The word ‘icon’ is banded about all too frequently nowadays but very few sports stars really deserve that tag in the way that the Muhammad Ali did. Most superlatives and descriptions of the great man have already been exhausted by the numerous outlets paying tribute to him, but I will do my best to do justice to a life that transcended boxing and captured the imagination of millions.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, he began boxing at 12 after having his bicycle stolen. That incident, seemingly innocuous, sparked off one of the greatest boxing careers of all time and gave rise to one of the world’s most influential figures, during the 20th century and beyond.
His amateur career was a glowing one, winning six state titles in six years and two national titles. That career culminated with him competing at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he beat Yvon Becaus, Gennady Shatkov, Anthony Madigan, and Zbigniew Pietrzykowski en route to a gold medal at just age 18.
From there, he made the decision to turn professional and began his career at heavyweight in October 1960. He dominated veteran Tunney Hansaker over six rounds for a decision victory and then knocked out Herb Siler before the year was out. Throughout 1961-63, he fought a further 17 times with 14 knockouts, wowing audiences with his speed, reflexes, and agility. It was in the 19th fight against British fighter Sir Henry Cooper that he was knocked down for the first time and was on the verge of defeat, but his bold prediction of a fifth-round stoppage came true, he remained unbeaten and secured his first world title at just 21.
He took on Sonny Liston, a feared competitor with heavy hands and 24 career knockouts. Liston was favourite for the fight and it marked the first time a national audience were really able to see the braggadocio of the young Clay. He was confident and this did not appeal to everyone; most Americans were used to the gentle approach of Joe Louis, widely seen as one of the best heavyweights of all time. Clay predicted that he would beat ‘the big ugly bear’ Liston in 8 rounds, but it only took him 7 of the allotted 15 to drop Liston and become world champion.
After that fight, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was a name that would come to replace the ‘slave name’ he had before and from this time onwards, his comments and rhetoric became more religious and arguably offensive. However, boxing remained his priority. First came a rematch with Liston, which he won via first round KO, followed by another 8 consecutive defences of the heavyweight titles.
In 1967, he was stripped of the titles due to his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War which saw him arrested, found guilty of treason and threatened with five years in jail. His boxing licence was revoked and he did not fight again until October 1970.
When he did return, the leg speed that had been so crucial in his early career seemed to be lacking but he knocked out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena and in doing so, set up a title fight with Joe Frazier. The fight was dubbed ‘The Fight of the Century’ and represented the first occasion upon which combat sports competitors would receive more than $1 million for competing; both earned $2.5 million for their efforts. Ali was to suffer his first defeat, losing over the course of 15 round to Frazier but then won 9 straight in the next two years.
Ali lost to Ken Norton in March 1973 in a fight where he was severely hampered by a broken jaw which he suffered during the second round. He returned just six months later to beat Norton and, in January 1974, he beat Joe Frazier to set up a world title challenge against George Foreman. His fight with Foreman, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa, was a classic and saw Ali triumph with an 8th round stoppage. Ali would then defend those heavyweight belts 10 times, with the most significant being the 4th defence.
That fight saw him meet Frazier for the third and final time in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The two slugged it out in a brutal fight over 14 rounds that left Frazier almost blind and saw Ali take a lot of punches, something that would later prove an issue with his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. Ali lost the title to Leon Spinks in February 1978, regaining it in their September rematch but that would be his last win. A brutal defeat to Larry Holmes followed in October 1980, before a loss to Trevor Berbick 14 months later saw Ali retire with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses, with 37 knockouts.
A career retrospective for Ali is easy – he was a legend who is arguably the best heavyweight of all time, or at least up there with Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. But that approach neglects the profound impacts he had as Muhammad Ali the boxer and as Muhammad Ali the man.
In terms of boxing, Ali had three main impacts. The first was his style, which was so unique, unpredictable and has gone on to shape heavyweight boxing to this day. He had superior hand speed to any heavyweight boxer of his time and had the phenomenal reflexes to go with it. This allowed him to cut great angles and fire off his trademark left jab, whilst his speed allowed him to dodge punches. This angered opponents, forcing them to overcommit and then get caught, usually with a right hand. Before Ali, heavyweight boxers were by and large stocky men who planted their feet and slugged it out until one man caved in. Ali made boxing an art form, combining the movement expected of boxers in much lower weight classes with genuine power. Nothing encapsulated his style more than his trademark ‘Ali shuffle’.
Secondly, Ali’s brand of trash-talking might not have been universally popular but it sold fights and made him a star. Ever since then, boxers and other combat sport professionals have sought to carve out their own ‘gimmick’, something previously confined to the world of professional wrestling before Ali came along. Later fighters of note have employed the skills he used and it is now commonplace across combat sports – Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor are two notable examples from the UFC who have employed Ali’s methods to great effect.
“If in my mind I can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it”
Finally, in later life Ali faced probably his toughest fight of all: Parkinson’s disease, undoubtedly a result of the punishment he took over the years, with the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ and the Larry Holmes fight painful examples of that. His 32 year-long fight with the disease was painful to watch for those who had come to love the man who simply loved everybody else with all of his heart, soul and mind. However, his illness and spirit saw the passing of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in 1999. This sought better representation and protection for fighters and promoted greater sportsmanship. This was designed to prevent more fighters in future suffering the way he, Joe Frazier and many other professionals of that era had done. It seemed fitting that just last week the Ali Act was extended to the sport of MMA and furthered his legacy in the week he would be so abruptly taken from us.
Outside the world of boxing, his actions were also phenomenal. The man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee was a driven man who had powerful ideals and values. In joining the Nation of Islam, he helped promoted the cause of Civil Rights for Americans and whilst his religion may have alienated some, he was a caring and loving man who just sought a more equal world.
His refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War caused outrage in America, with many calling him ‘Anti-American’ or ‘unpatriotic’. However, over time people came to see that he opposed the war because he had no quarrel with the Vietcong as they had never discriminated against him in the way many White Americans had. This was a war he believed he had no business fighting in and as the anti-war sentiment grew, he became a beacon of hope for all those who opposed the actions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. His defiance and victory in the US Supreme Court showed people who as Ali once said, “If in my mind I can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it”. It was a mantra he lived by and inspired others to live by.
In later years, as his illness took its toll, his public appearances reduced in frequency but he travelled to Iraq to negotiate the release of hostages. He became a UN Messenger of Peace, lit the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and in 2005 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award available to a civilian in America and it was richly deserved.
The severity of his illness meant that his passing was somewhat inevitable but the outpouring of emotion following his death on Friday showed what he meant to the world. His family announced yesterday that his funeral would be a funeral ‘for the world’ to attend in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It seems right that a man who sought to unify people through hope and love will bring people together through his death in the way he wanted to whilst alive. His name and legacy will truly live on forever because, for me and millions of others, he really was ‘The Greatest’.