The Greatest — “Muhammad Ali changed the world, changed how people thought. There’s nobody that even remotely compares.”

The late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once wrote of Muhammad Ali, “His impact recognises no continent, no language, no colour, no ocean. Muhammad Ali belongs to all of us.”

Ali’s actions both in and out of the ring were so profound, there are those who were unborn when he was at his peak, yet consider him The Greatest. US President Barack Obama’s tribute:

His wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes – maybe because, in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves. Later as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation.

Universally considered one of the best, if not the best, boxer of all-time, his feats inside the ring against Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier are highly ranked in sporting folklore.

Born Cassius Clay, he first rose to prominence by winning the light-heavyweight Olympic gold medal at the 1960 Rome Games. After his Olympic success, Clay turned professional and, aged just 22 years-old and a 7-1 underdog, he shocked the world by beating the previously undefeated Liston to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

Cassius Clay shocks the world

Cassius Clay shocks the world

Soon after the bout Clay, no stranger to controversy, provocatively pledged his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This move, during the height of the civil rights era, accompanied with Ali’s future feats of Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila ensured that the American became more than just a sportsman—evident during a 2004 auction where Ali’s gloves from the said Liston fight fetched an unprecedented $836,500 (the highest amount ever for boxing memorabilia).

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promoted Ali later in his career, summed up The Greatest as follows:

Muhammad Ali changed the world, changed how people thought. He made fun of racism, changed perception and for me that was one of his greatest accomplishments. There’s nobody that even remotely compares. I really sensed that from the beginning. He was beautiful as a person, he was one of the most handsome people you could ever see there was an aura about him that transcended any type of normal humanity.

Ali was a game-changer and the world embraced his entertaining actions. In preparation for the Liston fight Dundee recalls stories where Clay chased Liston around Miami airport with a cane shouting “Come here, Bear, I’ll get ya. Bear, come here.” When he wasn’t physically baiting his opponent, his famous linguistic capabilities would shine through:

An extract of an Ali poem before the fight:

Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room; It’s a matter of time, and there! Clay lowers the boom.

Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing; And the punch rises the Bear clear out of the ring.

King of the World

Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston

Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston

Few people knew Ali better than his trainer of over 20 years — Angelo Dundee — and his autobiography My View From the Corner, gives a huge insight into The Greatest.

Few observers gave Cassius Clay a snowball’s chance in hell against the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston. Others gave him less. After signing for the fight, Cassius and I watched several films of Liston’s fights. Certain people beat certain people. Certain styles trump others. I knew Cassius would kick the hell out of Liston.

During the fight Clay cut Liston for the first time in his 34 professional fight career and executed his game plan to perfection as Liston retired on his stool after Round Six. Clay famously roared, “I AM KING OF THE WORLD!”

After the fight Clay publicly swore his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and became known as Muhammad Ali.

In 1965, Ali and Liston would take part in a controversial rematch—15 months after the original contest. Ali won courtesy of a second-round knockout but what happened that night in Lewiston, Maine, is still debated to this day. The legitimacy of Clay’s knockout punch has been questioned and referenced in some quarters as “the phantom punch”.

A controversial rematch resulted in conspiracy theories of a fix

A controversial rematch resulted in conspiracy theories of a fix

Ali remained undefeated from eight successful defences up until 1967 when he opposed the US war in Vietnam and refused to be drafted into the military. He was stripped of his title, his boxing licence was revoked and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Ali appealed the verdict and in 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in his favour.

That same year Ali fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden where Frazier handed Ali his first professional loss via unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Each fighter was guaranteed the unprecedented sum of $2.5m each. The anticipation was so great that the fight attracted an audience greater than man reaching the moon two years earlier. As always with Ali, the hype did not flatter to deceive. Ali lead early on but looked understandably rusty from the sixth round onwards. In the final round Ali was dropped but got to his feet to beat the count and hear the final bell.

Ali returned to victory soon after and then entered another crucial period in his career in 1973. Ali faced Ken Norton in San Diego who was a rank outsider. Norton broke Ali’s jaw during the fight and won by split decision. Ali would avenge his defeat as six months later the pair faced off in Inglewood and this time Ali won by split decision.

The win resulted in another Super Fight with Joe Frazier, back at Madison Square Garden. Frazier had been dethroned by George Foreman and therefore no world title was at stake. Ali won by unanimous decision and that cleared the path to face the wreaking machine George Foreman.

Rumble in the Jungle

The formidable Foreman (40-0-0) ploughed through his opponents like a freight train. The world champion despatched both Norton and Frazier in two rounds—Frazier was knocked down six-times in their fight.

Despite being considered as The People’s Champion, Ali knew Foreman was an immensely dangerous proposition since he had destroyed the only two fighters who had blemished Ali’s professional record.

Dundee witnessed Ali taunting Foreman, “Let’s get in on ….that is, if you’re not scared!” Foreman growled, “Scared of you? I only pray that I don’t kill you.” It was enough information for Ali to conclude that Foreman “sounded shaky”.

Ali was given little, next to no chance of winning. Sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney wrote that the only way to beat Foreman “involves shelling him for three days and then send in the artillery.”

The fight took place during October 1974 in Zaire and Ali became a firm favourite among the locals. They chanted in Swahili, “Ali, bomaye!” which roughly translated means “Ali, kill him”. The chant was loud and clear as he performed his daily road runs through the streets of Kinshasa.

Ali proved to be a popular figure in Africa

Ali proved to be a popular figure in Africa

Despite widespread opinion that Foreman was invincible, Dundee felt he was beatable.

