Muhammad Ali: An extraordinary life well lived
The Greatest Of All Time Is Gone
Legendary three-time Heavyweight Champion Of The World, Muhammad Ali, passed away on Friday June 3rd at a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital.
Ali, who had battled Parkinson’s Syndrome for close to 30 years died from septic shock due to natural causes.
Ali had been admitted to the hospital by his family Thursday night for respiratory issues, but his condition slowly deteriorated overnight.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on Jan. 17th 1942.
The son of a commercial painter and housewife, Clay was first introduced to boxing at age 12 when his brand new bicycle was stolen at a county parade.
Clay went to report the theft at a local police station to Officer Joe Martin, who ran a local amateur boxing program in the basement of the precinct. When Clay informed Officer Martin that he was going to “whup” the perpetrator when he found him, he was informed by the police officer-boxing trainer that he would have to “learn how to fight first.”
Clay would go on to win six state Golden Glove titles, two national Golden Glove titles and a national AAU title, and a spot on the American Olympic boxing team in the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, Italy.
Clay, who was an amateur heavyweight, actually stepped down to the Light-Heavyweight division so that his brother Rudy (later renamed Rahman Ali) could compete in the heavyweight division in the games, but did not make the Olympic team.
Clay won the Light-Heavyweight Gold medal in Rome and turned professional later that year under the tutelage of legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.
Clay would be backed by a financial syndicate of businessmen from his hometown known as “The Louisville Group.”
Clay turned professional on Oct. 29th 1960 with a 6-round unanimous decision over Tunney Hunsaker in Louisville. He would rack up 17 more wins, including victories over former World Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore, British Champion Henry Cooper and journeyman Doug Jones.
Clay, who had used wrestler Gorgeous George as an entertainment role model, began to accurately predict the rounds in which he would stop his opponents.
Like Gorgeous George, he began boasting about his talent and skills and making himself the villain in his bouts in an effort to heighten anticipation in fans hoping to see him get beat; this would also attract more people to his fights.
Ali also began to write poetry about his opponents during this time, most notably, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
After racking up 17 more victories, he put himself in line for a crack at Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston’s belt. Liston, who won the title with a devastating 1st round knockout of Champion Floyd Patterson, was a dynamite knock-out puncher and ex-con who intimidated most of his opponents before the first bell ever rang.
Clay would be an overwhelming underdog going into the bout; however, the odds never threatened the actual fight (taking place). But news of his conversion to the Islamic faith as taught by The Honourable Elijah Muhammad in The Nation Of Islam did, when his backers in the Louisville Group learned of his conversion with members of The Nation security brotherhood The Fruit Of Islam as well as Minister Malcolm X. attending his training camp, they threatened to call the fight off.
Clay had become familiar with the teachings of The Most Honourable Elijah Muhammad in high school and then later was taught the teachings by Captain Sam Saxxon, who later became Abdul Rahman Muhammad, of the Miami Temple, when Clay relocated there after turning after turning pro.
The Louisville Group eventually relented, allowing for the fight that would change the history of sports and the world.
On Feb. 25th 1964, Liston refused to answer the bell for the 7th round with one eye closed and a pulled shoulder muscle, a result of Clay’s constant jab and Liston repeatedly missing Clay due to his lightning speed and extraordinary defense.
This would be one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
The day after the bout, at a press conference, Clay announced that he was a Muslim follower of The Honourable Elijah Muhammad and that Mr. Muhammad had given him a new name, Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meaning “praiseworthy” and Ali meaning “The Most High.”
Ali would go on to have nine more successful title defences over several well- known fighters, including a controversial rematch victory over Liston, which ended in the first round.
Ali was hated by many white Americans because of his association with the Nation Of Islam, which taught that the Original Man was the Asiatic Black Man, and who also believed that the white man was the devil and believed in total separation from white people.
Ali was classified 1-Y in 1964 by the U.S. Army, which meant that he was fit for service only in times of emergency. He was now reclassified 1-A and was fit for the draft into to U.S. military for service in the Vietnam war, despite miserably failing an I.Q. test.
On April 28th 1967 at his scheduled [draft] induction into the draft in Houston, Texas, Ali refused to make the step forward [for induction into the U.S. Armed Forces] and was immediately arrested and faced 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
He stated that as a Muslim Minister in The Nation Of Islam he would be going against the teachings of The Holy Qur’an by participating in wars that kill innocent people and that he was a conscientious objector.
