He Shook Up The World: The Life of “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali
Last night the world collectively heard the news of the passing of Muhammad Ali at age of 74. A man that is undoubtedly regarded as “The Greatest” as he proclaimed himself after his stunning victory over then Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. While it is a fairly easy assumption that Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time , what Ali did for the world was unprecedented and today is unrivaled.
I write with a heavy heart because Ali was a figure unlike any other but to know what truly made him great we must first start from the beginning. As you can see I am a huge combat sports fan, Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. One of the many reason’s why I am a fan of combat sports is growing up my Dad and I would always watch the Rocky movies. They made me want to watch boxing and learn about the sport. So, at 5-6 years old my Dad showed me old VHS tapes of the greatest fights boxing had to offer. I was hooked and I asked when does Ali fight next!! Can we watch it!! He said no Ryan, Ali is retired he retired in the early 80’s. That moment, I don’t think at that point or since have I been that let down about anything pertaining to sports. I would have loved watching the spectacle that was Ali and in particular the Ali vs Frazier trilogy which in my eyes is the greatest fight rivalry and combat sports trilogy of all time. Neither Smokin Joe or Muhammad’s history can be written without mentioning the other. More on that later and back to the beginning of the life of “The Greatest”.
Born as Cassius Clay he was turned onto boxing by a city police officer. Clay, a child at the time, told the officer he was going to “whup” the kid that took his bike, the officer said “well you better learn how to box first” and the rest was history. He went on to win the 1960 Olympic’s in Boxing in the Light Heavyweight Division. At the time of his first fight with Sonny Liston, Clay was 19-0 and 22 years old. One 7th round knockout later the man then newly named Muhammad Ali was truly born. Ali took on Liston again a year later winning in the first round by way of knockout. Most people believe in a theory that Liston took a dive that Liston purposely took the punch. We can argue whether that is true or not but we will never know. In his first run as champion Ali defended the heralded Heavyweight Crown eight times vs the likes of Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenburger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell, and Zora Folley. While some of these names aren’t as recognizable as the Frazier’s and Foreman’s of the world, this first run of title defenses was unprecedented in the sheer fact that Ali was the first real natural born star in the history of boxing where his marketing impact reached a world wide audience. The first defense vs Patterson was in the fight capital Las Vegas Nevada, his 2nd title defense was in Toronto Canada in a crowd that favored the Canadian Chuvalo, back to back Ali faced Britain’s native sons Henry Cooper and Brian London, then Ali traveled to Germany to take on their very own native son in Mildenburger, he took on both Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell in Houston, in his last title defense in his first run as champion vs Zora Folly in Frank Sinatra’s favorite city New York, NY. All of these men have a combined record of 435-100. He finished the majority of opponents that he fought accumulating 36 knockouts in 57 fights. However Ali had many greater fights to come in and out of the ring.
With the heat of the Vietnam war beating down on America, America’s greatest boxer was drafted. Ali’s refusal to participate in any war, let alone the Vietnam War, put his career and his life on hold and sent him to jail. Stripped of everything he had earned, Ali was removed from the boxing world for 3 years which were also 3 prime years in the career of any fighter (25-28 years old). When the court came to a unanimous decision Ali was back. At 28 years old and boy did the Boxing world change. With a new heavyweight Champion in Joe Frazier, Ali needed a fight and won his next two bouts by knockout vs the likes of Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena unbeknownst to himself at the time after winning those two bouts and lining himself up for a shot at the WBC and WB Frazier would become his greatest opponent yet. What took place was the three most legendary fights in the history of combat sports.
