Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century, and certainly one of its foremost historical figures, is 70 years old today.
The much loved former heavyweight boxer was labeled a big mouth when he started out, and nicknamed the ‘Louisville Lip’. When he fought the fearsome champion, Sonny Liston, for the World heavyweight title in February 1964 the majority of people expected him to be well and truly shut up, but he upset all the odds and beat the man regarded as ‘invincible’ by many boxing critics. Ranting from the ring directly after the fight he came out with one of his best-remembered quotes:
I’m king of the world, I am the greatest. I shook up the world, I’m king of the world, I’m pretty, I’m pretty, I’m a bad man. I’m king of the world. I’m 22 years old and I ain’t got a mark on my face. I’m pretty”.
At this time he was known as Cassius Clay, but after becoming champion he declared himself a member of the Nation Of Islam (or the Black Muslims as they were called), and the following month its leader, Elijah Muhammad, revealed that he’d be renamed Muhammad Ali (although many boxing commentators continued to call him Clay for years to come, despite his objections that this was a ‘slave name’ forced on his ancestors). His association with the Black Muslims was seen as highly controversial in the US, the government already wary of the rhetorical skills of its great orator Malcolm X. With Civil Rights high on the political agenda, Ali was regarded as something of a loud mouthed loose cannon. The radical stance of the Nation Of Islam, referring to white people as devils and preaching separatism, was opposed by not only by whites, but by many blacks as well. Floyd Patterson, who’d lost the title to Liston in 1963 regarded the Black Muslims as ‘a menace’, whilst the tennis player Arthur Ashe, who become the first black man to win a Grand Slam title, accused them of spreading ‘a racist ideology’.
When he fought Liston again the following year, his association with the Nation Of Islam caused the majority of the audience to boo him, whilst Liston, now the challenger, was cheered. The fight was over in the 1st round, Ali winning courtesy of the notorious ‘phantom punch’, with many believing that Liston had taken a dive. It would also provide sport with one of its iconic images, with Ali stood over the felled former champion.
Sonny Liston would later be immortalised when his waxwork was used as part of the collage of cut out life sized figures photographed for the sleeve of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by Michael Cooper in 1967 – Liston’s waxwork was one of 9 loaned from Madame Tussauds by ‘Sgt. Peppers’ designer, the English pop artist Peter Blake (Blake would buy the Liston waxwork, Tussauds no longer wishing to display it following the defeat to Ali – it currently stands at the door of his West London studio).
Remaining the unbeaten Champion throughout the next 3 years, successfully defending his title 9 times, Ali was stripped of it in 1967, having declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He famously said, on being made available for draft the previous year; “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger”.
Although he was spared jail (he was originally sentenced to 5 years), he was heavily punished by not being allowed to box (eventually returning to the ring in 1970). In the intervening years he supported himself by speaking at colleges and universities across the country, where opposition to the war was especially strong. Intelligent and articulate he captivated the audiences and, as the tide turned and the anti-war protest claimed the initiative, Ali became a hero of the movement, and although he was no longer the heavyweight champion, he gained a new title, that of ‘The Peoples Champion’. With Malcolm X assassinated (by fellow Nation Of Islam members in 1965), and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King subsequently assassinated in 1968, it was high-profile black figures like Muhammad Ali and James Brown who the youth looked to for direction and inspiration.
My father, who was into boxing, was a big Ali fan, and although I can’t pinpoint how I got into him myself, I’m presuming it was through my Dad. I have copies of The Ring magazine somewhere, which he owned, with Ali on the cover from the Cassius Clay days, before he was champion.
I’m only aware of his pre-ban fights in retrospect, but I remember watching his comeback fight with Jerry Quarry (another in the long line of boxers dubbed ‘the great white hope’) on TV in 1970, and his following fight with Oscar Bonavena. These led up to his first clash with Joe Frazier, in what was billed as ‘The Fight Of The Century’, in New York on March 8th 1971.
It should be remembered that Ali’s boxing career took place at a time when there were many great heavyweights. Before the ban he had to overcome Archie Moore, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, whilst after it there was Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. All 6 of these adversaries are ‘Hall Of Fame’ inductees (although Moore’s light-heavyweight achievements placed him in this category), and the only subsequent heavyweights to be held in such high regard would be Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. This was the golden age of heavyweight boxing.
