There will always be nothing but respect from me for Muhammad Ali as an athlete and as a man. Ali was a polarizing individual, quite possibly the most polarizing individual in American Sports history. From his stance on the Vietnam war and civil rights, to his ability to rhyme and entertain the masses with his words, wherever Muhammad Ali went the world was watching and listening. There are so many people who have so many personal stories and interactions with the Champ and I truly wish I could have met him before he passed however the closest I could get to Ali was one of his old training sites in Miami. I was on my way back to Richmond and had stumbled upon the gym looking for a gym to exercise in while I was in Miami and every day I went by it was closed. It just so happened that someone was cleaning the place when I was headed out and allowed me to walk in. To think that I was standing in the same spot that an 18 year old Ali (at the time he was still known as Cassius Clay) stood when he requested the services of Angelo Dundee, trained and beat Sonny Liston, it was almost too much for me to handle as a boxing fan. I remember standing there looking at the pictures on the wall, a few of his belts and even throwing some punches at a heavy bag that he apparently used (not really sure I believe that but it looked extremely ancient) bouncing around attempting to shuffle my feet. I might have stayed in there for hours if the janitor did not kick me out. I soaked in the moment one final time, took a few pictures before my phone battery died and went on to board the plane back to Richmond. Looking back it never dawned on me to think of a time when Ali would not be here but that day has sadly come and while others have more credentials than I when it comes to speaking about Ali, I feel the need to put some words to paper for someone that has inspired not only me but so many others.
‘It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.’
Nobody had the gift of gab like Muhammad Ali. His only match for wit and comebacks might have been his partner in crime Howard Cosell. Their back and forth interviews are as comical as they are informative. A young Ali was surgical with his verbal barrages on opponents outside the ring. It did not just start with calling Foreman ugly or Frazier a gorilla, Ali was rapping and styling around fighters before he even got a championship fight! ”To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole. And for the USA won the medal of gold. The Greeks said you’re better than the Cassius of old” This was just one of many examples of a young Ali establishing his place as one of the best talkers in boxing early and has he would later hint, it was all part of his plan to build himself to be larger than life. Boxing is just as much of a mental sport as it is a physical sport and while we can say that about every sport, there is something about 1 v 1 competition that takes the mental game to a whole other level. When Ali said something you know he meant it and he had no problem with letting you or anybody else know about it. Ali was so good at trash talking that there is even some out here who think he helped create rap as we know it. He was without a doubt one of a kind when it came to trash talk.
‘I am the greatest, I’m the greatest that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face’
Often times when we look back on our sports legends and heroes we tend to skip over the beginning and just start at the good part. With that being said most people when they talk about Ali just start with Sonny Liston, the iconic picture, and the “I am the greatest” quote. I always find it funny that prior to the Sonny Liston fight and young Ali had be hurt a few times in his career and even had Liston ringside at a fight commenting that he couldn’t fight Ali because “they would arrest him for murder.” Ali did not do himself any favors before stepping in the ring with Sonny Liston as he had been knocked down twice and in one fight against Henry Cooper needed the assistance of his corner to stall long enough to get his wits about him before the bell. With that being said I think a lot of people do not realize just how imposing of a champion Sonny Liston was at the time. Liston was so intimidating that the man who had Ali out on his feet , Henry Cooper and his trainer, were quoted as saying if Liston won they had no intentions of meeting him in the ring or “walking down the street.” So when the 7:1 underdog Ali won and declared himself “The Greatest” he kind of had a point. There have been many claims to the title of the greatest since Ali’s time but in regards to boxing there hasn’t been many who have a resume as impressive as Ali. He was a champion at 22, defeated two of the hardest punchers in the sports history in Liston and Foreman, and has one of the most memorable rivalries in sports history with Joe Frazier. If not for the layoff and political distractions involved with his affiliation with Nation of Islam Ali could have been even greater as a fighter than what we know now.
‘I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.’
