia originated from the Greek words dys (meaning poor or inadequate) and the word lexis (meaning words or language). Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects one’s ability to read, write, and spell, and in some cases, affects mathematical abilities. Dyslexia is strongly passed through genetic lines. 40% of boys and 20% of girls with a dyslexic parent develop the disorder. Dyslexia can occur equally in all races.3 Our public school systems are set up to teach curricula geared towards children who can handle the language, both oral and written expression, in the normal manner. Dyslexia cannot be “cured.” Dyslexic children go through the public school system not getting diagnosed, and they suffer compared to those who don’t have learning disabilities. Dyslexia is not the result of neurological damage, but the product of neurological development. It is estimated that between 5-10% of the population have dyslexia.4

Through Ali’s struggles, he took on bigger fights. He became an Olympic champion in the light heavyweight division in 1960, when he was just eighteen. By the close of the 1960s, Ali had become among the most praised men on the planet and a hero in Africa. However, his political and religious views also made him an intimidating figure, in boxing and in the press. He converted to Islam and became a Muslim in 1961. His change to Islam has to be understood in the context of segregation in America and the civil rights movement. “Cassius Clay is my slave name,” Ali explained. “I’m no longer a slave. Muhammad means ‘worthy of all praises’ and Ali means ‘most high.'” – Muhammad Ali 5 Through his new found spirituality, he did not agree with the Vietnam war and its ideals. Ali had previously failed to qualify for the U.S. Army because of his poor writing skills, but in 1966, after a revision in the law, he was drafted.6

The U.S. military drafted 2.2 million American men out of  27 million qualified to fight in the Vietnam war. Getting drafted into the Vietnam war was practically a lottery that created social and economic issues. Men between ages 18 and 26 were prime candidates for the lottery draft. Twenty-five percent of the military force was draftees. There was lots of controversy that surrounded the Vietnam war. While there were soldiers that did support the war, at least at first, to others the draft seemed to be a death sentence. Many soldiers looked to other places to exempt them from going to war, such as going to college or getting parental deferments. Some even attempted to fail aptitude tests. If you could prove you were a full-time student at a university making progress in almost any field, you could be eligible for student deferment exempting you from the draft. There were lots of reasons for the protest of the draft. The biggest was soldiers being sent to a war to fight for a cause that they did not believe in.7

Student Vietnam War protesters, 1965 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted by a Houston jury of a felony charge of violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act. ‘Clay’ was sentenced to five years in prison and was fined $10,000. Muhammad Ali was one of the war’s biggest protesters. Ali was stripped of his boxing license. He was now twenty-five years old and was banned from boxing at such a prime age for his career, but he fought back against his verdict. Ali and his attorneys spent the next four years appealing his case. As the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, Ali made speeches at school campuses, and became an antiwar and civil rights hero.8

“Either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative. And that alternative, that alternative is justice. And if justice prevails, I will neither go to the army, nor will I go to jail.” – Muhammad Ali 9

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier | Courtesy of Flickr

The fight of Ali’s life was underway, and he had an army of his own to protest against his verdict and stand with him. His boxing license was granted back to him once his case was being appealed in the Supreme Court, in the case known as Clay v. United States. Ali’s “fight of the century” was underway and the heat was rising. While he may have lost after fifteen intense rounds in the ring to Joe Frazier, Ali’s first lost in his entire boxing career, he won a bigger fight. On June 28 of that same year 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for evading the draft.10

By the 1980s, Ali continued to fight for justice, and travel the world on philanthropic missions. After such an intense fighting career, Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and focused on his religious practices. In 1984, he made public his diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome, which some reports attribute to boxing related injuries. Ali was forty-two years old and was yet again fighting for his life.

Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox both have Parkinson’s disease | Courtesy of Wikimedia

About 1% of people over age sixty develop Parkinson’s disease. There are about 120 cases per 100,000 in population. Parkinson’s disease causes a progressive decline in movement control, affecting the ability to control initiation, speed, and smoothness of motion. Most cases of Parkinson’s disease result in sporadic mutation.11 This means that there is a spontaneous and permanent change in nucleotide sequences. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Having a first-degree relative with Parkinson’s disease doubles the chance of one developing the disease. Some known toxins can cause Parkinsonism, most notoriously a chemical called MPTP, found as an impurity in some illegal drugs. Certain chemicals can trigger symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Symptoms develop and make movement difficult. The most common symptom is tremors throughout the body. Physical therapy is the best treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. The therapy of the body helps loosen muscles and improves movement, but Parkinson’s disease is not curable.12

Muhammad Ali attending The Sect’s Service,1974 | Courtesy of Flickr

After a thirty-two-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali passed away in 2016 at the age of 74. Ali died of “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes.” The boxing legend was a Beacon of Hope. He empowered so much change and faith in his beliefs and was confident that no matter what happened, everything would be okay. His fights in the ring empowered people’s bodies and his fights for social justice fueled people’s faith. Ali was a big believer in speaking things into existence. Through all of his struggles in life, he used his strength and his faith to fight them. Later in his life, he advocated for awareness of Parkinson’s disease and dyslexia due to his daughter who was also diagnosed with dyslexia. He will forever be remembered for his political stances, incredible fighting ability, and his empowering quotes.

