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Muhammad Ali: 1942-2016

Fighters Network

Three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous and beloved boxer the world has ever known, died on Friday at 74.

Ali was admitted into a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 2 for a respiratory issue and was initially listed in fair condition. The next day, however, Ali’s condition worsened and he was placed on life support. Family members were summoned, fearing the worst. Unfortunately, those fears were realized.

Ali’s health had been in steady decline since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, a disease that gradually withered his previously magnificent physique, silenced his once-prolific tongue and dulled his fabled motor skills. Despite his limitations, they never weakened his enormous fighting spirit nor affected his desire to brighten another person’s day with his mere presence. His later years were marked by several hospital stays that generated instant headlines, ignited heartfelt displays of concern and illustrated how relevant Ali remained decades after his retirement from boxing. But while his physical presence is no longer with us, the legend he created will remain for all time.

That’s because Ali’s sphere of influence wasn’t only athletic but also political, societal and linguistic. His electric skills and supreme self-promotion breathed new life into a sport that was losing favor with the general public but the light-hearted persona that earned him bemused but generally favorable coverage early in his career soon added more serious and complex layers. He was the first prominent athlete to change his name after joining the Nation of Islam, and the fact that he did so the morning after winning the heavyweight championship further stoked the flames of controversy. Moreover, his refusal to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War not only turned him into one of the world’s most polarizing figures but it also cost him three-and-a-half years of his fistic and financial prime.

As deep as the abyss might have felt to Ali and his loved ones, time and circumstance would end up turning the tide.

The clouds that hung over his years in exile eventually cleared and over time the way he was perceived was changed forever. This phenomenon was precipitated by several events: (1) growing opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War; (2) the Supreme Court unanimously overturning Ali’s conviction; (3) Ali regaining his boxing license; (4) winning back the heavyweight championship in shocking fashion and (5) staying atop the mountain long enough to cement his position with his backers, winning over those who were previously on the fence and converting some who had fiercely opposed him.

Ali’s willingness to pay the price for his beliefs earned him grudging respect from some of his critics and adoration from an ever-growing segment of allies that later would span generations. This dynamic transformed Ali into a universally celebrated icon who could melt the hearts of even the most hard-bitten and jaded personalities. It was a brand of magic that would continue until his dying day.

Cassius-Clay-1962-The-RingBorn Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, he was pointed toward boxing by local police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin after the furious 12-year-old reported that his bicycle had been stolen. After the youngster threatened to beat up the thief, Martin advised him to learn how to box first.

And learn he did. The 89-pounder made his amateur debut six weeks after joining Martin’s gym and as his body grew so did his ability. His amateur record was a reported 100-5 and along the way he captured six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves tournaments and two National AAU championships. He ended his simon pure career by winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, out-pointing the vastly more experienced Polish southpaw Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final. His outgoing personality was so vivid that one Olympic teammate swore that he would have won an election for mayor of the Olympic village.

Clay turned pro 54 days later by decisioning Tunney Hunsaker over six rounds and ran his record to 6-0 with five straight KOs over Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, Jimmy Robertson, Donnie Fleeman and LaMar Clark. Although Clay had long been garrulous, the building blocks of his public persona were laid during a joint radio show with wrestler Gorgeous George shortly before his June 1961 fight with Duke Sabedong.

“First, they asked me about my fight. And I can’t say I was humble, but I wasn’t too loud,” he said in Thomas Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” “Then they asked Gorgeous George about a wrestling match he was having in the same arena and he started shouting, ‘I’ll kill him; I’ll tear his arm off. If this bum beats me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off my hair, but it’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.’ And all the time, I was saying to myself, ‘Man, I want to see this fight. It didn’t matter if he wins or loses; I want to be there to see what happens.’ And the whole place was sold out when Gorgeous George wrestled. There was thousands of people, including me. And that’s when I decided. I’d never been shy about talking, but if I talked even more, there was no telling how much money people would pay to see me.”

