Monday, February 21, 2011

Muhammad Ali: Boxing’s Greatest

Great Legends of Sport

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Muhammad Ali

At home I am a nice guy: but I don't want the world to know. Humble people, I've found, don't get very far.
Muhammad Ali

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.
Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali: At age 25: In 1993, the Associated Press reported that Ali was tied with Babe Ruth as the most recognized athlete, out of over 800 dead or alive athletes, in America.

Photo Credit: Ira Rosenberg: New York World-Telegram & Sun, 1967.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Div.


Muhammad Ali is one of the most recognized sports legends in the world, a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. In his prime, in the 1960s and early ’70s, Ali was both adored and loathed, for his strong views and beliefs, uncommon for an athlete, his pre-fight barbs directed at his opponents and the media, and his brash uncompromising but often playful personality.

Much of Ali's public persona was molded in his formative years growing up in the segregated south, notably at a time when America was undergoing tremendous social unrest and change. African-Americans were fighting for civil rights that many others took for granted. If Ali recoiled against these inequalities in a brash manner, it is understandable, particularly for a young man who had the physical presence and mental convictions to stand up to abuse of authority, in whatever form it took. 

Ali displayed the outward confidence, some would say chutzpah, or brashness, that he was not going to be anyone's servant, least of all one not of his choosing. Whatever views one holds on this man, he was not easily ignored or forgotten.

Eighteen years after his retirement from boxing, in 1999, Ali was crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and "Sports Personality of the Century" by the BBC television network. He has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, holding wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees. Ali's record is equally impressive, winning 57 of his 62 fights, 39 by  knockouts.

He originally boxed under his birth name, Cassius Clay, but changed it to Muhammad Ali, after officially converting to Islam in March 1964, shortly after defeating Sonny Liston for boxing's heavyweight crown.In 1975, he became a Sufi Muslim, a sect devoted to the inner mystical teachings of Islam.

Ali stood 6-ft, 3-in (1.91 m), and had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. Rather than the normal style of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he relied on foot speed and quickness to avoid punches, and carried his hands low. He not only predicted victory, which usually came, but also which round it would come in.

From Louisville, Kentucky

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born to Odessa Grady Clay and Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, the second of two boys. He was named after the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name. His father painted billboards and signs, and his mother was a household domestic. They were brought up as Baptists. a denomination of the Christian faith.

He turned to boxing, as a way to avenge himself of a stolen bike, says a biography site:
At the age of 12, Ali discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. His bike was stolen, and Ali told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. "Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people," Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym.
He was a quick study and a natural talent. Ali won the 1956 Golden Gloves Championship for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions and the Amateur Athletic Union's national title for the light-heavyweight division. Ali won a spot on the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, in 1960, traveling to Rome, Italy. He came home, winning the gold medal, after defeating Zbigniew Pietrzkowski from Poland.

From 1960 to 1963, the young heavyweight  fighter amassed a record of 19–0, with 15 knockouts. He was a knockout machine, He defeated boxers such as Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark (who had won his previous 40 bouts by knockout), Doug Jones and Henry Cooper.

Champion at 22

Then came the shot at the championship, against Sonny Liston. Liston was favored heavily to win against the brash Ali. On the day before the fight, during the official weigh-in, Ali said: that he would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."" His strategy: "Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see." Ali predicted to a skeptical media that he would knock Liston out by the eight round.

He was close to his word. Despite Liston's powerful left hook, Ali's jabs and footwork proved decisive. On February 25, 1964, Ali scored a technical knockout (TKO), when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. Ali was the world's heavyweight boxing champ at 22.

He won a rematch against Liston the following year, on May 25, 1965, winning a TKO in the first round. The photo of Ali standing over Liston is one of the most famous in boxing history.

The Sonny Liston Re-Match (May 25, 1965): Ali scored a TKO in the first round  (at 1:42) over Sonny Liston, keeping his WBC world heavyweight crown. The fight was held at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, in front of  only 2,434 spectators, the lowest number for a championship fight. This is considered one of the most iconic photos, not only in boxing history, but also in sports history. 
Photo Credit: Donald L. Robinson, © Bettmann/CORBIS
Source: World Famous Photos
The Lost Years

Outside the ring, Ali was a polarizing figure. It was not only his rhetoric but his views on two fronts, both divisive and controversial, which showed what kind of man he was outside the ring: his association with Nation of Islam; and his views and stance against the Vietnam War. The combination cost Ali almost four years of his boxing career, where he was stripped of his title and not allowed to box.

