A most beautiful man died on 3 June 2016, his 74th birthday. In his youth he ‘floated like a butterfly stung like a bee’ and at a time of real stars with talent, he was the starriest of them all. The most famous man in the world before Michael moon walked, before the idea of Obama was realised…this was Muhammad Ali, 3 times world heavyweight champion boxer of the world.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr on 17 Jan 1942 in Louisville Kentucky where he took up boxing at a young age. His skill in the ring was immediately apparent and in the following years represented his country in the Olympics, winning gold. He was said to have upon his return from the Olympics, thrown away his gold Olympic medal after still encountering the prevalent poison of racism, which had no respect for the gold he had won for his country. It was an act that seemed to embody the defiant spirit he would showcase many times in later years, especially when banned from boxing for three years by the U.S. Supreme Court because of his refusal to participate in the Viet Nam war.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
His early years were funded by a group of ‘good ole boys’ a committee of Louisville businessmen eager to reap the rewards of this golden calf and cash cow. Those rewards were relatively short-lived, as Ali secretly took up with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation Of Islam (NOI) after being recruited by iconic legendary Civil-Right’s leader Malcom X. After a brave fight against Henry Cooper, he was soon contender to face Sonny Liston, the Mike Tyson of the early 60s, and dominated him to such an extent in their 1964 fight, that Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. He was now world boxing champion for the first time.
“I shook up the world.” “I shook up the world.”
After the Liston fight, Cassius openly acknowledged his new allegiance to the NOI and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, to emphasis this change in his circumstances and life from then on. Almost from the start his amazing reflects, skills and bravery had been highly praised and marvelled over. He was a genuine heavyweight, but one who moved with the grace of a middleweight, something unknown before. His hand speed was incredible but also his foot speed which evolved into what he would call his ‘Ali shuffle’, enabled him to weave in and out of trouble, aided with a leaning back technique that was not text book but worked only for him. Ali was a magnificent 6.3 feet specimen, a Greek god in human sinewy, with a cock sure pose and a big mouth
‘I am the Greatest.’
He called himself the ‘Greatest’ an act of braggadocio which at times appeared arrogant but after outclassing every opponent he was faced with, if not the best boxer, Ali sat comfortably alongside such men as Sugar Ray Robinson who had always been acknowledged as the best pound for pound boxer the world had ever seen. Sugar Ray had been Ali’s main inspiration and whose style Ali had somewhat co-opted. His love for the older legend was shown when strongly considering him for the role of his manager, which later went to Angelo Dundee.
Whenever you hear someone ’talking trash’ it is always derivative of Ali. His hype and bragging in the 1970s brought unprecedented financial rewards to himself and boxing. It is a safe assumption to say that without his template, there would not now be the money in sport there is presently, as in his prime he brought the ordinary man, Las Vegas and the political activists to his fights, a feat rarely accomplished with such epoch-making even to this day. It was also at this point of fame and wealth that he also fully embraced his importance as a role model to black people everywhere. He spoke of this many times, as if he felt it was divinely ordained that he speak on behalf of so many who couldn’t speak for themselves or in fact just were not being listened to. Many did not expect or necessarily covet this from a ‘dumb’ sportsman. All the mainstream TV audience wanted from him was to knock bums out and pick up his money, much like Joe Louis had done. But Ali loved his black people and believed he was ‘more than a boxer’ and becoming a regular in media around the world, he always seemed adamant in expressing this love and thinking.
He was defiant, black and very proud but this stance strangely also translated to disfranchised people everywhere who were struggling in the modern world of the 20 century. To white kids in deprived areas, to Muslim children in the Middle East, to children in African slums, the world had a champion. This big man, this fighting machine, this warrior had a big heart and an and an inner peace and clarity children could recognise, especially with the simplest of poetry.
Highlights of his career
His win against the ‘unbeatable sonny Liston.
His two fights against Henry Cooper.