Although he used Gorgeous George’s “crawl across the ring” line numerous times, Clay added several wrinkles that would end up revolutionizing the concept of “trash talk.” For one, he would predict the round the fight would end, beginning with Sabedong, who fell in seven as Clay foresaw.

MIAMI BEACH - FEBRUARY 25,1964: Cassius Clay talks to the press after winning the fight against Sonny Liston at the Convention Hall on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida. Cassius Clay won the World Heavyweight Title by a RTD 6. After this fight Cassius Clay changed his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali. 1964 Fight of the Year - Ring Magazine.(Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Later, he would assign nicknames for opponents, some of which rang so true that they became an indelible part of their identities. The menacing Sonny Liston was “The Big Ugly Bear” while the fleet-footed Floyd Patterson was “The Rabbit.” Other members of Ali’s animal kingdom were Ernie Terrell (“The Octopus”), Buster Mathis Sr. (“The Dancing Hippo”), wrestler Antonio Inoki (“The Pelican”) and, of course, Joe Frazier (“The Gorilla”). Sometimes Ali would mock his opponent’s fighting style; the wide punches of George Chuvalo inspired “The Washerwoman” while the slow-footed, mechanical George Foreman was hung with “The Mummy.” When all else failed, Ali tweaked his opponents’ physical appearance; Earnie Shavers’ shaved head conjured “The Acorn,” while Leon Spinks’ gap-toothed smile caused him to alternate between “Dracula” and “The Vampire.” The shape of Larry Holmes’ head spawned “The Peanut” and Richard Dunn’s lantern jaw prompted “Frankenstein.” Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” inspired nicknames of his own — “The Louisville Lip,” and “Gaseous Cassius” being two.

Then there was the poetry. With the help of chief second Angelo Dundee (who helped him with spelling) and court jester Drew “Bundini” Brown, Ali would recite verse about what he wanted to do to his opponents. His most famous example is “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee/your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see/now you see me, now you don’t/you think you will but I know you won’t” while another oft-cited poem was the following about Liston:

Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
if Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view, the crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up, somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight?
That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite.
Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money,
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.

In fact, his notoriety in this area was such that he and poet Marianne Moore jointly wrote a piece entitled “A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell,” which appeared in George Plimpton’s book “Shadowbox”:

“After we defeat Ernie Terrell

He will get nothing, nothing but hell,

Terrell was big and ugly and tall

But when he fights me he is sure to fall.

If he criticize this poem by me and Miss Moore

To prove he is not the champ she will stop him in four,

He is claiming to be the real heavyweight champ

But when the fight starts he will look like a tramp.

He has been talking too much about me and making me sore

After I am through with him he will not be able to challenge Mrs. Moore.

One of his more imaginatively descriptive works was this one he recited before his fight with Foreman:

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.

In fact, Ali set an unofficial world record for history’s shortest poem: “Me/Whee!”

Finally, there were the zingers. On many levels they were little more than schoolyard taunts but because of who he was and the attention his barbs garnered, they still managed to embarrass and anger some of the largest and most rugged athletes on the planet. Some examples:

Muhammad Ali v Sonny Liston

Photo: The Ring / Getty Images

* “Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”

* (Sonny Liston’s) too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!”

* “Here I predict Sonny Liston’s dismemberment; I’ll hit him so hard he’ll forget where October/November went.”

* “I predict that (Liston) will go in eight to prove that I’m great. If he wants to go to heaven, I’ll get him in seven. He’ll be in a worser fix if I cut it to six. If he keeps talking jive, he’ll go in five. If he makes me sore, he’ll go like (Archie) Moore. If he keeps talkin’ about me, I’ll get him in three. If that don’t do, he’ll fall in two. And if he run, he’ll go in one. And if he don’t want to fight, he should keep himself home that night.”

* To Buster Mathis Sr.: “I predict that this will be Buster’s Last Stand. I will do to Buster what the Indians did to Custer.”

* “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”

* “Joe Frazier is so ugly he should donate his face to the U.S. Bureau of Wildlife.”

* “I’ve seen George Foreman shadowboxing — and the shadow won.”

