On February 25th, 1964, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, shook up the world with a resounding victory over Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweight championship of the world. Last Friday “The Greatest” shook up the world once again, albeit sadly as he died.
Before he became Ali, Clay began his boxing career at the age of 12 when a Louisville police officer suggested he learn how to box after hearing the young boy fuming over a stolen bike and wanting to “whup” the thief.
His amateur career was a prestigious one which was crowned with a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. What followed later would begin the legend of Muhammad Ali. He reportedly threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant. The story has since been heavily disputed, but it’s a story which would foreshadow his actions and his future legacy.
Clay made his professional debut on October 29th, 1960, and amassed a 19-0 record with 15 knockouts. His early years were marked with trials including a Fight of the Year against Doug Jones in 1963. This victory, combined with others against the likes of Henry Cooper and Archie Moore, earned him a shot for Sonny Liston’s title.
Despite Liston’s intimidating personality, Clay taunted him throughout the pre-fight buildup, calling him a “big ugly bear”. His behavior during the buildup would once again only be a precursor to things to come. In a huge upset, Clay defeated Liston when the champion refused to answer the bell for the seventh round. This victory is where the “shook up the world” speech was appropriately born.
Soon after this fight, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam. His rematch with Liston became one of the most controversial sporting events in history as midway through round one, Liston was knocked out by a punch so fast the press dubbed it the “phantom punch”. Even to this day, people dispute the legitimacy of the victory, claiming Ali never landed a punch or the punch was too weak to conceivably knockout Liston and therefore Liston took a dive. This fight also produced probably the most famous photograph of Ali
Ali would defend his championship an additional 8 times before being suspended for refusing to be drafted to the army service. His was stripped of his title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In other words, he was a pariah in the eyes of many people. It may be hard to imagine today, but Ali at one point was one of the most unpopular and detested people in pop culture. His cocky nature combined with his Muslim belief, objection to the war in Vietnam, and undeniable talent made him an easy target for people who thought black people should be polite at all times, Islam was a threat to America, and simply hated how good he actually was.
Eventually, his opposition the Vietnam War began to gain sympathy and Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission. Ali’s first return bout was third round TKO victory over Jerry Quarry after Quarry sustained cuts.
After a victory over Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, a matchup against heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was set-up.
Simply dubbed “The Fight of the Century”, the two warriors lived up to the hype, but ultimately Frazier proved too much for Ali that night and lost a unanimous decision. Before the fight, Ali had called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and the two would develop a personal animosity toward Ali by Frazier which would last until his own death.
After the loss to Frazier and a second loss to Ken Norton, Ali and Frazier had a rematch which he won by unanimous decision. Frazier recently lost the title to George Foreman which made the fight less exciting than their first bout.
The win against Frazier set the stage for a title fight against George Foreman for the heavyweight championship in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. Almost no one gave Ali and chance at winning and some even feared for his life. Once again, Ali remained confident and boastful during the buildup to the fight. He became wildly popular in Zaire with crowds following and cheering him wherever he went.
Ali opened “The Rumble in the Jungle” by moving and scoring with head shots. During the second round Ali retreated to the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him while covering up. Foreman obliged, but couldn’t land anything cleanly. Ali countered Foreman’s attack effectively and finally in the eighth round, Ali dropped an exhausted Foreman with a combination. Foreman failed to beat the count, and Ali regained the heavyweight crown.
After beating Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, and Joe Bugner, Ali met Frazier for their third bout, known as the “Thrilla in Manila”. Held on October 1st, 1975, the fight was one of the most savage, brutal, and entertaining bouts in the history of boxing which ended when Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, waved the fight off after the end of the 14th round to protect his fighter from serious injuries or even death as at that point Frazier was fighting nearly blind. After the fight, Ali called it “the closest thing to dying that I know” and praised Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all times next to me”.
After the fight, Ali was never quite the same. He beat Jimmy Young and Ken Norton in a third bout, but lost to Leon Spinks and took a beating at the hands of a young Larry Holmes to lose by TKO for the first time in his career. Despite pleas to definitively retire, Ali fought one last time on December 11, 1981 in Nassau against Trevor Berbick and lost a ten-round decision.
Growing up, I wasn’t quite as big a fan of Ali as my other boxing fans were. I always thought the way he treated Frazier during the buildups to their fights crossed a line and I still feel that way to this day. However, we must understand that even our greatest idols had flaws. Even legends make mistakes. For all of his imperfections, Ali accomplished so much that they can be forgiven.
He was a proud, black Muslim man at a time when being such a man was simply dangerous. He received death threats after converting to Islam and was called a traitor and un-American for refusing to be drafted. Yet, he stood up for his beliefs and did it with pride and resilience. He never stopped, recently criticizing presidential candidate Donald Trump for his comments regarding Muslims. That takes courage. That takes character. That is what made him the boxer that he was.
That is what makes him “The Greatest”.