Often times when we as fans look at sporting events we never learn the full story behind what it took to create that event. Those stories behind the events are more entertaining than the event itself at times and Ali versus Liston is no exception. Leading up to the first fight Ali was known to hang with Malcolm X and members of the Nation of Islam (henceforth referred to as the NOI). At the time of the first Liston fight the NOI was considered a radical group of African-Americans who hated white people and preached violence. As the story goes the promoters threatened to call off the fight if Ali did not renounce the NOI and his affiliation with Malcolm X. Ali’s father even spoke out against he NOI stating ” They ruined my two boys, muslims tell them to hate white people, hate their mother, and hate women.” There’s no telling how hectic things became but Malcolm X eventually agreed to keep a low profile until the night of the fight and through all the criticism and pressure Ali never renounced the NOI. It is said that the promotion loss close to $300,000 because of this and you can imagine the reaction from the world when before the second fight with Liston, Muhammad Ali publicly embraced the NOI, Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammad. The NOI did not fully embrace Ali until after he defeated Liston the first time, under the guidance of Malcolm X, Ali would learn to embrace his new found platform as heavyweight champion and also find his calling in the Islamic faith. Elijah Mohammad himself gave the name Mohammad Ali to the young Cassius Clay and although there seems to be a few different translations the consensus is that it means “one worthy of praise.”
‘Get up and fight, sucker!’
Prior to the first fight there was a carefully worded rematch clause that allowed Liston’s promoters to promote Ali’s next fight. Rematch clauses are the norm in today’s boxing however at this particular time the WBA forbid rematch clauses and seeing that the information was kept separate from the main contract it did not sit well with the sanctioning body. So when the rematch was announced the WBA stripped Ali and dropped Liston from their rankings. Due to his open affiliation with the NOI and controversial figure Malcolm X the second fight with Liston was more of a circus than an actual fight. Several months before the fight would take place Malcolm X left the NOI and severed his friendship with Ali. When he was assassinated rumors spread that his supporters would retaliate by attacking Ali. There was controversy with Liston as well, rumors started to circulate that his promoter was tied to the mafia then Liston was arrested for drunk driving and carrying a pistol. This scared many boxing commissions from approving the fight so when Massachusetts said they would host it looked as though the promotion was saved.All the commotion and fear surrounding both fighters is ultimately why the fight ended up in a little known town of Lewiston, Maine. The second Liston fight proved to be one of the most debated knockouts in boxing history. The fight started and ended before most people even sat down and at the time was one of the quickest knockouts in heavyweight history. I’m sure we have all seen the iconic photo of Ali standing over top of a groggy Liston but many people don’t like to talk about the actual event that led up to that photo. Liston went for the kill on Ali and was countered with a right hand flush on the chin. The debate comes in as to whether Liston was actually hit or not and some say the photo taken isn’t Ali bragging but angrily telling Liston to get up because he did not think he hit him. The distraction caused by Ali interrupted the refs count and while Liston eventually got up the timekeeper had officially counted him out. The fight ended at exactly 2:12 and Ali had once again shocked the world.
‘Man I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong’
With such a quick rise to fame and the backing of powerful figures around the nation it would have been very easy for Ali to lose himself. Yet we find that the young Ali was willing to risk everything for what he believed in. I think a lot of people are unaware that Ali had enlisted in the military two years before he was arrested for draft dodging. His IQ score wasn’t high enough and when the government wanted to increase their military presence in Vietnam they lowered the standards which meant Ali qualified. It is said that support of the Vietnam war was over 50% when Ali refused enter the draft. A month after Ali’s famous line, support for the war dropped below 50% and in a year it was as low as 27%. Ali essentially destroyed his career after denouncing the war, he was stripped of his boxing license in all 50 states and publicly ridiculed. People he once considered friends, like Jackie Robinson, spoke out in opposition to Ali’s stance. How could Ali, a man who has found success in America, turn his back on his fellow Americans fighting in Vietnam? Ali remained steadfast though, questioning the reasons behind the war and methods of recruitment. “The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war,” he said. In order to try to maintain some level of income Ali was forced to fight outside of the United States but no closed circuit establishment show his fight so all the promotions lost money. Eventually Ali started traveling the country speaking out on the war at colleges and rallies around the country. Knowing what I know about Ali the person I feel as though he would frown at the idea of calling his three and a half year hiatus from boxing a waste. In fact he was very productive and influential to the civil rights movement and anti-war movement of the 60’s and as support for the war faded many people began to support Ali and in 1971 his conviction was overturned. For all that he did in his career Ali’s stance on the Vietnam war and willingness to stand fast to his beliefs amid criticism from even people he called friend was undoubtedly one of the main attributes that make him The Greatest of All Time.
