Muhammad Ali: The Greatest
Muhammad Ali is the only person in my adulthood, who I queued, three hours in the rain, outside a London bookshop to briefly meet to get his signature on his latest autobiography. Such was his immense respect, impact and likeability to millions.
By then he was suffering from Parkinson’s, his hand with pen was gently lifted and placed by an assistant, as another opened the inside cover for Ali to write Muhammad. The great man starring completely ahead motionless as if looking back in time.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) in Louisville, Kentucky, going on to become a professional boxer, generally considered the greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport. Early in his career, Ali was known for being an inspiring, controversial and polarizing figure both inside and outside the boxing ring. He is one of the most recognised sports figures of the past 100 years, crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC. He also wrote several best-selling books about his career, including ‘The Greatest: My Own Story’, ‘Ali: His Life & Times’ and ‘The Soul of a Butterfly’.
Ali, originally known as Cassius Clay, began training at 12 years old after his bike was stolen he ran to find a Police officer and told him he wanted to beat the assailant up. The Officer telling him if he wanted to do that he needed to learn to box first, and invited him to his boys boxing club. After winning the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in Rome Olympics in 1960, he went on at the age of 22, to win the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in a stunning upset in 1964. Shortly after that, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name. He converted to Sunni Islam in 1975, and then to Sufism in 2005. Frank Bruno called Ali a “mentor, friend and earthly god of humanity”, while Lennox Lewis praised his “courage and conviction”.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted 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. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in 1971, his conviction was overturned. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation. During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African American pride and racial justice. Floyd Mayweather Jnr told Fox News there will never be another Muhammad Ali. “The black community all around the world, black people all around the world, needed him. He was the voice for us. He’s the voice for me to be where I’m at today.”
On August 12, 1970, with his case still in appeal, Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission, thanks to State Senator Leroy R. Johnson. Ali’s first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after Quarry was cut. On his return to the ring, Ali known as one of the fastest heavyweights of all time did not possess those skills for a full 15 rounds. Boxers were able to get to him more. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier where he suffered his first loss, and “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman where he was predicted to lose, however he knocked out ‘the Goliath’ Foreman in the eight round regaining the titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier. ‘Little did I know I would be facing something greater than a boxer,” two-time world champion Foreman said of the fight. He also had three hard and controvicial fights with Ken Norton who seemed an unlikely candidate to give Ali so much boxing trouble, losing the first fight on points after his jaw was broken, going on to win the next two.
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 Muhammad Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion. British journalist Michael Parkinson interviewed Muhammad Ali four times and remembers him as boxing’s biggest ever star. “He was a rockstar,” Parkinson told BBC World Service. “It was not often I was gobsmacked but as he walked across the studio floor I’d never seen a more graceful or beautiful man, he was extraordinary’. Parkinson also observed and said of him “He was a man who could fell you with a blow – kill you maybe – yet he had beautiful hands with long tapering fingers.”
At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali, thrived in and indeed craved the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing. Ali transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to “define the terms of his public reputation”.
The ‘Thriller in Manila’ 1975 was his last fight against Joe Frazier and easily the hardest. Both left a piece of themselves in that hot humid ring that night. It was plain the two boxers were never the same, Frazier retiring shortly afterwards. Ali continuing with eventual physical consequences. He slowed down even further in the ring, he was wining his fights by pure guile and showing another aspect to his boxing abilities an iron clad jaw. The highly controversial fight with Norton in Yankee Stadium which Ali somehow won on points, should have been the end. But he continued, after winning against Alfredo Evangelista in May 1977, Ali struggled in his next fight against hard puncher Ernie Shavers that September, who wobbled him a few times with punches to the head. Ali won the fight by another unanimous decision, but the bout caused his long time doctor Ferdie Pacheco to quit after he was rebuffed for telling Ali he should retire. Pacheco was quoted as saying, “the New York State Athletic Commission gave me a report that showed Ali’s kidneys were falling apart. I wrote to Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, his wife and Ali himself. I got nothing back in response. That’s when I decided enough is enough.
Ali lost to Leon Spinks a no hoper in 1978, returning to defeat him later in the year to become three times heavyweight champion. Then retirement. However, it was clear Ali was suffering from slurred speech and medical examination showed particles on the brain that could lead to Parkinson’s. For some reason he took the challenge to climb the mountain one more time and in 1980 took on a former sparring partner Larry Holmes who was now the new heavyweight champion at the peak of his boxing skills. What followed was sad, humiliating and awful to watch as Ali was battered before the fight was stopped. Even then he returned for one last hurrah against a young up and coming fighter Trevor Berbick again losing with much dignity this time in the Bahamas.
In 2006 Muhammad Ali was reported to have sold the image rights to his name, such was his possible financial need. He had battled Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years and was admitted to hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, with a respiratory condition where he sadly died. The funeral will take place in Ali’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.