The Fight of the Century, Super Fight II, and The Thrilla In Manilla. All three fights were iconic in their very own way but always showcased two men going toe to toe. In my eyes the greatest dynamic when analyzing those fight’s is that there was more than one reason of motivation for both men. There many angles you can analyze the fights from a historical perspective in a lot of different ways but they both wanted to be the best, they both thought they were better than one another, they outright hated each other, and they wanted to win vs one another, and last but not least defend the illustrious Heavyweight Belt. The first fight was won by Frazier in a 15 round war by unanimous decision. The rematch was a spectacle unlike any other with Ali and Frazier coming to blows on ABC’s Wide World of Sports while watching the first fight together. The second ended with Ali getting his hand raised via unanimous decision in Madison Square Garden in a fight that was 12 rounds rather than 15. Most boxing analysts and pundits say that this fight was the least entertaining of the three and while that is debatable but what I do think is that this fight I would say was the most important of Ali’s career with a heavyweight title shot on the line vs Heavyweight Champion George Foreman, Ali needed to win that fight Frazier needed to win that fight and the winner and loser would go in two completely different directions one as the number one contender the other as a man in need of working his way back up the ladder. Most boxing pundits also considered this the biggest win of his boxing career but what they didn’t know was that he would out-do himself. Foreman vs Ali : The Rumble in the Jungle the table was suppose to be set with Foreman the younger more powerful fighter entering the fight as a heavy favorite Ali the experienced speed fighter that also packed a punch. The big question heading into the fight was whether Ali could take the power shots of Foreman. Initially what took place was something that the world was not ready to see. Ali taking blow after blow to the body and to the head along the ropes. But as the fight wore on Foreman began to look tired and Ali took advantage of it ending the fight with an emphatic knockout in the 8th round. The Champ was back. In his next fight Ali took on Chuck Wepner a brawler than gave Ali some fits, but sitting ringside was a little known actor named Sylvester Stallone. As Sly watched the fight he began to take inspiration from the no quit attitude of Chuck Wepner and he then watched Wepner ” Go the Distance” meeting his demise late in the 15th round. Stallone was inspired. So inspired that he went walked home to his one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia with little to his name and began to write Rocky. Stallone credited Ali for inspiring the character arc of Apollo Creed modeling him after ” The Greatest”. After the Wepner fight Ali went on to defend the Heavyweight Title 9 times including in my eyes what is the single greatest fight of all-time the Thrilla in Manila. The fight was the culmination of the greatest rivalry in combat sports history. Where two men left a piece of themselves in the ring. With Ali and Frazier both saying that they were both “close to death”. After the final dance between Ali and Frazier. Frazier fought George Foreman in 1976 and took 4 years off to then lace them up one last time to fight George Cummings to a draw. In between Frazier’s four year hiatus Ali fought six times with four of those six fights going a full 15 rounds. Simply put Ali had a lot of mileage on his body he continued that desire to prove he really was the greatest by taking on younger power punching fighters and beating them mentally in and out of the ring.
I have always thought that while Ali loved to fight he really loved nothing more than being Ali and it is very hard to retire or quit anything when you are so revered and loved by all. Along with that I think that Ali was trying to recapture something that he never quite could because realistically it is impossible. Ali was trying to regain the year’s of his career that were lost. Lost because he was taking the most noble stand of any professional athlete. While Ali fought a who’s who throughout his boxing career he fought for freedom of speech, religion, and he was against the acts of militarism and discrimination. Simply put he used his celebrity for the good of the people.Contrary to most professional athletes today. Ali changed the face of the world into one of many colors, he was a beacon of hope to millions of people. I can honestly say confidently that no one man will have the impact that he had as an athlete on the world collectively ever again. Myself nor does anyone else want to live in a world without Muhammad Ali but proving in the utmost way that life itself is unfair Ali hadn’t been Ali in a long time. Parkinson’s disease changed his life but he didn’t let it change his pursuit of helping and inspiring others. For year’s other’s have attempted to imitate but nobody ever will be. Heaven has a spot for Muhammad Ali, a legacy that will never fade away an impact that will never be forgotten and a punch his opponents would like to forget. Float like A Butterfly Sting like a Bee. Farewell to “The Greatest”. Rest In Peace Muhammad Ali.
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