On the latter history has proved him right, courageous and heroic. On the former, many say his views were just as racist as the white segregationists he was fighting against in his struggle for equality. It might have been rhetoric; it might have been the sentiments of a hurt man; it might have been something all together different. It certainly made him more known, says one biography site:
Ali's actions in refusing military service and aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular former champion into one of that era's most recognizable and controversial figures. Appearing at rallies with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and declaring his allegiance to him at a time when mainstream America viewed them with suspicion — if not outright hostility — made Ali a target of outrage, and suspicion as well. Ali seemed at times to even provoke such reactions, with viewpoints that wavered from support for civil rights to outright support of separatism.
Joe Louis, a great heavyweight champion of a previous era said about Ali, whom he referred to as his birth name: "Clay is a good enough fighter, but it's unfortunate that he's a Black Muslim. A champion should represent all sects, not one," said Louis in "'Living legend still commands respect of peers" by Andrew Baker in The Daily Telegraph (15 January 2002). Joe Louis is correct on that count.

The War

Even so, one had to admire Ali for sticking to his convictions. In 1967, Ali put his personal values ahead of his career. The U.S. Department of Justice pursued a legal case against Ali, denying his claim for conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military. Professionally, he suffered.  The boxing association took away his title and suspended him from the sport for three and a half years.

He did not go to prison, but his livelihood was affected. Between 1967 and 1970, during his prime, Ali did not earn a living as a boxer. But after a lengthy legal battle, on June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Ali's conviction for refusing to serve in the military. He was officially exonerated for his actions. The public's acceptance of Ali's decision would take longer, however, after facts about the Vietnam War became more widely known.

Even so, history later vindicated him. On the Vietnam War, he gambled and guessed right. He was following his conscience, as he put it: "No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end," Ali said.

A Great Comeback

Among his most memorable fights were three against a formidable opponent; Joe Frazier. In the first match-up, at New York's Madison Square Garden, known as the Fight of the Century, on March 8, 1971, Ali suffered his first career loss, a 15-round unanimous decision to Frazier. It was a championship fight and Frazier retained his title.

The second Ali-Frazier fight was a nontitle rematch, since Frazier had already lost his title to George Foreman. The bout was held on January 28, 1974, with Ali winning a unanimous 12-round decision. This set up the scene for one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history.

Called The Rumble in the Jungle, Ali regained his title by defeating champion George Foreman in their bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Using a technique called "Rope-A-Dope," Ali tired Foreman out, mentally and physically, and scored an eight-round knockout in Kinsahra. He was champ once again.

By the late 1970s, however, Ali's career had started to decline. He was defeated by Leon Spinks in 1978 and was knocked out by Larry Holmes in 1980. In 1981, Ali fought his last bout, losing his heavyweight title to Trevor Berbick. He announced his retirement from boxing the next day.


Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, receives an embrace from President George W. Bush after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on November 9, 2005, as Mrs Lonnie Ali, his wife, looks on.
Photo Credit: Paul Morse, White House photographer, 2005. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
Source: Wikipedia
The Mellow Years

During his retirement, Ali has devoted much of his time to philanthropy. He announced that he has Parkinson's disease in 1984, a degenerative neurological condition, and has been involved in raising funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Over the years, Ali has also supported the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation among other organizations.

Muhammad Ali has been married four times and has seven daughters and two sons. Ali lives with his fourth wife, Yolanda (Lonnie) Ali, with whom he has been married since 1986, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The couple has one son, Assad.

On a personal note, I have always admired Ali for his boxing skills, his showmanship and his active conscience. His earlier views on race were likely those of a young man easily led and impressionable, often the case with famous people who become a means to an end, whether good or bad. One could forgive Ali for those earlier views, a product of their times, when racism was so much more pronounced than today.

And the great heavyweight boxer has mellowed. You can view a more mellow, more tolerant man in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey (November 2004), written with his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali. The book is full of sayings, thoughts and aphorisms on love, including the following: 
"If we continue to think and live as if we belong only to different cultures and different religions, with separate missions and goals, we will always be in self-defeating competition with each other. Once we realize we are all members of humanity, we will want to compete in the spirit of love."
Better words were never written. It only shows that Muhammad Ali was not only a champ inside the ring, but outside of it, too.

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Update: Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016; he was 74.