“THE GREATEST,” CHAMPION’S CHAMPION— ALI
By Kai EL´Zabar
Muhammad Ali, the poet expressed through boxing like Miles Davis was the boxer expressed through music. He was a champion on so many levels beginning with his amateur boxing career. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., he made his amateur boxing debut in 1954. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Ali claimed in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant and fought with a white gang. Although the story has since been disputed and denied by several of Ali’s friends, including Bundini Brown and photographer Howard Bingham. Brown told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one!”
Thomas Hauser’s biography of Ali stated that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it. Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games. Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
The point is that Muhammad Ali inspired strength the power to speak what was on his mind because it imbued his spirit. He was like the next Black man in that sense– persecuted by the oppression that denied him self-expression and the right to be a man. So on every level when opportunity permitted he seized the moment and conquered it victoriously ensuing pride, hope, and confidence.
THE DEFINING MOMENT
Ali’s professional career put him on track to rock star stardom but the fight that broke the camels back was the Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston fight. By late 1963, Muhammad Ali still known as Cassius Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964, in Miami. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with an incriminating past and ties to the mob. Due to Clay’s uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights, and Liston’s destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first-round knock outs, Clay was a 7–1 underdog.
Despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight promotion, ignoring Liston’s prowess and calling him “the big ugly bear.” “Liston even smells like a bear,” Clay said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Clay created such a media frenzy throughout the pre-fight weigh-in shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight.” Clay’s pulse rate was measured at 120, more than double his normal 54. The story goes that many of those in attendance thought Clay’s behavior stemmed from fear, and some commentators voiced their concerns as to whether or not if he would show up for the bout.
To their surprise the outcome of the fight was a major upset. At the opening bell, Liston aggressively rushed at Clay, full of rage and seeming angry and looking for a quick knockout, to simply shut Clay up and knock him down. However Clay’s superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude Liston, making the champion throw empty punches and look awkward. At the end of that round Clay opened up his attack and with lightening speed repeatedly hit Liston with jabs.
The defending champ fought better in round two, but at the beginning of the third round Clay hit Liston with a combination that buckled his knees and opened a cut under his left eye noting a first for Liston. At the end of round four, as Clay returned to his corner, he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston’s cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. Though unconfirmed, Bert Sugar claimed that two of Liston’s opponents also complained about their eyes “burning.”
Like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali didn’t stop until the fat lady sang. Despite Liston’s attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the irritation from his eyes. In the sixth, Clay dominated, hitting Liston repeatedly. resulting in Liston not answering the bell for the seventh round. Clay was declared the winner by TKO. Liston stated that the reason he quit was an injured shoulder. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted: “Eat your words!” He added, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
At that time, Clay became at age 22 the youngest boxer to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion.
ANOTHER DEFINING MOMENT
After the Liston fight, Clay joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became a protegé of Malcolm X. Ali then faced a rematch with Liston scheduled for May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. It had been scheduled for Boston the previous November, but was postponed for six months due to Ali’s emergency surgery for a hernia three days before. The fight was controversial. Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked down by a difficult-to-see blow the press dubbed a “phantom punch.” Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, and referee Jersey Joe Walcott did not begin the count. Liston rose after he had been down about 20 seconds, and the fight momentarily continued. But a few seconds later Walcott stopped the match, declaring Ali the winner by knockout. The entire fight lasted less than two minutes.
Ali defended his title against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on November 22, 1965. Before the match, Ali mocked Patterson, who was widely known to call him by his former name Cassius Clay, as an “Uncle Tom”, calling him “The Rabbit”. Although Ali clearly had the better of Patterson, who appeared injured during the fight, the match lasted 12 rounds before being called on a technical knockout.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be enlisted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title.
He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Not to be defeated Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States where, in 1971. Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), was Muhammad Ali’s appeal of his conviction in 1967 for refusing to report for induction into the United States military forces during the Vietnam War.
Ali’s local draft board had rejected his application for conscientious objector classification. In a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself due to his previous involvement in the case as a Justice department official), the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s confirmation of the conviction. The Supreme Court of the United States found the government had failed to properly specify why Ali’s application had been denied, thereby requiring the conviction to be overturned. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation
History documents him as a civil rights champion because he refused the draft at as conscientious objector not based on pacifism, but rather on the lack of equality here at home. It was warrior spirit not to be defeated that led the fight.
Ali’s famous statements about supporting why he would not participate in the war distinguished him from the category of pacifist and put him in plain sight as a civil rights activist. He gave up some of some of his prime years as an athlete for what he believed. He is a true champion.
Ali transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America, he was no dumb jock—brute and he embraced his racial ethnicity with pride and exuberance. He was in fact, an intelligent, thinking creatively expressed man. He was willing to take on white establishment by expressing himself and pointing to issues otherwise avoided. He accepted the responsibility to define the terms of his public reputation.
Ali remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964 and September 19, 1964 Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion. He was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, in which he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier.
Muhammad Ali the poetic boxer who floated like a butterfly but always stung like bee and famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is dead.
Ali died Friday at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications. He had suffered with Parkinson’s disease for 32 years. He was 74.
Perhaps his greatest demonstration of power was his recognition of self when he declared himself the ‘Greatest’. Was it a vision of his destiny, or a vision he lived into? Either way he was what he declared himself to be and influenced everyone else to accept it. Both his charisma and abilities captivated the world audience of admirers, fans, athletes and sports enthusiasts leaving us his contribution to humanity with much to remember.