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. Reading this article better helped me understand the struggle that Muhammad Ali had to go through. He was one of the world’s greatest athletes and entertainers while also trying to help mold his country. I didn’t really know that Muhammad Ali had a learning disability in school but that’s an inspiring story to so many kids who also struggle with this problem. This was a great article, great job.

  2. Interesting article! I knew very little about Muhammad Ali before reading article, but now can understand why so many still see him as their role model today. I found his struggle with his dyslexia and Parkinson’s disease to be very sad reading about, but found how those struggles didn’t get in his way from achieving his goals to be quite inspiring. Overall, this was an inspiring and very well written article on a true legend. Good job!

  3. Such an interesting informative article! A very captivating research work on Mohammad Ali. This name is such a household staple, yet I never knew the struggles he went through or the stances he took. He is known for being such a great fighter but he was such a fighter in many aspects of his life; between dyslexia, fighting the draft, and later issues with Parkinson’s. Great job, loved reading your article.

  4. I was very surprised to learn that Muhammad Ali took a civil case to the United States Supreme Court. His case likely resonated with many young men at the time who were protesting their participation and the Vietnam war itself. It was a very controversial time in history and it is always great seeing celebrities or sports stars, like Ali, be vocal about social justice issues because they have a powerful and loud platform that most people don’t.

  5. I knew Muhammad Ali struggled with Parkinson’s syndrome. However this article shows how much more this incredible athlete has had to go through over the course of his life. Not many people are able to overcome the challenges he has had to face like he did. Not to mention the way he turned them into positives by speaking about them publicly. Muhammad Ali is an incredible role model for the sport and everything he stood for.

  6. I grew up watching many of Ali’s fights but never knew how passionately invested he was with voicing his political opinions. I also didn’t know he was dyslexic and how difficult it must have been for him in the school system. I know a handful of people who are dyslexic and how quickly people are to label them as ‘dumb’. I can only imagine what that must be like. It’s inspiring to read how he overcame so many obstacles in his life, a majority of which I was oblivious of.

  7. Reading “The Untold Fight of Mohmmad Ali” helps everyday people make real life connections with famous people. It is important for people to understand that no matter how famous someone is they are still human just like you and me. Everyone has their own hardships that they are dealing with and trying to overcome in life. I personally was able to make a connection with Ali when I read that he had a learning disability in school. Muhammed Ali is a good example of how you cannot let a label stop you from succeeding in life. It is inspiring to see someone overcome difficulties, stand up for what they believe in, and continue to fight to make their dreams come true.

  8. Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, and really inspired others to stand for what they believe in. Before reading this article I knew a little about him, but I wasn’t aware about his strong stance against the drafting. Although everyone has the same thought about the war, he truly inspired others and he will always be remembered as a true legend.

  9. Muhammad Ali was one of the worlds greatest athletes and entertainers, but above all he helped mold this country to what it is today. He had many battles and showed us how not giving up and fighting for what you believe in is were true success and happiness lies. He was a fighter inside and out the ring. An icon turned legend.

  10. It gives me great inspiration to read such a wonderful article. People never really look deep into the hardships that many athletes go through. It was so inspiring to read about Ali’s dyslexia and later Parkinson and how that didn’t stop him from achieving his goals. How in turn he became one of the greatest boxers in history and how amazing it was that he was a civil rights activist, which was unknown to me.

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