To us George was beatable—especially by Ali who had all the tools to make George vincible: hand speed, footwork, and most important, what we called “ring smarts”. I was so sure Ali would win, I began telling anybody who would listen, “My guy could win in a phone booth.”

Ali started the fight with his trademark hit and move. His superior movement easily kept him away from the wolf’s door but in the second round Foreman expertly cut off the ring. For every two steps the undefeated champion took, the challenger was forced into six and it eventuated into Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactics where he settled against the ropes, moving enough to make Foreman miss but then also absorbing the ferocious punches which found their target.

Foreman’s corner could be heard instructing their fighter to “go out and mash him.” He chased relentlessly but visibly tired.

After watching Ali lean back over the ropes for most of the past two-plus rounds, making George miss and air-condition the entire arena with wild punches in the process, Ali’s change of strategy was obvious. At least to me. Every time Ali landed a punch it was met with loud cheers while every time George exploded one of his bombs it was met by complete silence. — Dundee

Ali taunted Foreman even when a punch connected, “Is that the best you’ve got? Is that the hardest you can hit, chump?” By the end of the fourth round Foreman was spent and Ali picked him off while continuing the taunt the champion and now also his corner. Given Foreman remained a huge danger, Dundee instructed Ali to refocus on the task in hand. In the eighth round, Ali found an opportunity for a sustained assault on the exhausted Foreman and knocked him down for the first time in his career. Foreman could not beat the count and Ali became only the second ever two-time heavyweight champion.

If the Sonny Liston fight was the formative one of Ali’s career, then the Foreman fight was the most satisfying. To what extent was witnessed by sportswriter Jerry Izenberg when he and Ali were on the banks of the Zaire River, Ali looked out over the water’s edge and said to Izenberg, “You’ll never know how long I’ve waited for this. You’ll never know what this means to me.” — Dundee

After a handful of defences, Ali decided he wanted to have another crack at Frazier since winning two out of their three fights would prove to the world that he was indeed The Greatest and 18 months after his heroics in Africa, Ali would fight his old rival in the Philippines.

The Thrilla in Manila

Official Thrilla in Manila poster

Official Thrilla in Manila poster

It’ll be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the Gorilla in Manila

The above was another Ali poem which gripped the public and formed the famous Thilla in Manila. The insults between the pair continued with Frazier insisting:

It’s real hatred. I want to hurt him. I don’t want to knock him out in Manila. I want to take his heart out.

During the weigh-in Frazier reiterated what he was planning for Ali and Ali for a change went on the offensive. The first two rounds were all Ali but Frazier, who Ali thought was a spent force, fought back through pure rage as he embarked on an unyielding assault for the next four rounds. Dundee recalled:

Coming out for the seventh Muhammad, knowing he was now in a fight, grabbed Frazier and whispered in his ear, “Old Joe Frazier, they told me you were washed up.” Frazier merely snorted back, “They lied, pretty boy,” and punctuated his answer with a bone-rattling left.

Frazier asserted his superiority until the eleventh round where Ali seemingly found his second wind cutting Frazier and closing his left eye. As they moved into the championship rounds, the challenger was caught by multiple combinations, yet did not go down.

“Incredibly Frazier was still there at the bell. His face now had the look of an apple which had been halved and pieced back together off-centre.”

At the end of the fourteenth round Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight to withstand any additional damage.

Ali and Frazier's rivalry is one of sport's greatest

Ali and Frazier’s rivalry is one of sport’s greatest

Ali and Frazier were inseparable and arguably boxing’s most famous pairing. Post-fight Ali said:

I have nothing bad to say about Joe Frazier. Without him I wouldn’t be who I am and without me he couldn’t be who he is. We’ve been a pretty good team for four, five years.

Another win over Ken Norton followed and Ali, at that stage, had a winning record over everyone he fought.

The Decline

By the time he beat Earnie Shavers at Madison Square Gardens in 1977, there was genuine concern for Ali as he took punishment he would never have in his prime. Teddy Brenner (MSG fight arranger) told Ali the morning after the Shavers fight:

Sooner or later some kid that couldn’t carry your jock is going to beat you. You’re gonna get hit, you’re gonna get hurt. You’ve proven everything a great champion can possibly prove. You don’t need this, Get out!

Ali took no notice and duly lost his world title to little known Leon Spinks, only to win it back six months later—becoming the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world in history. Then, after a ring absence of two years, 38-year-old Ali took on then-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. A far shadow from his prime, Ali took punches all night and Dundee conceded defeat after the tenth round. He recalled:

It broke my heart to stop the Holmes fight. It was the worst beating Muhammad ever took. He not only hadn’t won a round, he hadn’t won one second of any round.

Ali's defeat to Holmes was billed as the Last Hurrah but he would fight one more time - vs Berbick

Ali’s defeat to Holmes was billed as the Last Hurrah but he would fight one more time – vs Berbick

Two months shy of his 40th birthday, Ali wanted to conclude his professional career with a win. This time he was up against Trevor Berbick but the fairytale ending failed to materialise and he lost by unanimous decision. That was the end of Ali’s boxing career.

During the two decades we were together I came to enjoy his wonderful love for life. Let me tell you, the big key was laughter. That was the whole thing with this kid. He had fun. No matter how tough the situation was, we had fun. He always found a way to laugh and make others around him laugh — Dundee

In 1984, three years after the Berbick fight, Ali completed four days of tests and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome which experts attributed to the volume of punches he would have endured throughout his career. His health deteriorated over the years yet he was still able to positively impact others.

RIP champ — The Greatest

I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.


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