Muhammad Ali: The greatest – in and out of the ring

Boxing legend was one of world’s most-loved sportsmen

Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion, who was one of the best known and loved sportsmen of the 20th century has died at a hospital in Phoenix, aged 74.

 

On December 11th, 1981, Muhammad Ali, who has died at the age of 74, slumped on a chair in the windowless locker room of a municipal baseball field outside Nassau in the Bahamas. The walls were breezeblock, the conditions were cramped and the air reeked of sweat. A phalanx of sportswriters had pushed and shoved their way into this tiny space. In this most unlikely of settings, they had come to record the last moments of the greatest of all boxing careers. They had come to intrude upon the grief.

“It’s over,” mumbled Ali. “It’s over.”

“No it ain’t, champ, no it ain’t,” pleaded John Travolta, kneeling in front of his hero, sobbing at the sight of the boxer admitting to the journalists that this, indeed, was the end.

“Everybody knew you won,” whispered Veronica Ali to her husband.

On the other side of the wall, the cowbell used to signal the start and end of rounds was being taken out. It had to be returned to the farm from which it had come when the organisers realised at the very last moment that they had forgotten to bring a proper bell for Ali’s last dance. It was that kind of shoddy promotion.

“You done good,” said Herbert Muhammad. “I don’t agree with that decision.”

He hadn’t done good. At all.

His new-found friend from Hollywood, his then-wife of four years and his long-time manager were all lying. Maybe not lying. Perhaps just telling the vanquished fighter what they thought he wanted to hear. But Ali knew better. He had just spent 10 rounds getting beaten up by Trevor Berbick, an inferior fighter 12 years his junior in a makeshift ring built above second base on a field where, ordinarily, local kids came to swing bats at balls. His entourage may have wanted to continue promoting a delusion but the fifth defeat of his professional life had brought Ali belatedly to his senses.

“Father Time caught up with me,” he said, the bombastic voice that often shook up the world now so faint as to be barely audible to reporters leaning forward, still, after all these years, hanging on his every word. “I feel tired. I did good for a 39-year-old, did all right considering I’ll be forty in five weeks.”

The show that had entertained and wowed from Zaire to Croke Park, from Hamburg to Manila, was finally ending its run. The last performance wasn’t so much off-Broadway, more amateur theatre in the boondocks; such a carnivaleseque sideshow indeed that the great Hugh McIlvaney wrote of that night, “A king rode into permanent retirement on the back of a garbage truck.”

It is a truism of sport that all boxers stay on too long. But this was different. This was the Ali industry being kept artificially alive years after the health and safety officials should have shut it down. The sadness of the decades since that embarrassing evening on an island in the Caribbean is that so much of the health problems that defined Ali’s post-boxing existence appeared to have their root in the fact he took too much punishment for far too long.

Worse still is that so many alive today will remember him only as a palsied old man or as a Will Smith movie. And that would be a pity because, as his death now reminds us, this remains the greatest boxing story, maybe even the greatest sports story ever told.

Cassius Marcellus Clay

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17th, 1942, the first understandable sound he uttered as a baby was reportedly “Gee Gee.” When he subsequently won the Golden Gloves as a teenager and began to develop his famous ego, his father Cassius snr, a house-painter with a reputation as a fine dancer and a bad husband, said the kid’s first word had been both a prediction and a boast. Who knows how true that was? And who cares? As Clay later morphed into Ali he became a legend, in every sense of the word, and that inevitably included the occasional blurring of the lines between fact and fiction.

For his 12th birthday, his parents (his mother Odessa Grady Clay traced her lineage to Clare) gifted him the most infamous red and white Schwinn bicycle in all of sport. He rode it to the Louisville Home Fair, a venue where Clay and a pal heard free ice cream and balloons were plentiful. When they came outside afterwards, his gleaming pride and joy was gone and he was irate. It wasn’t just the theft. There was also the troubling realisation his struggling family couldn’t replace it easily, and a palpable fear about how angry his parents would be about the loss.

Somebody directed the upset kid to the nearby Columbia Gym where police officer Joe Martin coached boxing. Through tears, he appraised Martin of the robbery and assured him that, regardless of what sort of justice the authorities meted out, he was going to whup the thief as soon as he found him. Martin calmed the kid down and asked whether he might consider learning to fight so he’d be better-equipped to punish the criminal. On such things do whole lives and sporting history turn.

His first day sparring under Martin’s tutelage, blood started to trickle from Clay’s nose and mouth. The standard-issue introduction to the reality of the fight game, the metallic taste of crimson usually makes or breaks a kid’s enthusiasm for the fray. Young Cassius wasn’t dissuaded by the experience. A bridge had been crossed. Within six weeks, he gained a split decision over Ronnie O’Keefe, another neophyte, in his first fight. A career that would enthrall the world for much of the following three decades had taken flight.

Or almost not.

Although his progress in the ring was so rapid that by the age of 18, he made the US team for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, he was reluctant to fly across the Atlantic. A bad experience in the air on a trip to California had scared him so much that in the end he boarded the flight for Italy carrying a parachute purchased at an army supply store. With that comfort blanket in place, he set off to give the wider world its first glimpse of the wide eyes and the fluorescent smile with which the entire planet would soon be on first name terms.

Within days of touching down, he had been dubbed the unofficial mayor of the athletes’ village. His natural charm, his curiosity about all other nationalities, and the box camera he carried everywhere but into the ring surmounted all linguistic barriers. The portrait was of an icon in embryo. He took hundreds of photographs of fellow competitors from every nation, eased his way to gold in the light-heavyweight division, and handled the increasingly spotlight with aplomb.

“Oh, we got problems, man,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about the ongoing issue of racism in America. “But we’re working ‘em out. It’s still the bestest country in the world.”

Not a bad quote for a teenager, after his political beliefs became more developed though, it would be used against him by his critics.

When his return flight touched down at Idlewild in New York, professional promoters were on his trail. One suitor put him up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where he ate five steaks in one day, and launched himself upon the big city. Still wearing the official team jacket, replete with USA lettered across the shoulders, and with his gold medal draped around his neck, he basked in the initial, warm flush of new-found celebrity.

“First time in my life I ever slept on my back,” said Clay. “Had to, or that medal would have cut my chest.”

Man-child

Around New York, he looked and acted like a man-child because that’s really what he was. Eighteen years old, the world at his feet. Loud. Ebullient. Garrulous. Naïve. Disarming. Cocky. Funny. Charming. All the adjectives that would follow him throughout his career were already being stacked up by delighted journalists who spent any time in his orbit. Well, not all the adjectives. A whole host of more sophisticated and controversial identifiers would be rolled out later, when he turned into the politically aware, outspoken voice, railing against racial and other kinds of injustice.

If that persona seemed almost unimaginable to those who encountered the giddy Clay gambolling about Manhattan and Harlem in September, 1960, the transformation began not long after. Upon returning to Louisville, the post-Olympic honeymoon ended quickly when he discovered that no matter how famous he was, the landscape of segregation hadn’t altered in his absence.

There was an incident at a lunch counter.

“We don’t serve negroes,” said the waitress.

“That’s okay, I don’t eat them,” said Ali.

There was a run-in with a white supremacist biker gang festooned with confederate flags. There was some ill-treatment by the mayor of the town. And, this sudden appreciation that the title of Olympic champion hadn’t changed how many of his compatriots viewed him, it supposedly drove him to the Jefferson County Bridge where he took the gold medal with the word PUGILATO engraved on it and flung it into the Ohio River.

One of the great Clay stories. The problem is there was no such dramatic gesture. The medal was simply mislaid. The yarn about casting it into the water was spun in the mid-seventies for a polemical autobiography that sought to retro-actively impose a protest narrative on every step of his life. As if that lily needed gilding.

Exposing the myth shouldn’t detract from the fact the racism he encountered back in Kentucky was very real. And it’s easy to surmise that, aside from shattering his post-Olympic buzz, those experiences also informed and shaped his subsequent evolution into an eloquent voice of protest.

In June 1961, he shared a Las Vegas radio studio with a wrestler named “Gorgeous George”. Still (mostly) humble, gracious and unassuming, the then 19-year-old marvelled at George’s outrageous and animated performance. An arrogant, preening, loudmouth veteran, he styled himself the greatest grappler in the whole world. It only took a glimpse of the impact “Gorgeous George’s” loquaciousness had on the box office for young Clay to realise this might be the way forward. The fighter formerly known as “The Louisville Larruper” was on his way to becoming “The Louisville Lip”. Sport would never be quite the same again.

That some of his most memorable lines were the work of his cornerman Bundini Brown, that more of them were doggerel, didn’t matter. Not when he turned braggadocio into an art form. Not when he also delivered aphorisms for the ages.

“The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses,” he said once, “behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.” A mantra so perfect it is destined to hang forever on the walls of locker-rooms and gyms, wherever athletes, or indeed anybody needs reminding of the necessity of hard work and diligent preparation.

When Barack Obama arrived in the US Senate to take up his seat in 2004 and begin the most improbable political rise of our time, he hung a portrait of the boxer on the walls of his new office. The rapper turned mogul Jay-Z did likewise at the headquarters of his corporate empire in New York. Both men knew they were in his debt. Without him, their own extraordinary careers might never have happened. They knew the doors he kicked down.