His most brilliant performance, against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams . Ali was supreme at this point but due to his banishment for not fighting in the Viet Nam war, he was not allowed to compete professionally again for another 3 years. Simply put, the world never saw Muhammad Ali in his prime. Fact.
His first Joe Frazier fight in 1971, the fight of the century. He lost, broke his jaw but never made excuses as to the reason for his defeat, despite it being his first fight after the Supreme Court rescinded his banishment and despite him being several pounds heavier than his previous fighting best.
His fight in 1974 against George foreman. He was David and Foreman more than Goliath but no matter how big, the ending was the same. David defeated Goliath, but not with a catapult but with a ‘rope a dope.’ At this point in time Ali was 35, past his best but conversely in a time where only TV and newspapers were the sole mass media, was more recognisable the world over than any Pope or person had ever been.
The Thriller In Manila in 1975 , where he fought Frazier again in the heat of the Philippines. This was the closest he said, he had come to death and surely it was only luck and fate that either man had survived
His loss against the un-fancied Leon Spinks 1978, whom he later defeated to become the then only man to win the heavyweight championship of the world 3 times.
His fight against Superman…which he won!!!
And then the fight too many, the one with his one-time sparring partner, Larry Holmes. Holmes beat Ali easily but in later years complained that he was never really forgiven by the world for such an affront and was never fully appreciated as one of genuinely great boxers of all time because of it. He was right, how could you truly love the man who beat up and effectively retired the greatest?
But there were many controversies throughout his career.
His affiliation with NOI, whom like his earlier friend and mentor Malcolm X, he later broke away from to embrace orthodox Islam.
His four wives and many lovers.
Just how had he survived Henry Cooper’s punch in the 4th round of their fight or the mystery surrounding the phantom punch which curtailed Liston in their second fight.
To many the most unsettling controversy of his career, however, was his remarks in relation to his old nemesis, Joe Frazier.
“A Thriller in Manilla when Ali meets the gorilla.”
“He’s too ugly to be champion.
In what he may have viewed as only hype to sell a fight, he turned on the dignified and honourable man and belittled Frazier in a manner which had little to do with the accepted guidelines of sport. It left a dignified man like Frazier, a little bitter to his dying days at the manner of taunts he had to withstand from his opponent. Many feel that the lasting memory of the taunting prevented Frazier from being seen as the great champion he was. In defence of Ali, he may have truly misjudged his trash talking in these instances but while seeming publically contrite, apparently never personally apologised to Frazier before his foe’s death in 2011. So a hero, a warrior, a humanitarian, a champion but also a man with with the failings of any man.
It was in the 1980s that we started to hear about Ali suffering from Parkinson’s disease The slurring had been apparent for some time and in many ways it was a relief that Parkinson’s was diagnosed and not that his bravery in the ring, against so many formidable hard hitting boxers had taken its toll. In his later years he again showed the defiant edge that he had from when a child and so without shying away from public gaze, like so many others would have done, he faced up to Parkinson’s as he would any opponent. A man with a big mouth silenced to mumbles but yet such was his stature and big heart that it didn’t seem to matter. He still spoke loudest, surely his greatest triumph.
My fondest memory of the greatness of Ali, was at the age of 7 and when about to fight another boy in the local park. Before we fought, as gentlemen (ahem) we started to take off our shirts. My opponent took his off to the skin and I took my t-shirt off… to reveal my Muhammad Ali vest shirt. How could I lose?
Muhammad Ali, the greatest, a peaceful transition…and thank you.
Muhammad Ali Lived: 17 Jan 1942 – 03 Jun 2016 (age 74)
survived by wife: Yolanda Williams (m. 1986) ·
Children: Laila Ali (Daughter) · Hana Ali (Daughter) · Khaliah Ali (Daughter) · Muhammad Ali Jr. (Son) · Asaad Amin (Son) Jamillah Ali (Daughter) · Rasheda Ali (Daughter) · Maryum Ali (Daughter) · Miya Ali (Daughter)