“Muhammad Ali is the baddest motherfucker to ever box.”
Has there ever been an athlete that raised so many hackles like Muhammad Ali did his entire career, and even to this day? When mentioning Muhammad Ali it seems you’ll either get a big smile or a sour frown, normally depending on the other person’s age and political stance. Political stance? Let’s not forget Ali was once Cassius Clay, and changing his “slave name” was indeed a fiery, political act at the time, but more on that later. He’s been out of the game and much of the public eye for a while now, his body and mind tragically ravaged with Parkinson’s Disease, but Ali is still as important as any American icon ever was, and looking back at his achievements and even his failures, he’s still a wonder to behold.
First, let’s state for the record that Cassius Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins and five losses. Yeah, that’s bad-ass already. The sucker that tried to steal his bicycle when he was a youngster must have stuck in Clay’s craw, and was lucky he never ran afoul of him again. This is how Clay entered the ring - pissed over a stolen bike, the police officer who took down the info also happened to be a boxing coach and steered the young ruffian into the ring. 1960 was the year Clay hired Angelo Dundee to be his trainer, a relationship that would last Clay’s entire boxing career, including the years he was exiled from the sport. It was under Dundee’s demanding regiment Clay honed himself and became the lean, mean fighting machine that ultimately won the heavyweight championship in 1964.
Clay vs. Liston, February 25 1964, Miami Beach, Florida. Sonny Liston was a bull of a man. The heavyweight champion at the time, Liston was a no-nonsense ex-con who did not fuck around. On the contrary, Cassius Clay was the young and lean “Louisville Lip”, a cocky kid who liked to talk a lot of shit. It was this fight that Clay uttered the infamous “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” quip during the weigh-in. It didn’t stop there. When he wasn’t referring to Liston as the “big ugly bear”, Clay was verbally tearing the man down with proto-Rudy Ray Moore style/rhyme scheme insults. Reporters were not amused by his brashness, and most predicted he’d be down for the count by round 3. As soon as the fight started, Liston was doomed. He was out of shape, and couldn’t keep up with the lightning strike punches Clay was landing on him. He pummeled him over and over until Liston, under duress, just....quit. Clay won by a TKO, did what was to become known as the “Ali Shuffle” in the ring, climbed the ropes and proclaimed “I am the greatest!”
It wasn’t long after becoming heavyweight champion when Malcolm X embraced Clay and accepted him into the Nation of Islam, wanting to re-name him Cassius X. However, Elijah Muhammad was probably sick of this “X” shit and decided Cassius Clay would not be called Cassuis X but Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali. Cue the shitstorm. Howard Cosell, always a fan, fully accepted this much to the chagrin of the rest of the mainstream sports press. Clay, now Ali, scared the bejesus out of a lot of white people who were very suspect of the Nation of Islam. The constantly outspoken Ali was also having none of this Vietnam noise. After famously proclaiming “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He refused and refused to answer his call-up, a move that eventually stripped of his title and suspended his boxing license. While he didn’t have a ring to perform his fancy footwork in anymore, he was more than happy to speak his mind at universities and any other place where he could hammer his point of nonviolence home. The hippies had a new hero in Ali. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and in 1971 reversed his conviction on grounds of general fuckery by the government. Ali was free to sting like a bee again.
After a quarrel with Elijah Muhammad, Ali left the Nation of Islam and refocused on re-starting his career. After a few rusty fights, with Ali losing for the first time since he had been the heavyweight champion, Ali fought Joe Frazier and won back his title in 1974. From here Ali traveled abroad for the infamous and universally awesome “Rumble in the Jungle and “Thrilla in Manilla” fights. As documented in the amazing film When We Were Kings, Ali and George Foreman went toe to toe in the Congo in 1974. It was a spectacle of mass proportions, not surprisingly promoted by the controversial and troll toy-coiffed Don King. James Brown, B.B King, Bill Withers, The Spinners and others came out to do a goodwill pre-fight concert. Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson flew out to cover the match (although apparently The Good Doctor chose to hang out by the hotel pool instead). The people of Zaire loved the charming Ali, whom he used to turn the tide against Foreman, destroying the brute’s morale. The chant of “Ali, bomaye!” (Ali, kill him!) was heard day and night up to and during the fight. In the end, Ali let the giant Foreman tire himself out, using the controversial “rope-a-dope” method, leaning on the ropes, having Foreman pummel his arms and body. All the while Ali struck Foreman’s face, soon dominating the match. Foreman had enough, going down in round 8. The people went wild. The “Thrilla in Manilla” took place a year later, pitting Frazier against Ali a third time. Ali talked as much shit as he had before, calling Frazier “the white man’s champion” and “Uncle Tom”. The match itself was brutal and extreme, the two warriors not backing down after inflicting as much damage as the could on each other. The fight ended in round 15, when Frazier’s trainer said “no more”. This was the last of Ali’s great fights.
Ali continued to box with mixed results until 1981, the year of his retirement. He might have lost his last match, but "The Greatest" settled down with 56-5 record, 37 knockouts, and an Olympic gold medal. Never a private person, it took awhile for Ali to leave the limelight. He appeared in commercials, on game shows, and even as a referee in a Wrestlemania match. It was 1984 when Ali, his head suffering blow after blow, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He settled down, wrote a few books, raised him family, and it had been quite some time when the public saw him when he lit the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics. I remember it fondly, breaking out in goosebumps and a smile while my grandfather grumbled and sneered. Watching recent footage of him, you can see the brilliant flourishes that are still there, an eager left jab here, a playful uppercut there. He may be beyond his years now, but the champ is still the champ, and, like Simon and Garfunkel say - the fighter still remains.
Baxter, Lew. "Muhammad Ali, this is Your Life." Daily Post: 24. Feb 22 2002.
"Parkinson's Slows, but Doesn't Stop Muhammad Ali." Cincinnati Post: 0. Apr 08 2006.