Frazier had picked up the heavyweight title during Ali’s enforced absence, and when they faced up to each other both fighters were undefeated – the Official Champion Vs the People’s Champion. With a worldwide television audience tuning in, the fight lived up to its billing. Ferociously competitive, it went all the way, but swung on a knockdown in a the final round – it was Ali who was dumped on the canvas for only the 2nd time in his career (the first being by Britain’s Henry Cooper, before he became champion, a fight that Ali would recover to win).
Victory was all the sweeter for Frazier given how Ali had run his mouth off in the lead up to the fight. Ali, a master of mind games, could sometimes overstep the mark in subjecting his opponents to cruel insults, and his treatment of Frazier was particularly cutting, with his adversary continuing to hold a grudge right up until his death last year, despite Ali’s subsequent apologies for his beyond the pale behaviour. At the time we saw it as part of the theatre, but looking back it was often tasteless and ugly.
The loss to Frazier was a major blow. I’d just turned 11 and remember being really upset that this great comeback had been stopped in its tracks, having been whipped up into the fervour of it all during the build-up to this momentous sporting occasion. I watched all of Ali’s big fights at my Nan’s. Initially she wasn’t a fan of his, turned off by his boastfulness, but, seeing how much I was into him, she eventually grew to like him and want him to win (if only so I’d be happy). With many people still referring to him as Cassius Clay, the media included, she used to have trouble remembering his new name, and for a while she’d mistakenly call him Aly Khan (mixing it up with the son of the famous world figure, the Aga Khan).
Two years passed and Ali won 10 more non-title fights, before losing a split decision to Ken Norton, who broke his jaw. It looked like Ali’s career would end in anti-climax, his best days well behind him. I watched the footage of the old ’60s fights, when he was in his prime, and lamented the fact that I’d caught him on the downward spiral.I consoled myself in the belief that having been stripped of the title, the best years of his boxing life had been stolen from him and, but for that, he’d never have been beaten – in short, it just wasn’t fair. He was still very much the People’s Champion for me and millions of others who were mesmerised by his enormous charisma.
As if to slam shut any remaining chink of hope that he could somehow regain his title one day, the great Joe Frazier was literally destroyed by a monster of a fighter, George Foreman, who knocked him around the ring like a rag doll in a 2 round demolition staged in Kingston, Jamaica. Foreman was awesome – Frazier was the 23rd boxer he’d faced who’d failed to meet the 3rd round since he began his professional career in 1969. Following his defeat to Norton, Ali had scraped through a re-match, winning on a split decision 6 months later. However, it was Norton not Ali who was given a shot at Foreman’s title in March ‘74, but ominously, like Frazier before him, he was quickly despatched in a 2nd round knockout. Foreman reigned supreme, and if he was going to re-claim his crown Ali would have to meet his nightmare.
My father died on January 28th 1974, the same day that Ali met Frazier for the 2nd time. I found him dead in the morning – had he lived, that night he’d have certainly been watching Ali gain revenge for his defeat in ’71, setting up another crack at the World title – it was now a case of somehow finding a way to move the immovable object that Foreman represented, and nobody gave Ali a hope in hell. I wonder what my Dad would have made of the Ali Vs Foreman ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30th 1974 – it’s a shame he never got to see what is regarded as the most legendary fight of all.
To put this into perspective, Ali’s previous 5 fights had all gone the distance, and he’d been anything but convincing in labouring his way to his points victories, whereas you’d have to go back 25 fights before Foreman last went the distance, each of his 8 previous opponents easily defeated within 2 rounds, Frazier and Norton included. Foreman, it seemed, was destined to become the greatest fighter of all-time – he was truly formidable.
The story of this fight of fights was brilliantly told in what is acclaimed by many to be the best sports documentary film ever made, the Academy Award winning ‘When We Were Kings’ (1996). Don’t be put off if boxing isn’t your thing, this is an historic document on many levels, with its life is stranger than fiction twist. I’d also recommend ‘Soul Power’, a parallel documentary that further explores the musical aspect of the event (which is a key feature of ‘When We Were Kings’), a meeting of minds between Africans and African Americans, with performances from some big names in black music, including B.B King, Bill Withers, The (Detroit) Spinners, The Crusaders and, of course, Soul Brother Number One, James Brown.