  1. Ishmael Reed, The Complete Muhammad Ali (Montréal: Baraka Books, 2015), 68.
  2. Theresa Maher, “Muhammad Ali—Dyslexic Role Model Fought in the Ring and for Racial and Social Justice,” February 2018, RespectAbility, https://www.respectability.org/2018/02/muhammad-ali-dyslexic-role-model-fought-ring-racial-social-justice/
  3. The Gale Encyclopedia of Neurological Disorders, 2nd ed.), 2012, s.v. “Dyslexia” by Tish Davidson and Laura Jean Cataldo.
  4. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1984, s.v “Dyslexia: Neuroanatomical/Neurolinguistic Perspectives,” by George W. Hynd and Cynthia R. Hynd.
  5. Kaleem Aftab, “Muhammad Ali’s Conversion to Islam Changed the World,” June 2016, Vice (website), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4w5gdb/muhamamd-alis-conversion-to-islam-changed-the-world
  6. Kaleem Aftab, “Muhammad Ali’s Conversion to Islam Changed the World,” June 2016, Vice (website), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4w5gdb/muhamamd-alis-conversion-to-islam-changed-the-world
  7. The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 2, 2009, s.v. “The Draft Lottery and Attitudes towards the Vietnam War,” by Daniel E. Bergan.
  8. DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight,” June 2018, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/
  9. DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight,” June 2018, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/
  10. Johathan Eig, Ali : A Life (Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 86.
  11. E. Ronken and G.J.M. van Scharrenburg, Parkinson’s Disease (Amsterdam ; Washington, DC : IOS Press, 2002), 17-25.
  12. The Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders (Vol. 2. 3rd ed.), 2010, s.v. “Parkinson Disease,” by Laith Farid Gulli.

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36 Responses

  1. It is the first time that I read about Muhammad Ali and I am impressed by two things: the first is knowing that he had to go through various problems during his life and career, such as dyslexia and later Parkinson. The second is how he managed to overcome those first obstacles in his career to become the best fighter in history. I appreciated, and found quite interesting, the digressions about the Vietnam War, I really didn’t expect it to be mentioned.Excellent overall article!

  2. It is amazing to see the ability of sports figures to touch the outside media. Muhammed Ali is not only one of the best boxers in history, but he had a special ability to reach out and speak to the people. Ali not only battled matches in the ring, but also battled with the Supreme Court. It is insane to think that this issue was brought up to the Supreme Court just due to his religious beliefs behind the war. Overall, amazing article Audrey, well done!

  3. It always is surprising to know better the reality of a character that usually lies behind a myth or a mask. I had no idea Ali suffered from both dyslexia and that he later on developed Parkinson. I would liked, however, to see more about one of those struggles with greater detail, I feel like the article rushed over his life just to mention both issues. I value, however, the digression on the Vietnam war.

  4. I was never aware of what Muhammad Ali did behind boxing but I did find it interesting how active he was when it came to expressing his stance on certain topics such as the Vietnam War. I also did not know that he had converted to Islam but I did like the fact that he put a lot of though into his new name.

  5. There are somethings that I knew about Muhammad Ali before bigging this reading, But the am on t of information Audry was able to convey to me that I didn’t know about is crazy. For example, I didn’t know that Ali was a civil rights activist who would be making a difference with his work although he lost for the first time in his career he won a bigger battle against the supreme court which I think is a really big and important date for him that a lot of people didn’t know about.

  6. I was not aware of Muhammad Ali’s whole story or all of his struggles. It’s incredibly impacting how he overcame so many obstacles in his life and is known as an amazing person or human being. The fact that he and many other heroes’ in history had dyslexia or other learning disabilities truly inspires me and motivates me to be a better person every day.

  7. Muhammad Ali was an inspiring figure and a hero not just for civil rights movement but also for the entire United States. He really was a man who was willing to risk everything that he had gained up to that point because the war went against his beliefs. For that reason alone I have immense respect for him but I also have respect for the countless other accomplishments that he did throughout his life. It’s a shame that he passed away.

  8. I always knew who Ali was but never really his history. Ali seemed like a great role model for the average person he protested the war and brought awareness to Parkinson’s and Dyslexia. for someone who is so talented, it’s very unfortunate how the last half of Ali’s life declined with being sent to jail to having Parkinson’s. this was a great article I really enjoyed reading this!

  9. I find your insight very interesting, Audrey! I knew that Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest boxers of all time, but I was not aware that he was also such a big figure in social and civic justice movements. Also, I did not know that the case Clay v. The United States was about Muhammad Ali just because I wasn’t aware that his real name, before he converted to Islam was Cassius Clay. I had heard about the case briefly in one of my history classes in high school, but never imagined it was about the boxer. It was very interesting to learn this great new side of Muhammad Ali. Great article!

  10. I really liked this article. I actually related to it in away. I have a processing disorder and suffer from short term memory loss so hearing that one of the greats has overcome his own set back that were similar to my own is really motivating. Other than that I thought this article was really good, despite the different topic and sections of it really flowed and it was great. Good job!!

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