* “Musically speaking, if Larry Holmes don’t C sharp, he’ll B flat.”

* “Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”

* To frequent verbal adversary Howard Cosell: “Sometimes Howard makes me wish I was a dog and he was a fireplug.”

While Ali’s charming personality and photogenic physique presented an irresistible package in terms of marketing, he still had to back it up in the ring. Most of the time, he did so with unmatched panache and the physical equipment with which he worked was among the best ever assembled.

Ali in 1976. Photo: Getty Images

Ali in 1976. Photo: Getty Images

At his peak, Ali was a striking specimen with breathtaking athletic gifts. The 6-foot-3 Ali boasted a long reach (78 inches), lightning-fast hands, balletic footwork, outside-the-box defensive instincts, a cast-iron chin and cut-resistant skin. He also possessed immense pride and unyielding grit – assets that surely helped him through numerous difficulties in the ring – as well as a showman’s flair that enchanted audiences, filled arena seats and caused opponents to hesitate after appearing to hurt him. He also was an imaginative ring strategist; his “rope-a-dope” ploy against Foreman was his most inspired example but in his later years he still managed to win rounds despite barely throwing a punch. His style was so hypnotic that it was difficult to invest any attention to what his opponents were doing, and though they inflicted more than their fair share of damage Ali minimized their effects by retaliating instantly, internalizing whatever pain he felt or clowning around.

It’s quite amazing that Ali ended up being as great as he was, for he managed to excel despite having the barest assortment of quality punches. His pinpoint jab and precise right cross were top-notch but his flailing left hooks lacked leverage, his uppercuts were virtually non-existent, he totally eschewed infighting and he rarely punched to the body. On defense, his most reliable assets were his springy legs but when he wasn’t moving he usually tried to block punches with his elbows and gloves – usually with limited success – or he would slap on a momentum-stopping clinch. He pulled away from punches instead of ducking under them and once his reflexes slowed he ended up taking far more punishment than he should have. But at his zenith, Ali’s quickness, toughness and resourcefulness more than made up for all of his technical shortcomings and the final result was a deserved place near the summit of boxing’s Mount Olympus.

Ali’s inclusion on most top-10 pound-for-pound lists is primarily based on the fact that he achieved great success against arguably the deepest pool of talent the heavyweight division has yet seen. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s Ali faced just about every big man of consequence, and many times he met them more than once. They include Archie Moore (KO 4), Henry Cooper (KO 5, KO 6), Liston (KO 6, KO 1), Floyd Patterson (KO 12, KO 7), George Chuvalo (W 15, W 12), Cleveland Williams (KO 3), Terrell (W 15), Zora Folley (KO 7), Jerry Quarry (KO 3, KO 7), Oscar Bonavena (KO 15), Frazier (L 15, W 12, KO 14), Jimmy Ellis (KO 12), Mathis (W 12), Ken Norton (L 12, W 12, W 15), Joe Bugner (W 12, W 15), Ron Lyle (KO 11), Jimmy Young (W 15), Spinks (L 15, W 15), Holmes (KO by 10) and Berbick (L 10).

Many of these fights, as well as others that weren’t mentioned, created memories that will never leave the minds of those who witnessed them:

Photo: The Ring / Getty Images

Photo: The Ring / Getty Images

* Clay’s Madison Square Garden debut in March 1963 against Doug Jones saw the prospect struggle mightily before emerging victorious via disputed 10-round decision. THE RING declared Clay-Jones its Fight of the Year but the brash youngster faced heavy criticism because he failed to fulfill his prediction. Clay’s fertile mind conceived this attempt at spin control that would have made a veteran political operative proud: “First I called it in six. Then I called it in four. Four and six, that’s 10, right?”

* In his first trip overseas, Cooper’s vicious left hook drove Clay heavily to the floor at the end of round four. Once the unsteady Ali arose, walked across the ring and plopped on the stool, Dundee’s wiles forced the usual one-minute rest period to be extended a few seconds, buying his fighter valuable recovery time. Once the action resumed the American’s razor-sharp blows shredded the tender scar tissue above Cooper’s eyes so severely that the fight was stopped at the 2:15 mark of round five, sparing Clay the indignity of fulfilling his pre-fight boast that if the fight went over five rounds he wouldn’t return to the U.S. for 30 days.

