Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942) is a retired American boxer and former three-time World Heavyweight Champion and winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal. In 1999, Ali was crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and the BBC. While training for his title bout against the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, Clay met a Nation of Islam minister (a sect dissimilar from mainstream Islam) of the local Miami mosque. He was consequently introduced to the group's spokesman, Malcolm X. Through their friendship, Malcolm brought Cassius into the Nation of Islam. Clay had discovered the Nation during a Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959, even writing a high school report on the organization.
After winning the championship from Liston in 1964, Clay revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and the Nation gave Clay the name Cassius X. He thus discarded his surname (as did other members of the group) which was deemed as a symbol of enslavement. After entering the group, Elijah Muhammad – the group's leader, recorded a statement over the phone to be played over the radio that Clay would be renamed Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (fourth rightly guided caliph). Only a few journalists (most notably Howard Cosell) accepted it at that time. Venerable boxing announcer Don Dunphy addressed the champion by his adopted name, as did British reporters.
Ali's appearances at rallies with Elijah Muhammad and declaring his allegiance to him at a time when mainstream America viewed his group with suspicion — if not outright hostility — made Ali a target for suspicion and outrage. Ali, it seemed, at times sought to provoke such reactions, with viewpoints that wavered from support for civil rights to outright support of separatism. For example, Ali once stated, in relation to integration: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all." And in relation to inter-racial marriage: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters." Indeed, Ali's religious beliefs at the time included the notion that the white man was "the devil" and that white people were not "righteous." Ali claimed that white people hated black people.
These beliefs, however, were transformed or shed completely once Ali converted from the Nation of Islam sect to the mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. In a 2004 autobiography, written with his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, Muhammad Ali attributes his conversion to the shift toward Sunni Islam made by W.D. Muhammad after he gained control of the Nation of Islam upon the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975.
In 1978, three years before Ali's permanent retirement, the Board of Aldermen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky voted 6–5 to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard. This was controversial at the time as, within a week, 12 of the 70 street signs were stolen. Earlier that year, a committee of the Jefferson County Public Schools considered renaming Central High School in his honor, but the motion failed to pass. At any rate, in time, Muhammad Ali Boulevard—and Ali himself—came to be well accepted in his hometown. He was the recipient of the 1997 Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Currently, he spends much of his time reading and spreading the teachings of Islam, and has opened the door of his home for millions of people who visit him.