Muhammad Ali: Farewell to The Greatest of All Time
In every sport there is a scholar that sits at the top of the game. If we consider what Pele is to football, Michael Jordan to Basketball and what Usain Bolt is to Sprinting, Muhammad Ali is one of boxing’s greatest. Ali though, somehow stands superior to all past and present sporting athletes. What Ali achieved in the sport of boxing is remarkable, his showmanship was infectious and most importantly his ethical integrity was admirable.
As a tribute to the passing of such a special and unique icon I believe it’s important to highlight and celebrate what makes Muhammad Ali an exemplary inspirational figure with a legacy that will live with us forever.
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) first came into the public eye when he won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960. 4 years later the 22-year-old stunned the boxing world by launching a verbal campaign and proceeding to annihilate Heavy Weight Champion Sonny Liston, who at the time was seen as unbeatable and regarded as the best heavyweight of all time. An onslaught in the 6th round forced Liston to not leave his corner at the start of the 7th. Clay was such a disfavoured contender; the world was in complete awe at their new Heavy Weight Champion of the world.
Soon after the contest he announced himself a follower of Islam and Muhammad Ali would be his name. Ali then faced adversity for refusing to join the American military to go and fight in Vietnam because of his beliefs. Joe Louis may have been branded ‘The Peoples Champ’ but Ali said he was “going to be the champ I want to be”.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Ali’s polarizing views came with consequence. The golden boy had turned into the enemy and the boxing board stripped him of his titles effectively banning him from fighting for 3 years. Despite the controversy Ali stood by his principles and over the course of his years of exile he found a new life, spending time studying his religion and making a living from public speaking. Regardless of the public opinion, it was evident that he was sincere in his beliefs and this started reclaiming the respect and his views on Vietnam became widely shared.
During the time of Ali’s absence from the sport, a new champion in ‘Smokin’’ Joe Frazier emerged. At the age of twenty-eight Ali could compete once again in the sport he loved, he was able to continue with his career in boxing. Ali and Frazier would both meet to fight for a title they both had legitimate claims for. Both fighters were undefeated. Frazier went on to win the fight in Madison Square Garden and many thought that was the end of Muhammad Ali.
Ali now working towards a comeback rematch with Frazier watched George Foreman destroy Frazier to take the crown. At the same time Ali suffered another loss at the hands of Ken Norton who achieved a points win in addition to breaking Ali’s jaw. Ali rectified taking Norton lightly by winning a rematch. He subsequently earned a rematch with Joe Frazier and beat him too.
Where Muhammad Ali engraved his name into the hall of fame was what came next: the much anticipated fight in Zaire. The title fight. ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. The greatest sporting event ever. The show down with George Foreman. The man who tranced the man who famously knocked out Ali, Joe Frazier. Critiques had Ali down for a demolition, he was written off, finished and too old. All of those opinions were within reason. George Foreman was far more powerful, younger and arguably faster than Ali. Understandably so the odds were stacked against Ali.
Critiques and boxing experts never even acknowledged Ali’s ring intelligence as a contributing factor when trying to predict the outcome of the fight. Boxing is often called ‘The Sweet Science’ for a reason. Ali knew he couldn’t beat Foreman with his physical skills alone. If a man is stronger, younger, more athletic and arguably faster the only way to beat him is to make him beat his self. Turn his strengths into his weaknesses. That is what Ali did.
It is one of the world’s most misunderstood fights in history. Many would say Ali invited the Foreman onslaught by using the proverbial ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic and tiring him out by absorbing the punishment. That would be an insult to Ali’s boxing brain. He knew that Foreman was going to try everything in his power to knock Ali out. Yes, Ali invited Foreman to punish him on the ropes but it was how Ali took away Foreman’s energy and power – that’s how the fight was won.
Ali encouraged him to get him on the ropes, then Ali would clinch pulling on the back of Foreman’s head. This tactic exhausted Foreman. When someone’s head is locked it takes away the power of the whole upper body. It’s a chi method of controlling your opponent’s energy.
Foreman tried to punch out of the clinch using his superior power – it was simply quelled and it sapped his energy. Ali taunted Foreman throughout which cleverly infuriated him more. Famously, Foreman hit Ali with his hardest shot to the ribs to which Ali said “Is that all you’ve got!”.
The boxing intellect didn’t stop there. When Foreman would throw his punches Ali would block and counter by launching his left glove between Foreman’s head and shoulder. This would provide Ali with range using his reach advantage and it would set up the power shot with his right hand. As each round proceeded Foreman’s power and energy started to diminish. In the 8th round, Foreman had very little in the tank and Ali seized the opportunity to knock George Foreman out.
Muhammad Ali, yet again shocked the world and everyone ate their words. To this day George Foreman cannot believe how he possibly lost that fight. Against all the odds, Ali out smarted Foreman.
What Muhammad Ali achieved in the sport of boxing was truly significant. His influence changed the world of boxing forever. He took the Heavyweight championship away from its traditional home of New York and transformed it into a global occasion having bouts in Britain, Zaire, Germany, Malaysia and Manila. The pre-fight ritual of using the weigh-in to vaunt self-confidence and showmanship was born. Most commendably he came back several times to prove the world wrong.
What makes Ali a legend and an icon though goes far beyond the sport. He used the money he earned to help people less fortunate than him. He used his position to speak out about inequality and he took a stand for what was right. He took a brave stand against bureaucracy and fought for what was right. Ali deserves to be regarded as a game changer for the civil rights movement alongside Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. To this day, Ali is well respected as an ambassador for his religion and a force for good that continues to distil people hope with his words. His passing has affected everyone in some form or another.
The world has lost a truly unique human being but Muhammad Ali and his legacy will live forever. Rest in peace The Greatest of All Time.
Words by Aaron Spencer