‘Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.’
Post Vietnam protest Ali bothers me a little. I have always personally wondered when he should have stopped fighting and why he kept going. Ali did not seem to possess the lust for money that his predecessor to boxing greatness Sugar Ray Robinson had. He clearly did not care what others thought about him or his legacy in the ring. So I always find myself looking for something, some bread crumb as to why he kept going. Most men take a lay off from boxing and fight a few tune ups, exhibitions and call it a career. Ali came back did the tune ups, exhibitions and then went straight for the top. And it is in his second ascension to the top that I start to see quotes and interviews with Ali that tell me that he knew his work towards greatness was not done. Ali’s fights of the 70’s solidified his hall of fame status and supremacy over the best heavyweights of his era. There’s the trilogy with Joe Frazier their first fight being called ” the Fight of the Century.” The trilogy with Ken Norton and of course the infamous Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. The Rumble in the Jungle posed the same threat as the Sonny Liston fight, a strong, knockout artist champion who was coming off a dominant victory. Ali was passed his prime by that time to many observers and his rope-a-dope tactic was ill advised and extremely dangerous. If you look the 70’s Ali took a lot of punishment from some of the heaviest hands in boxing history. This combined with his longevity in the sport is what many believe led to him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Ali’s career personified him as an individual, sure he liked to talk to the talk but it was always more satisfying to prove people wrong and defy the odds. As he stated “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
‘I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.‘
It amazes me how many things he has done that have went under the radar but seem to be jumping out at us today. “Ali stops a gang fight, Ali talks man out of suicide, Ali negotiates the release of 15 American hostages in Iraq.” Looking back on his life you almost get the feeling that even if it were made into a motion picture, the original story would be more entertaining than anything we could create. Ali was larger than life all the way up until his death and the fact that he remained human is what truly makes him the Greatest Of All Time. We all possess the courage to stand up for something when it’s not right, we all possess the ability to inspire, to change but there are not many of us that are willing to be selfless and carry the burdens of our fellow man. Ali did not do things for attention and admiration, Muhammad Ali changed the world by simply being himself. He utilized his fame and notoriety to routinely draw attention to society’s wrongs and the negative connotations associated with being a Muslim. Often times when he helped African-Americans he would be quoted as saying “I am your brother.” In tribute we see a lot of people saying there will never be another Ali and I believe they are right. Our athletes today are too careful with what they say and too aware of what others think about them. They say a lot of things but they do not act on half of what they say so their words ring hollow. Ali was just as much about action, inside and outside the ring, as he was about talking. As with any good story even Ali’s must come to an end. Ali retired from boxing officially in 1981 long pass the time many thought he should have hung it up. The rope-a-dope tactic he utilized for the latter portion of his career was strategically brilliant and also came at a heavy cost. By 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, something many believe to be a direct result of the punishment taken primarily during the 70s. And while he eventually lost his ability to speak, Ali continued to inspire and lead by example without any voice all the way up to his death. Muhammad Ali never looked away from the injustice facing African-Americans and Muslims alike. He worked tirelessly to become a beacon of the right way for his people and while society has negative views on both African-Americans and Muslims, Ali remained the best example of how we as a people can be better and do better for one another. He is not only one of the greatest boxer of all time, he is one of the greatest human beings of all time. Rest In Peace to the Champ.
Editors note: In recent days there has been a wave of pro black support for Ali. My goal with this article was not to pull Ali to one side, he was apologetically black without a doubt, however he belonged to the world. He was a servant of the people and while he looked out for HIS people most, do not sully his image by making him a symbol for racial violence. Ali stood for peace and equality. We would do well to honor his memory by not circulating these opportunistic articles and memes saying otherwise.