There have been no more than a handful of persons who have been instantly identifiable just by their nicknames. Such was their fame that not even a first name was required. For example, mention the “Babe,” the “Great One,” the “Stilt,” the “Big O,” and the “Duke” and most people who follow sports or entertainment would know you are referring to George Herman Ruth, Jackie Gleason, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Edwin Donald Snider, respectively. Such was the case with Muhammed Ali, who was known to one and all as simply, “The Greatest.”
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, KY. He is generally considered to have been one of, if not the, greatest boxers ever. Personally, I would place him on the “Mt. Rushmore” of pugilists along with Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. But, to characterize Ali as just a boxer is akin to labelling George Washington as merely a “general” or Martin Luther King as simply a “preacher.” Ali was so much more than just a “boxer.” He was one of the most recognizable, influential, inspiring and symbolic persons in the world. Sports Illustrated dubbed him one of the most recognizable sports figures of the last 100 years and “Sportsman of the [20th] Century.” He was idolized by Muslims, the third world, young people, virtually everyone. Probably, other than the Pope he was the most beloved person in the world.
Clay took up boxing at the age of 12. As the story goes, someone had stolen his bike, and he vowed to “whup” him. A police officer who doubled as a boxing coach suggested that he’d be better off learning to fight first. So he did. Clay was a very successful amateur, compiling a 100-5 record, winning several Golden Gloves and AAU titles as well as the Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympics (as a light heavyweight). Following the Olympics, he quickly capitalized on his notoriety by turning pro. He hired the renowned trainer, Angelo Dundee. He won his first bout on October 29, 1960, and he was on his way. By the end of 1963 he was 19-0 and the leading contender for the heavyweight title held by Sonny Liston.
Clay had a unique boxing style, which masked his relatively weak punching ability and utilized his quickness. He would “dance” around the ring continuously in what became known as the “Ali shuffle;” the opponent couldn’t get a clean shot at him; he was as quick and mobile as most middleweights; his opponents would tire from chasing him, and he would weaken them further with a series of quick jabs. Then, when the time was right, he would move in for the kill with lightening quick punches. This style fit his mantra, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Jimmy Jacobs, who co-managed Mike Tyson, denoted that opponents didn’t realize how fast Ali was until they got into the ring, and then it was too late. His punches didn’t feel like much but the cumulative effect of them could be devastating. Charlie Powell, an early opponent, said “you don’t realize how much they hurt you until it was too late.” George Chuvalo, another opponent, said “he was just too damn fast. He’d be out of punching range, and as he moved into range he’d already begun to throw the punch. So, if you waited until he got into range to punch back, he beat you every time.” Finally, Arthur Mercante, noted long-time referee: “Ali knew all the tricks. He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching. Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out.”
In addition, Clay was a superb “trash talker,” both before and during the bouts. I believe his brash personality was the model for “Apollo Creed” in the Rocky films. It went way beyond the common practice of just trying to promote the fight. Sometimes, he would often predict the round in which he would knock out an opponent. His objective was to anger his opponents to the point where they would lose their focus. For the most part it worked. Thus, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson were “Uncle Toms,” Doug Jones was an “ugly little man;” Henry Cooper was a “bum;” and Sonny Liston was a “big, ugly bear.” At times, he went out of his way to torture and humiliate opponents, such as Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson, who had insisted on calling him “Clay” after he had changed his name to Muhammed Ali. Ali hated the name “Clay” with a passion. He called it his “slave name.”
Clay was particularly rough on Liston. He stated that “Liston even smells like a bear. After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” To some extent Clay goaded Liston into fighting him just to shut him up. Think of the scene in Rocky 3 where “Clubber Lang,” played by Mr. T, goads Rocky, and multiply it by 10.
Clay was a major underdog against Liston, who was perceived as “unbeatable.” Few people in or out of boxing thought he had a chance. But, Liston could do little more than chase him around the ring. Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, citing an injured shoulder, and Clay, at just 22, became the youngest boxer to wrest the heavyweight title from the champion in the ring. I remember listening to the fight on the radio in my college dorm in total shock as he pranced around the ring chanting “I am the greatest!” “I am the greatest!” And, you know, he was. Due to Liston’s suspected ties to the Mob, some thought the fight was fixed; those suspicions were redoubled the next year when as Muhammed Ali beat Liston in the rematch in less than two minutes with a “phantom” punch.
A major turning point for Ali came in 1967. Ali’s draft board had reclassified him as 1A and he had been drafted. Ali refused induction claiming he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He sought conscientious objector status, but his claim was denied. He was convicted of evading the draft. He avoided jail pending appeal, but he was denied a license to fight in every state, and eventually his passport was revoked. Thus, at age 25, in the prime of his career, Ali was on the shelf. So much for due process.
At first, Ali had few defenders in the boxing world. One notable exception was sports commentator Howard Cosell, who at the time was not that well known outside of NYC. Cosell, himself, was a controversial figure who claimed to “tell it like it is.” You either loved him or hated him. He once described himself thusly: “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There’s no question that I am all of these things.” And, he was right. But, one other thing he had was a sense of right and wrong, and he knew Ali had been denied due process. Thus, began an unusual symbiotic and, at times, contentious relationship between the two that, ultimately benefited both of them. Cosell provided Ali with much needed support, and Ali provided Cosell with the means to rise to prominence as a sports commentator and personality.
Ali’s exile ended in early 1971 when the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, overturned his conviction. By this time, support for the war had eroded to the point where most people just wanted it to end, so Ali’s position was more accepted. In addition, he had benefited from the growing civil rights movement. For example, he had become a popular speaker at colleges around the country.
After a few tune-ups he met Joe Frazier in what was billed as “the fight of the century.” Perhaps, a bit of hyperbole, but not much. Although Ali lost, the fight was a big success for the sport of boxing. In retrospect, this was the first of the big money bouts, and boxing became rejuvenated.
The two fought two more times highlighted by the “Thrilla in Manila,” fought in 100 degree heat , which nearly killed both men. By most accounts there was real animosity between the two. Frazier insisted on calling Ali “Clay,” and Ali had a series of unflattering nicknames for Frazier besides the aforementioned “Uncle Tom.”
One other notable bout was the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire, which Ali won in another huge upset. What made this fight notable was Ali’s use of the novel “rope a dope” strategy to tire out Foreman before dispatching him in the eighth round. After the fight Foreman admitted that Ali had “…outthought me and outfought me.”
As mentioned above, Ali became an iconic and inspirational figure, particularly in the African American community. For example, Martin Luther King, an iconic and inspirational figure in his own right, admitted that Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War had encouraged him to speak out about it. Additionally, Kareem Abdul Jabbar claimed that as a school kid he looked up to Ali and his anti-establishment positions.
Perhaps, the culmination of Ali’s status as an iconic figure came at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He was given the supreme honor of lighting the Olympic torch in the stadium. According to Dick Ebersol, a former prominent NBC sports executive it almost didn’t happen. Although, legally, Ali was considered to be a “conscientious objector,” many Southerners viewed him as a “draft dodger.” Billy Payne, head of the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee, wanted the honor to go to Evander Holyfield instead, but he was overruled. Finally, there was a tense moment when Ali, stricken with Parkinson’s, seemed unable to actually light the torch, but it finally caught. This near faux pas was edited out. The torch lighting was a most inspiring moment.
A small sampling of Ali’s many awards and legacies:
- He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
- Ring Magazine named him “Fighter of the Year” more times than any other fighter.
- He has had various streets, schools and malls named after him.
- In 1993, the AP reported that he, along with Babe Ruth, was the most recognized athlete in America, dead or alive.
- In 1999 the AP ranked him as the top heavyweight of the 20th century. ESPN ranked him as the second greatest fighter in history behind Sugar Ray Robinson.
- He has appeared in films and on TV several times.
In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, no doubt as a result of the considerable punishment he had taken in the ring. He was in declining health for many years. He died on June 3 in Scottsdale, AZ from respiratory complications. Rest in peace Muhammed. We will miss you.
Some of my favorite quotes regarding Ali:
- Upon learning that his IQ was 78, which was in the 16th percentile, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
- “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.
- “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
- “I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I will ever get licked.”
- “I am the greatest!”
- Live every day as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.”