* The chaos that reigned at the weigh-in for Clay-Liston I, which was so complete that the commission doctor and Liston himself were convinced that the challenger had lost his mind. But it was a perfectly conceived and flawlessly executed ruse, a psychological master stroke that set the stage for the seismic shocker to come.

* Later that night, Clay’s dazzling skills and uncommon composure defied the 7-to-1 odds against him and propelled him to a historic victory over Liston. The challenger also overcame a mid-fight crisis involving his vision and at age 22 he became one of the youngest men ever to win the heavyweight championship. Not only did he beat “The Bear,” he forced him to become the first man to surrender the heavyweight title on his stool since Jess Willard did so against Jack Dempsey 45 years earlier. The immediate aftermath saw Clay gallop across the ring, lean over the ropes and call out every writer who picked against him.

Ali-Liston2_cover*In the rematch 15 months later, the champion, now named Ali, flattened Liston with what many called a “phantom punch,” a light right to the temple that had Liston rolling on the canvas and countless observers crying “fix.” Neil Leifer’s picture of a snarling Ali standing over a prone Liston ranks as one of the most renowned sports photographs ever snapped.

* One of Ali’s most sensational displays of hand speed took place in the final moments of his August 1966 defense against Brian London. He capped his 12-punch explosion with a right to the ear that left the Englishman lying on his side.

* Most experts consider Ali’s three-round demolition of Cleveland Williams in November 1966 the definitive example of him at his positive peak. His blend of supersonic speed and crunching power produced four knockdowns against a man whose only previous knockout losses came against Liston (twice) and certified bomber Bob Satterfield.

*Ali’s return from exile in October 1970 not only was an athletic spectacle but also a social happening. The 28-year-old Ali showed little signs of rust as a deep cut over Jerry Quarry’s eye caused the fight to be stopped in round three while many ringsiders livened up the occasion by dressing as flamboyantly as possible.

Photo from THE RING archives

Photo from THE RING archives

*In just his third fight after emerging from exile, Ali waged war with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in perhaps the most publicized fight in boxing history. Though Ali suffered a 15th round knockdown and lost a wide unanimous decision, “The Fight” managed to do the impossible — exceed its immense press buildup.

file_180913_2_Norton-jabs-Ali-300_RING* Ali’s long quest to regain the championship was shockingly detoured March 31, 1973 in San Diego when unheralded Californian Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw en route to a split decision triumph. The moment of the break remains in dispute — Ali’s camp claimed it happened in round two while Norton’s trainer Eddie Futch said it occurred in the 11th — but Norton’s superiority this day was beyond argument. A far fitter Ali evened the score six months later, again by split decision.

file_177769_7_Ali-Foreman1_Ring350* Ten years after the miracle against Liston, Ali concocted a second by beating a larger, stronger, harder-hitting version of The Bear in Liston protege George Foreman — and once again he did so inside the distance. That fight taught the world “bomaye” — the Lingala word for “kill him,” — introduced “Rumble in the Jungle” into the sports lexicon and “rope-a-dope” into realms far beyond athletics.

* Ali’s exceptional powers of recuperation were on full display during the “Thrilla in Manila” rubber match against Frazier in October 1975 when, after “Smokin’ Joe’s” thunder drained Ali to the point where he felt he was nearing death, the champion produced an epic rally in rounds 11 through 14 that severely lumped Frazier’s face and forced the challenger’s chief second Eddie Futch to pull the plug moments before Ali himself did.

* Chuck Wepner’s gallant attempt to wrest the title from Ali in March 1975 inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and star in a movie based on the fight and the road Wepner took to get his inconceivable crack at the biggest prize in sports. The Apollo Creed character was a virtual clone of Ali, both in terms of ring style and personality. The final product — “Rocky” — won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and spawned a four-decade, seven-film series that generated more than $1 billion at the box office.

