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06/04/2016 02:10 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2016

5 Stories You Didn't Know About Muhammad Ali

The boxing legend probably wasn't the greatest actor of all time, but he was on Broadway.
Muhammad Ali wears a beard and wig for his acting debut in the Broadway musical "Buck White" in New York City.
AP/AP
Muhammad Ali wears a beard and wig for his acting debut in the Broadway musical "Buck White" in New York City.

Muhammad Ali is remembered for his influence inside and outside of the boxing ring and for standing up for his principles in the face of fierce backlash.

Known for his quick jab and a lightning-fast wit, Ali seemed to be able to adapt his skills to any situation, be it to get himself into trouble or right back out again.

The boxing legend died on Friday night at 74, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

You'll hear a lot of crazy stories about him over the next few days. He performed magic tricks like a champion. He had Irish roots and family ties to Katie Couric. He released a spoken word album titled, "I am the greatest." But here are some of our favorites:

1. The NSA wiretapped Ali's phone

Declassified documents show that NSA listened in on Ali's international phone calls because he objected to the Viet
Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art via Getty Images
Declassified documents show that NSA listened in on Ali's international phone calls because he objected to the Vietnam War and refused to enlist in the Army.

Declassified documents revealed in 2013 that the National Security Agency tapped overseas communications of Vietnam War critics, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ali, The Washington Post reported at the time.

A brief of those government documents suggests that Ali was surveilled during his efforts to avoid the draft. During 1966 and 1967, the heavyweight boxer appealed his draft status, saying, "I've got nothing against them Vietcongs" and "I can fight in wars declared only by Allah himself." He was sentenced to five years in prison, though the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that he was entitled to conscientious objector status.

 

2. He starred in a Broadway musical

Ali was billed under his birth name, Cassius Clay, when he starred in the Broadway musical, "Buck White."
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images
Ali was billed under his birth name, Cassius Clay, when he starred in the Broadway musical, "Buck White."

In 1969, during his suspension from boxing over his refusal to go to Vietnam, Ali was reportedly drowning in debt and still appealing his conviction. He made pocket change by touring colleges to discuss the war, and, as Playbill points out, he starred in the Broadway musical, "Buck White."

He was billed under his birth name, Cassius Clay, and his Playbill bio read, "He is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The 'Big Time Buck White Role' that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality."

Ali sang nearly every song in the musical, playing a militant black lecturer addressing a meeting organized by a black political group. But he would never return to the stage after his conviction was overturned. Here he is on the Ed Sullivan show in character, singing "We Came in Chains."


3. He started training in boxing to beat up the kid who stole his bike

Muhammad Ali was inspired to get into boxing at age 12, when I kid stole his bike. Ten years later, he was the heavyweig
AP
Muhammad Ali was inspired to get into boxing at age 12, when I kid stole his bike. Ten years later, he was the heavyweight champion of the world.

Cassius Clay was just 12 years old in 1954 when he got ready to "whup" the boy who stole his bicycle in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

But a local cop warned him that he'd need to learn to box first.

At just 89 pounds, Clay had his first fight -- and his first win -- just weeks later, according to Bleacher Report. By 1964, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, after upsetting Sonny Liston.

No word on whether he got his bike back.

4. Rumor has it that his Olympic gold medal is sitting at the bottom of a river

In this Sept. 6, 1960, file photo, U.S. boxers, from left, Wilbert McClure of Toledo, Ohio, light middleweight; Cassius Clay
ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Sept. 6, 1960, file photo, U.S. boxers, from left, Wilbert McClure of Toledo, Ohio, light middleweight; Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and light heavyweight; and Edward Crook of Fort Campbell, Ky, middleweight, wear gold medals at the Olympic village in Rome.

In 1960, the 18-year-old fighter traveled to Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal in the Summer Olympics.

Of course, after the Rome Games, few journalists followed Clay home to Louisville, where he was publicly referred to as “the Olympic nigger” and denied service at many downtown restaurants. After one such rejection, the story goes, he hurled his gold medal into the Ohio River. But Clay, and later Ali, gave different accounts of that act, and according to Thomas Hauser, author of the oral history “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” Clay had simply lost the medal.

Luckily, he got a replacement medal -- and ongoing support from his community -- in 1996.

Muhammad Ali poses with Dream Team members from left: Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Muhammad Ali poses with Dream Team members from left: Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton after receiving the gold medal, which replaces the 1960 gold medal he lost.

5. He secured the release of 15 U.S. prisoners in Iraq

In November 1990, Ali met with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on a "goodwill tour" in an attempt to negotiate the release of 15 Americans held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait.

Ali was instantly criticized, taking flak from the likes of then-President George H.W. Bush and The New York Times, both of whom expressed concerns that he was fueling a propaganda machine. Speaking about Ali's Parkinson's disease, the Times wrote:

“Surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days has been the ‘goodwill’ tour of Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion . . . he has attended meeting after meeting in Baghdad despite his frequent inability to speak clearly.”

Something worked, however. Despite running out of medication for his crippling disease and waiting more than a week to talk to Hussein, Ali was able to bring all 15 of a group of captive American soldiers home.

The New York Post reported:

Ali’s meeting with Saddam on Nov. 29, 1990, was open to the media. Ali sat patiently while Saddam praised himself for treating the hostages so well. Once he sensed an opening, Ali promised Saddam that he’d bring America “an honest account” of Iraq.

“I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US,” Saddam replied, “without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.”

Ali got all 15.

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