Paving the way

Here was a man who paved the way for so many in so many different fields. His wordplay even led one author to speculate that with rhymes like “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee”, he was actually the world’s first rapper. A stretch? Absolutely but was he an outsized influence on what came after in popular culture? Of course he was, especially when you consider what he went through.

On the morning after dethroning Sonny Liston as world heavyweight champion in 1964. Clay caused another shock by renouncing his Christianity and announcing his membership of the Nation of Islam. The most audacious, radical step ever taken by an iconic athlete in his prime, the type of move that epitomised how much different this boxer was.

“Black Muslims is a press word,” said Clay, lecturing reporters in a subsequent press conference. “It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Islam is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them. I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the coloured people fighting for forced integration get blowed up.”

While training in Miami three years earlier he’d been invited to a Muslim gathering by Abdul Rahaman at which his faith changed forever. Perhaps wisely, he had kept the epiphany private until the title was his. Newly-emboldened by being champ, he started signing autographs Cassius X. Clay. Then, on March 6th, 1964, Elijah Muhammad gave him the name Muhammad Ali. Almost as soon as he entered the Nation’s orbit, J Edgar Hoover opened a file on the boxer at the FBI. A very lengthy file.

Nearly four decades later, the US government went cap in hand to ask the very same man to record a televised message explaining the nature of true Islam to paranoid Americans in the frenzied aftermath of September 11th, 2001. Between those two landmarks, on the long and winding journey from suspect to paragon, his new religion and his new name attracted criticism and vitriol from fans and sections of the American media.

Publicly associating with radical figures like Malcolm X and spouting some of the Nation’s more radical beliefs about “white men being the devils” definitely contributed to the alienation. However, the ignorance about and fear of his new faith were as nothing compared to what was coming down the line.

After defeating Liston in the rematch (the former champ dubiously going down from Ali’s phantom punch), he successfully defended his title eight times in two years. None of those opponents gave him anything like the fight he had with the Military Draft Board. Having first registered his eligibility in 1960, he’d failed the aptitude test twice but as the Vietnam War wore on the bar for entry lowered. His number was finally called on April 28, 1967 in Houston, Texas.

There was talk of a deal in which he’d serve his time doing exhibition bouts for the troops and promotional work for the armed forces. He was having none of it. His objection was conscientious, religious and, oh so memorably-put: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong – they never called me nigger.”

Like the war itself, his stance divided America. And the half who didn’t agree with him vented their anger in the most explicit ways.

“If there was an Olympic sport for number of death threats received back then,” said John Carlos, he of the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Games. “[Martin Luther] King and Ali would be fighting for the gold.”

His objection cost him his livelihood for more than 3½ years, 3½ of what should have been his best years. He returned to the ring in October, 1970, the US Supreme Court eventually reversing the conviction and quashing the five-year sentence he received for refusing to be inducted.

Comeback

He prepared for his comeback bout with Jerry Quarry by watching old, grainy footage of Jack Johnson and marvelling at the epic life he lived. More than half a century before Ali repeatedly butted heads with the American establishment, Johnson had already done it all before, from trash-talking inside the ring to controversial legal battles outside it. During the subsequent fight with Quarry, Brown could be heard shouting encouragement from Ali’s corner with the words: “Jack Johnson’s here! Ghost in the house!” He’d always known his history.

Even though he demolished Quarry, Ali was an older, slower fighter coming back after a long hiatus, and, really, his professional prospects looked uncertain. Yet, the second half of his career dwarfed his earlier achievements. His fame reached new heights, touched down in new continents, and his fights grew in stature until some were events that would bring the entire planet shuddering to a halt to watch.

The first bout with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, the meeting of two undefeated giants, was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” Even in a sport where almost every utterance is franked with hyperbole, the title was an understatement. Frank Sinatra photographed it for Life magazine because it was the best seat he could get. New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin inveigled Bernadette Devlin a spot at ringside. Burt Lancaster worked as a commentator. All human life was either there or watching or listening.

When the bell tolled at the end of the 15th, both men were in a heap and some in the crowd were chanting “Draw! Draw! Draw!” Frazier got the decision and revenge on a man who had taunted him so cruelly in the build-up as an Uncle Tom. If the epic and bruising nature of the encounter left each fighter physically damaged like never before, it also kick-started the rest of Ali’s career. There was some very special glory in this kind of bruising defeat.

Sure, he’d have to spend some a couple of years taking on easy fights in exotic locations (Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Dublin!). Eventually though there would be more contests that came to define sport in the latter decades of the 20th century.

The Rumble in the Jungle. The name resonates yet, speaking of a different, more glorious time, when athletes seemed larger than life and boxing mattered so much more. Before the whole circus decamped to Africa for that fight, there was a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria, where Ali delivered a soliloquy destined to be filed in the annals under the simple, self-explanatory headline “How Great I Am!”