Dumfounding everyone, casual viewers and boxing critics alike, Ali didn’t dance as he said he would, but for round upon round leant back on the ropes and allowed Foreman to pound his body. It looked suicidal, but, as the fight progressed, we began to see the method in the madness – Foreman was noticeably tiring as he punched himself out. Ali’s ‘rope-a-dope’ is part of boxing’s folklore now, a genius tactic that enabled David to triumph over Goliath. Knowing Foreman couldn’t be out-fought, Ali out-thought him, and, in the 8th round, Foreman visibly weary, Ali did the unthinkable – he came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out.
It was a tale of epic, somewhat mythical, proportions. Ali had outwitted the Cyclops, beheaded the Gorgon and brought down Talos all in one. It had been 7 and a half years since he last stood in the ring as champion, a period that had begun with him exiled from the sport, and then written off on his return, but ultimately prevailing in the most astonishing manner – now he was as great a hero as Odysseus himself. Even the knock down of the deposed champion was poetic, so much so that Ali pulled back on a free shot as Foreman fell in a circular motion, so as not to disturb the aesthetic of the fall.
I was absolutely thrilled to the max – all the emotional energy I’d invested in wanting him to win the title back had been returned with interest. That was obviously the pinnacle of my Ali fan trip, although there were other high points ahead. The 3rd and the most brutal of the Ali / Frazier contests, ‘The Thrilla-In-Manila’, was a fight that many believe brought on the affliction of Parkinson’s syndrome, which Ali was diagnosed as suffering from in 1984, a few years after he finally retired (having fought on longer than many observers believed was wise). Showing boxing at its best, and at its worst, the ‘Thrilla-In-Manila’ isn’t for the squeamish. Ali, the winner, after Frazier was stopped in the penultimate round of 15, would describe it as the closest he’d come to dying. He then re-wrote the records books by becoming the first heavyweight to re-claim the title twice, first losing to Leon Spinks in Feb ’78, before defeating him in the rematch 7 months later.
Things nosedived from there. Ali proudly retired as 3 times champion, but he ended up returning to fight Larry Holmes, his former sparring partner, in 1980, in an attempt to win the title for an unprecedented 4th time. Holmes didn’t read the script though, and, for the first, and only, time in his 20 year career Ali didn’t go the distance. The much younger, stronger Holmes, had first-hand experience of Ali’s style, and bossed his former employer. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s legendary trainer, refused to let his man come out for the 11th round and take further punishment. Most people agreed, it was a fight that shouldn’t have happened.
I’d just moved to Wigan to take up the residency at The Pier when Ali fought Holmes. I’d obviously hoped he could pull the rabbit out of the hat one more time, but it was clear that the magic was gone. It was really sad to see my idol go out with a whimper rather than a bang.
That was that, at least we hoped it was, but he couldn’t let go and made yet another ill-advised comeback in 1981, taking on the Jamaican-Canadian heavyweight Trevor Berbick. Although a brave Ali saw it through to the end, he was dominated by the young up-and-coming fighter. 5 years later Mike Tyson vowed to exact revenge on Berbick, who’d just become World Champion earlier that year; “I just thought he unmercifully beat the crap out of Ali,” Tyson said, “I just thought that he didn’t have to do that. Ali, was absolutely helpless. … Ali couldn’t do nothing“. Tyson stopped Berbick in the 2nd round to take the title, and a new era in heavyweight boxing was born.
You can’t keep a good man down though, and despite the ravishes of Parkinson’s, he was destined to make one final great sporting appearance, lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony at Atlanta ‘96, his shaking body summoning all its remaining strength as he held the torch aloft to provide the games with its enduring symbol. It brought things full circle – Ali, or Cassius as he was then known, initially coming to people’s attention when he won an Olympic Gold in the Rome games of 1960.
Who could have believed what lay in store for this young Louisville boxer, destined to become not only the most recognizable black man on the planet, but one of its most famous inhabitants full stop.
Muhammed Ali Wikipedia: