Like his name in Arabic, Muhammad Ali was the “most high,” the epitome of athletic grace, political integrity and total love for the human family.
Inside the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali was a peerless champion. Outside of it, he was a fearless defender of civil and human rights. He called himself “the Greatest,” and millions of fans and some of his opponents agreed. Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than t30 years ago, died Friday evening in Phoenix. He was 74.
Ever since he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Ali, then Cassius Marcellus Clay, has been a household name, and his gift of gab was a vital element in establishing his renown. His quips and quotes were only exceeded in speed and accuracy by his punishing jabs.
He began the march to greatness at 21, when he upset Sonny Liston and won the heavyweight belt in Miami in 1964. This fight was his 20th professional bout and for the next seven years, he would be undefeated. His most memorable fights, beyond the two with Liston, were with Joe Frazier, who ended his unblemished record in 1971, George Foreman and three with Ken Norton.
Born January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky, Clay, at a very early age was ready to let his hands do the talking when he vowed “to whup” whoever had stolen his new bike. Joe Martin, a local policeman, told the 12-year-old that before promising to “whup” somebody, he had better learn how to box. Martin took Clay under his wing, and within six months he won his debut, a three-round match.
Two things were evident almost from the start, according to Martin. Clay was “sassy” and absolutely dedicated to learning everything about the craft. “He outworked the other boys,” Martin said.
The “sassy” element kept pace with his amateur record. By 1959, when he was 17, he was the Golden Gloves Champion and later earned the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title in the heavyweight division. The stage was set for his conquest in Rome.
Almost immediately on arriving in Rome, Clay was the talk of the town, and the “Louisville Lip” wasted no time adding to the talk, often strutting flamboyantly through the Olympic Village. There was no claim to being the greatest yet, but his remarkable speed, fabulous footwork and boxing instincts were becoming more evident when he vanquished Zigzy Pietrzykowski of Poland and won the Gold Medal.
In his march toward the heavyweight title, there were two significant bouts, a short one with Archie Moore and a more disputed one with Doug Jones, in which many at ringside felt Jones should have had the decision. Both matches were soon washed away when Clay defeated Liston in 1964, overcoming 7-1 odds to dethrone the champ.
Not only did he stun the world but also his announcement of his new name, Muhammad Ali, shocked all but his closest associates. Many who witnessed his intimacy with Malcolm X were not surprised, and Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam. Their close relationship would be of short duration. Two weeks later, March 8, Malcolm X was no longer a member of the NOI, after being silenced by Elijah Muhammad for commenting on the assassination of President Kennedy.
Now alienated from Malcolm X, Ali, on several occasions, avoided speaking to him. Later in life, he said “Malcolm was my brother, friend, mentor and often my confidant,” and that shunning him was one of the greatest regrets of his life. (Ali would leave the NOI for orthodox Islam, and then Sufism.)
Even without close ties to Malcolm X, Ali lost none of his impact and influence on the Black liberation movement, or among students, particularly those at Wayne State University, who welcomed him on campus and stood thunderstruck by his oratory.
Ali’s succeeding fights, bruising encounters with the likes of Cleveland Williams, Jimmy Ellis, and Zora Folley, were nothing compared with his showdown with the U.S. government after he refused to be inducted into the Army. The war in Vietnam was heating up and Ali said he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people. They had never called him the n-word, he said.
For his defiance, Ali was stripped of titles and began a nearly four-year exile from the ring. When he returned to fight Frazier March 8, 1971, his political stance, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, polarized the nation. Even so, whether for or against his position, Ali continued to be a mesmerizing athlete, one that his trainer Bundini Brown declared “could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
By this time, there was a new champion, George Foreman. Ali would get a chance to regain his title in “the Rumble in the Jungle,” in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. That historic encounter has been captured in several films, and again Ali was masterful in arousing the fans and spectators, many of them chanting,“Ali, bomaye!” or “Ali, kill him!”
Rather than pulverize his opponent, Ali resorted a tactic of “rope-a-dope,” resting on the ropes while Foreman exhausted himself with punches to Ali’s body. In the eighth round, Foreman was worn down and Ali knocked him out.
Several months later came the “Thrilla in Manila,” and Ali survived a slugfest with Frazier. Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, kept his fighter on his stool in the 15th round, conceding the fight to Ali.
A number of fight authorities believe this brutal bout was the beginning of the end for Ali in the ring, although he would continue to display shades of his brilliance in regaining his title against Leon Spinks.
There was always more to Ali’s life than fisticuffs, the “sweet science,” in which he was a proficient magician. He had four wives and nine children, including Laila Ali, who has demonstrated in more than one match that the fruit never falls that far from the tree.
Among the first reports of Ali’s failing health came from his daughter, Rasheda, and she told the press that her father was “the greatest man that ever lived,” something Ali would not have contested.
Prominent personalities and world leaders have tweeted their condolences and offered their encomiums for Ali, but an assessment by Robert Lipsyte in The New York Times goes a long way toward capturing Ali’s majesty: “Ali was the most thrilling if not the best heavyweight ever, carrying into the ring a physically lyrical, unorthodox boxing style that fused speed, agility and power more seamlessly than that of any fighter before him.” Or possibly after.
But what Ali had to say about himself surpasses all the sports writers and his biographers. Before his fight with Liston, he composed this poem:
“Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right, Look at young Cassius carry the fight Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room, It’s a matter of time til Clay lowers the boom. Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, And the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring. Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown, For he can’t start counting til Sonny goes down. Now Liston is disappearing from view, the crowd is going frantic, But radar stations have picked him up, somewhere over the Atlantic. Who would have thought when they came to the fight? That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite. Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money, That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
It’s unfortunate that many will have no recall of Ali at the peak of his prime, when he was a magnetic Adonis, his confidence as bubbling and effervescent as his unbridled charisma. To see Ali at the top of his fame, to appreciate what he meant to a global audience with his wisdom in the ring and his commitment to world peace, go to his website. The photos, the quotes, the biography are detailed there with the same sense of beauty and precision that marked his career. Ali said he was the greatest, and the claim is irrefutable.