That same day he was stripped of the New York State portion of his Heavyweight crown with all other sanctioning bodies and states eventually following suit. He lost his boxing license which meant that he had now lost his only known source of income up to that point.
Ali, out of jail pending an appeal would spend most of the small fortune he had amassed in the ring on legal fees fighting his case of “draft dodging.”
He took to speaking engagements on college campuses where he was especially popular with his stance on the war, with “Black Power” students as well as the “hippy movement.”
Ali also attempted Broadway acting and singing, but failed miserably.
In August 1970, with his appeal still pending in the U.S. courts, Ali was granted a license to fight in Atlanta, Georgia, by The City Of Atlanta Athletic Commission, due in part to the influence of the state’s African-American senator, Leroy R. Johnson. He stopped the tough Jerry Quarry in the third round in October of that year.
A victory in federal court that year in favour of Ali, forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate his boxing license.
In December of that year he stopped the tough Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
By now Joe Frazier, who won the Gold Medal in the Heavyweight division in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, was the new heavyweight Champion and would face Ali in the biggest sporting event in history, with each fighter being paid $2.5 million, unheard of at that time for any athlete.
It also marked the first time that two undefeated heavyweight champions would be facing each other. Many considered Ali still the champion, including Ring Magazine, which disagreed with his stance on the war, but believed that boxing titles are lost in the ring, not in the courts.
On Mar. 8th 1971, Frazier won a 15-round unanimous decision over Ali in Madison Square Garden.
Frazier would drop Ali in the 15th round with a thunderous left hook which saw Ali get up at the count of two, causing many of Ali’s naysayers to develop respect for his sheer courageousness.
On June 28, 1971, the United States Court Of Appeal overturned Ali’s conviction for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces, on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector. He was now cleared of any jail time; his quest at this point was to regain the Heavyweight Title.
Ali managed to rack up 13 more victories with one upset decision loss to future Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton in 1973, which was avenged several months later.
Ali even met Frazier in a return match in January of 1974 in a non-title bout. Frazier had lost his title the previous year to 1968 Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medalist George Foreman, in Jamaica.
Ali won a 12-round decision in the rematch also held at Madison Square Garden, which hardly lived up to their first match.
The scene was now set for Ali to regain his heavyweight title when he would face George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in what was billed as “The Rumble In The Jungle.” It would also mark the entry of controversial promoter Don King on the world boxing stage as he convinced President Mobutu of Zaire to put up the money for the fight, which would see both fighters get 5 million dollars each in an effort for Mobutu to buy favourable press for himself and his nation after many believed him to be a tyrannical dictator.
In an upset even bigger than his title victory a decade prior, Ali used the “rope-a-dope” tactic to allow Foreman to punch himself out and knocked Big George out in the 8th round.
Ali would become only the 2nd man in boxing history, along with Floyd Patterson, to regain the Heavyweight title.
Ali was now declaring himself truly “The Greatest.”
He made three more successful defences of his title before meeting Frazier again in a rubber match the following year in the Philippines.
In the most exciting fight of both their careers, Ali stopped Frazier when “Smokin’ Joe” was not allowed to answer the bell for the 15th and final round.
Ali called the fight “the closest thing he had ever experienced to death.”
He would go on to make six more successful title defences, including wins over Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Young, and a controversial rubber match decision over Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
In 1978, he met Leon Spinks, who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Light-Heavyweight division In Montreal. With just 7 professional fights under his belt, Spinks won an upset 15-round decision over Ali in Las Vegas.
Ali would regain the title later that year in a 15-round decision over Spinks in the in the New Orleans Super Dome.
Ali would retire as champion, being the only fighter ever to win the Heavyweight title three times.
In 1980, Ali announced his comeback and would challenge the now W.B.C. Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes on Oct.2nd of that year. This would mark the first time he had not been able to finish a fight when his trainer, Angelo Dundee, refused to let him answer the bell for the 11th round. Holmes had been Ali’s chief sparring partner for years.
Ali attempted another comeback the following year and lost a close 10-round decision to future Heavyweight Champion, Trevor Berbick.
Muhammad Ali retired with a 56-5 record with 37 K.Os. He had fought in more countries than any other champion. In addition to fighting in the U.S., Ali also fought in Canada, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Zaire, The Philippines, Australia, Bahamas, West Germany, Puerto Rico, Ireland and Switzerland.
Around this time, Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s syndrome. Some had argued that he had even been showing signs earlier than that. It greatly affected his speech and motor skills. Still, Ali would tour the world, meet with world leaders and act as both a representative of the Muslim community and at times as a pseudo American ambassador of the U. S. government in political affairs with Muslim countries.
In 1996, Ali lit the Olympic flame in the opening ceremonies in Atlanta, Georgia.
And he continued to be regarded on the same level as a world leader, raising millions for starvation in various countries, as well as helping disenfranchised and oppressed people all over the world.
Muhammad Ali’s funeral will be held on June 10th. Among the pallbearers will be former Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis, and actor Will Smith, who portrayed Ali in a 2001 Oscar nominated biopic.
With the announcement of the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday, June 3, the world entered a period of remembrance and mourning. At home, in the United States of America, the outpouring of love seems contagious.
Funny how times change.
Because this was the same Ali that America had come to despise because he refused to participate in a war, which he conscientiously objected, and his religious beliefs would not allow him to. The white establishment hated him with such ferocity that they took away his livelihood and tried to stunt what was a spectacular career by stripping him of his world titles and barring him from the ring in the prime of his career; they even jailed him and placed him in the midst of convicted killers on death row.
Today, many of the institutions that are celebrating the glory of Ali are the same ones that turned their backs on him when he took his stand in defense of his beliefs and his religion.
He was just a little more than 22 years old when he made the decision to join the Nation of Islam, then a fringe and much maligned organization in the U.S., and with it he chose to change his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
His religious beliefs and growing consciousness helped to cement his position on two of the prevailing issues of the day, the war in Viet Nam and the civil rights struggle in the US. And he was not shy to speak on those convictions.
Not unexpectedly, the establishment reacted with rage and contempt for the young Ali: stripping him of the title that he snatched against overwhelming odds from Sonny Liston in 1964, blacklisted from fighting anywhere in the States and took away his passport, effectively putting him on the poverty lines.
The Champ is quoted as saying during that period, there were times when he couldn’t find money to put gas in his car or even buy adequate groceries.
But through it all, Ali stood strong. And staked out his position on the war and his blackness with uncompromising clarity as evidenced when he ‘opened up’ on a group of university students who dared to challenge him:
I’m saying, you’re talking to me about some draft when all you white boys are breaking your necks trying to get to Switzerland, to Canada, to London…I’m not going to help nobody get something my negroes don’t have here. If I’m going to die, I’ll die now, right here fighting you, if I’m going to die… You’re my enemy. My enemy are white people not Chinese or Viet Congs… you’re my opposer when I want freedom, you’re my opposer when I want justice, you’re my opposer when I want equality… You wouldn’t even stand up for me here in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight. But you wouldn’t stand up for me here at home.
That stinging indictment of his society framed Ali’s relationship with America for much of his boxing career and they resented him for speaking truth to power.
But nothing or no one could have stopped his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the boxing universe. He was just too good in the ring and too charismatic out of it.
In his 27 years as a boxer, Ali emerged as the baddest of all the badass men that came up against him and today he stands as the only person to win the heavyweight title on three separate occasions in 1964, 1974 and 1976.
To do so, he had to go through a line up of boxing’s most illustrious contenders in a period considered to be the “golden age” of the sport, including men like Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Ernie Terrell, George Frazier and George Foreman.
But maybe his biggest win was against the USA’s boxing establishment that took away what might have been his four best years between the ages of 25-28, which amounts to body blows that would have crippled any other fighter. But not Ali.
He took the blows and stayed on his feet until the Supreme Court ruled him eligible to fight again in 1970.
His return to boxing offered the world an opportunity to glorify the skills and talent of one the most gifted athletes in the history of man, whose his speed, precision and talent cemented his legacy.
Amid his expansive collection of prizes, his biggest trophy has to be the adulation of fans around the world, which made him the most recognizable personality on Earth.
Sadly, it wasn’t until he lost much of his sting due too the gradual incapacitation of Parkinson Disease that the love and respect flowed unconditionally from the boxing establishment in the U.S.
He will be honored with what amounts to a state funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, with dignitaries and political leaders from around the world planning to attend. President Bill Clinton will eulogize the Champ.
Still, as it was for much of his career, it’s not all calm. Some family members are reported that Muhammad Ali was not buried within 24 hours according to Muslim rites, and that there is too much celebrity attached to his funeral.
All in all, nothing really matters now.
It’s the life that he lived and the example he left us… Priceless.