Muhammad Ali — “The Greatest”

Muhammad Ali

By Angus Gillespie

CBJ — The funeral for boxing legend Muhammad Ali will take place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky this coming Friday, where former U.S. President Bill Clinton will deliver the eulogy. Also speaking will be Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel.

The former world heavyweight champion died late on Friday at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 74, having been admitted on Thursday. He had been suffering from a respiratory illness, a condition that was complicated by Parkinson’s disease. He died of septic shock due to unspecified natural causes. His wife and all nine children were by his side when he passed away.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali shot to fame by winning light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Nicknamed “The Greatest”, the American beat Sonny Liston in 1964 to win his first world title and became the first boxer to capture a world heavyweight title on three separate occasions.

Immediately after winning that world title he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, pledging allegiance to Elijah Muhammad, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Robert Poole, was also a mentor to the likes of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Unlike Martin Luther King, who espoused an inclusive approach to civil rights, the Nation of Islam called for separate black development and was treated with suspicion and disdain by a large percentage of the American public.

In 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. military due to his opposition of the war in Vietnam. It was a hugely unpopular decision at the time, and one that left him despised by many Americans, who viewed it as an act of cowardice.  Ali angrily retorted by claiming the Viet Cong was not his enemy but rather it was the white man in America who was his real enemy for not standing up for his civil rights, yet he was expected to go to war and put his life on the line for them.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what?”, Ali asked at the time. “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people?  Just take me to jail.”

Although he never did serve prison time, Ali was immediately stripped of his world boxing title and licence. It cost him nearly four prime years of his boxing career from March 1967 to October 1970, when he was allowed back in the ring for a fight against Jerry Quarry while his appeal was still before the courts.  In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction. However, he remained disliked by a considerable number of Americans although he was getting more sympathy with a greater number of people who openly opposed the seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam.

Starting in 1971, Ali fought in six of the most memorable contests in boxing history, which is where his lasting legacy truly began to take hold. He was handed his first professional defeat by Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” in New York on March 8, 1971. He also surprisingly lost a split decision to Ken Norton on March 31, 1973 in San Diego. Despite fighting part of the match with a broken jaw, Ali went the distance. However, he avenged the loss to Norton in the rematch by winning a split decision in Los Angeles on September 10, 1973. The second of the three Ali–Frazier bouts took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 28, 1974. It was a non-title bout with Ali taking a unanimous decision. The victory set up a championship bout with titleholder George Foreman.

The “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) took place on October 30, 1974.  Foreman knew he was in trouble after throwing all of his hardest shots at Ali through the first few rounds to no avail. Ali whispered into Foreman’s ear “is that all you got, George?” Foreman thought to himself, “yep, that’s about it.  This is going to be a long night.”  With Foreman exhausted, Ali scored a knockout in Round 8, much to the delight of virtually the entire crowd on hand. Foreman would later admit he had very little respect for Ali’s boxing abilities entering the fight, but certainly had loads of it afterwards. “I was a good fighter, but he was the greatest,” Foreman admits. Prior to the bout, Ali was a huge underdog, although he certainly didn’t see it that way. “The only way I’d get licked is if I was a postage stamp,” he joked.

Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in the Philippines on October 1, 1975, emerging victorious in the “Thrilla in Manila” when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round. Ali said the grueling battle was the closest he’d ever come to dying. Both men left so much in the ring that day that many boxing experts say neither was ever the same again. History would later prove that theory to be true.

Six defences of his title followed before the 36-year-old Ali lost on points to Leon Spinks in February 1978, although he regained the world title by the end of the year, avenging his defeat at the hands of the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion.

Ali’s career ended with one-sided defeats against Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981 when Ali was 39 and clearly well past his prime.

He fought a total of 61 times as a professional, winning 56 and losing 5 with 37 victories coming by knockout. Two of those wins were decisions over Canadian George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in March, 1966 and at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver in May, 1972.

It was around the time of his retirement that it became known Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  He lit the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, his body shaking uncontrollably from an advancing stage of the disease. His health continued to deteriorate at a more rapid pace over the last 15 years. Although he was no longer able to speak and provide the public with more of his poetic genius, his mind remained sharp as a tack.

In his latter years Ali was given numerous humanitarian awards.  His last public appearance was at a Parkinson’s fundraiser on April 9 in Phoenix.

Advancing the cause of human rights for people worldwide was his greatest victory of all.

Once hated but now loved, Muhammad Ali never changed… the world did.


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