Muhammad Ali cast a spell on the boxing world that will never be broken. He transcended the sport and became recognisable the world over - not just for his stellar boxing achievements, but his contribution to social change as an icon of the Sixties and Seventies.
Yet Ali lost some of his best years at the hands of the establishment, refusing to enlist in the US Army during the Vietnam War because, as he put it, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He had to wait three years before he could get his boxing licence back and was widely criticised for his “lack of patriotism”, but that brave stance against a senseless war is now accepted as being right.
Born to middle class parents on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali began life as Cassius Clay - the “slave name” he later shed, in accordance with his Islamic beliefs, after shocking the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston in February 1964.
Blessed with dazzling speed and footwork, the unconventional youngster made swift progress through the amateur ranks, winning a gold medal as a cocksure light-heavyweight in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Only a couple of weeks later, the young Ali cast his Olympic medal into the river after being refused service in a redneck diner (though he has since been awarded another in honour of his achievements).
Ali soon turned professional with a consortium of white businessmen from Kentucky and, under the expert tutelage of trainer Angelo Dundee, began a glittering professional career. He infuriated purists with his cocky style, dancing around the ring, his hands dangling low before he ripped off quicksilver punches. The young upstart took delight in inventing hilarious rhymes where he predicted the round his opponent would fall and, usually, he delivered on his promise.
But Ali was a 7-1 underdog when he faced the glowering Liston for the world heavyweight title and few gave the challenger much of a chance. Yet Ali shocked the world, bemusing the brooding champion and forcing him to retire on his stool after six incredible rounds. “I must be the greatest,” bellowed Ali afterwards, as he pointed accusingly at the doubting press at ringside.
Ali was now heavyweight champion of the world and could not be ignored. His supreme confidence and membership of the mistrusted Nation of Islam, where he enjoyed regular contact with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, made Ali a villain in the eyes of the white conservative establishment, who prayed he would be defeated soon.
But they would be disappointed for some time. Ali swept aside Liston in a round of their rematch though many observers believe former mob member Liston took a dive. Like Joe Louis before him, Ali was an inspiring figure of black pride in a time of great civil unrest and he beat all-comers including former champ Floyd Patterson, tough Canadian George Chuvalo and the big-punching Cleveland Williams.
But at the peak of his powers, Ali was enlisted. He refused to join the US Army and so endured a three year hiatus as he waited for his boxing licence to be re-instated. But after tuning up against good men like Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry on his return, the unthinkable happened – he lost. His conqueror was the new champion Joe Frazier, who floored and outpointed a rusty Ali in New York in 1971. But though Ali lost again soon afterwards to sculpted former marine Ken Norton, his career was far from over.
He no longer possessed the lightning quickness of his youth, but Ali modified his style to accommodate his advancing years and his greatest moment was yet to come in, of all places, the middle of the African jungle. Ali was again a huge underdog when he entered a specially-built ring in Kinshasa, Zaire to face the menacing young champion George Foreman. The surly champion had floored Frazier six times to win the title and then destroyed Ali’s other nemesis Norton in devastating fashion and some feared for Ali’s life. But against all the odds, in the cauldron of the African jungle, Ali took Foreman’s best shots before knocking him out in the eighth round of “The Rumble in the Jungle”. It was a glorious moment for a glorious man.
That was Ali’s defining moment and, though he reigned for three further years, the fights were taking their toll. None more so than “The Thrilla in Manila” in October 1975 where, under scorching lights, Ali forced old enemy Frazier to retire after the 14th round of their third and final meeting (Ali having won a rematch in New York before beating Foreman). Ali later described the match as being as close to death as he had ever come.
Ali should have retired then, but like many fighters he carried on too long, losing and then regaining the title against the unspectacular Leon Spinks before being drawn out of brief retirement to lose again to the gifted Larry Holmes, and finally Trevor Berbick in 1981.
Had he not contracted Parkinson’s Syndrome after his incredible career finally ended, some feel the ebullient punching prophet could have become the first black President of the United States, such was his popularity in later years. But despite his current ill health, the marvellous Ali still radiates that magic and will always be fondly remembered as “The Greatest”. Quite simply, he was.
Muhammad Ali: Fights 56, Wins 51 Losses 5 (Knockouts 37).
By Mark G. Butcher