“I done rassled with an alligator, I done tousled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning, threw thunder in jail,” rapped Ali. “That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick. Bad…fast. Last night I cut the light off my bedroom, hit the switch and was in the bed before the room was dark. You, George Foreman, all you chumps are gonna bow when I whoop’em. I know you got ‘em picked but the man’s in trouble. Imma show you how great I am…”

He wrested the title back from Foreman, younger, bigger, stronger, by employing his startling rope-a-dope strategy. For seven rounds he shipped every concussive punch that Foreman delivered in that ring in Kinshasa, Zaire. After taking one more crushing blow to his jaw, he held his opponent close and whispered into his ear, “Is that all you got George?” It was all he had. Foreman was spent and Ali knocked him out in the eighth. Champion again.

Primal contest

In a wonderful coda to that primal contest, “When We Were Kings”, a documentary about the fight, won an Oscar in 1996 and Foreman and Ali walked on to the stage together. The enmity between them had dissipated through the years. As it always seemed to do with Ali. Most of those who shared a ring with him eventually realised that by doing so they became part of something much bigger, more enduring and historic than a mere boxing match. This was true of the journeymen, those footnotes on the most storied of all resumes, and of Frazier and Foreman, the two icons inextricably linked with him forever in the public memory.

The Thrilla in Manila, his third clash with Frazier, took place in the Philippines against the backdrop of the Marcos regime. To remember the event, to grasp its brutal magnificence, we need do no more than recall how it ended. After 14 more seismic rounds between the pair, Futch stopped the fight because his charge’s eyes were so battered he could no longer even see the punches coming. When Frazier protested the decision, Futch put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Sit down, son. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

Later, Frazier would offer his own take on his opponent.

“Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, Lawdy, he’s a great champion.”

Quotes that still give chills four decades after they were first uttered. As long as boxing exists, no, as long as there is sport, people will recite those yarns and revisit that bout.

The years after Manila were not kind. After a couple of controversial decisions went his way against Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers, he lost and then regained his title for a third time from Leon Spinks. His former sparring partner Larry Holmes finally took the belt from him in 1980, long after his gloves should have been put away, long after the signs of his physical decline had started to become worryingly apparent.

Doctors still differ on the exact nature and extent of the damage done in those twilight years. Many believe the cumulative effect of all that punishment contributed to him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Others somehow reckon absorbing 440 punches in one night like he did against Frazier had little to do with his condition.

Shortly after that diagnosis, Lonnie Williams, a Louisville native, became his fourth wife and, in this relationship, he appeared to find the peace that had eluded him in the previous three marriages. He fathered two sons and seven daughters, the most famous of whom is Laila. She followed him into the ring and, in 2001, she defeated Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, Joe’s daughter. Ali didn’t turn up for that fight because of a prior engagement at a NASCAR race.

Philanthropic giant

It sounded like an odd excuse except by that point in his life, he had become a philanthropic giant and a commercial juggernaut. After making and losing fortunes, the one-time Nation of Islam bogeyman evolved in retirement into a unique brand, his name and image being used to flog snack foods and sports gear, and some of his catchphrases being copyrighted.

A few weeks after his 73rd birthday, Under Armour signed him to an endorsement deal. That he could no longer speak in public didn’t matter. The voice might have been quieted by the ravages of time and illness but the commodification of his legend (which wasn’t to everyone’s liking) remained viable. How? Because the recognition of his achievements lived on, accompanied by then by a very pronounced public adulation.

In the same way Paul McGrath’s flaws, as much as his magnificence on the field, made Irish fans love him all the more, Ali’s contradictions were part of what made him so fascinating. For such a charming man, he came out with some nonsense over the years. A lot of it offensive too. “Who were those little faggots?” he asked after being introduced to The Beatles in his trainer Angelo Dundee’s storied Miami gym in 1964.

That he could be so wrong-headed, uncouth and ignorant didn’t seem to matter that much in the end. All of that “white man is the devil” ranting in his prime was long forgotten as he ascended to a position in the American pantheon where he was usually described using the acronym, GOAT, Greatest of all Time.

Grand Old Man might have been appropriate too because that is also what he became. Perhaps from the moment when, body trembling, he carried the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 until his death, Ali inspired affection and, dare we say it, love. For those of a certain age, his gradual withering before our eyes a recurring reminder of our own creeping mortality. Those who worshipped him as boys grew more conscious of their middle age every time they saw Ali on television, a bit more diminished than before, a little shakier, a lot less vibrant than he remained so indelibly in our memories.

“I am America,” he said. “I am the past you won’t recognise but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.”

He was America. In every wonderful, contradictory, awkward, troubling, magnificent, unique way, he was America. And, some faster than others, they got used to him. And loved him all the more for that.

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