* The aging Ali’s loss to eight-fight novice Leon Spinks in February 1978 — one of sports history’s most startling upsets — set the stage for his final moment of ring immortality seven months later in the New Orleans Superdome when an immaculately conditioned Ali danced for 15 rounds and became the world’s first three-time heavyweight titleholder.

* More than a few observers believed that the 38-year-old master could wring out one last sensational surprise when he met Holmes in October 1980. But his 217 1/2-pound physique and touched-up hair only served to conceal a body ravaged by diuretics and thyroid medication. In a sickeningly sad spectacle, the primed “Easton Assassin” picked clean the carcass that was Ali for 10 dreadful rounds before Dundee mercifully stopped the slaughter between rounds 10 and 11.

Ali’s decision loss to Berbick in December 1981 dropped his final record to 56-5 (37) but the late stumbles, while unpleasant to watch, could never wipe away his place in ring lore.

That place was well-earned, both in terms of his talent and his achievements. His 19 defenses over two reigns ranks fourth all-time behind Larry Holmes (20), Wladimir Klitschko (23 over two reigns) and Joe Louis (25) and his combined 7 years 334 days as champion (he announced his retirement on July 27, 1979, nine months after regaining the title from Spinks) ranks only behind Klitschko and Louis in terms of time. He was named THE RING’s Fighter of the Year a record five times and the 15-year span between his first and final honors is the widest in history. The same could be said of his record six Fight of the Year designations as his first (W 10 Doug Jones in 1963) and last (L 15 Leon Spinks I in 1978) also bridged 15 years.

Ali, more than any other high-profile fighter in history, made boxing a global sport. Starting with his initial encounter against Cooper in London Ali fought 15 times outside of the continental United States. He fought in England (Cooper I. Cooper II, London), Canada (Chuvalo I and II), Germany (Karl Mildenberger, Dunn), Japan (Mac Foster), Ireland (Alvin “Blue” Lewis), Indonesia (Rudi Lubbers), Zaire (Foreman), Malaysia (Joe Bugner II), the Philippines (Frazier III), Puerto Rico (Jean-Pierre Coopman) and the Bahamas (Berbick). His appeal transcended cultural differences, political conflicts and language barriers and it was so magnetic that the U.S. government — the same entity that so vigorously pursued Ali years earlier — occasionally asked him to function as an envoy.

Between fights Ali fought countless exhibitions to raise money for charitable causes as well as spread the gospel of boxing. He would give anyone willing to lace up the gloves a chance to swap leather with him (NFL linebacker Lyle Alzado famously fought an eight-rounder with Ali at Mile High Stadium in 1979) and though he would play around most of the time everyone — including the opponents — walked away thoroughly entertained.

Ali’s popularity was so immense that it defied the laws of supply and demand. Although his life story has been told and retold numerous times in books and movies, the public continued to indulge. Also, despite signing countless autographs, the value of his signature remains high. For example, during a 2013 auction in Beverly Hills, Calif., an Ali-signed and inscribed LeRoy Niemen serigraph sold for $22,500, a Clay-signed program from the first Liston fight fetched $12,500 and autographed robe worn during training for the Berbick fight generated $31,250.

For all of the many positives in Ali’s life story, he would be the first to admit that neither he nor his life was perfect. His womanizing was well documented and in the early years following his conversion to Islam he cruelly dealt with opponents who refused to address him by his new name. Ali punished a clearly injured Patterson in their 1965 title fight before it was stopped in round 12 while WBA titlist Terrell suffered an even more brutal beating in their 1967 title unification encounter. At one point Ali repeatedly barked “what’s my name?” at Terrell and by fight’s end Ali had seemingly reached a new low in terms of public esteem. Finally, his treatment of Frazier was particularly shameful as his insults crossed lines he seldom broached with others. Although Ali issued several apologies through intermediaries as well as on camera, Frazier appeared to take his hatred to the grave because his antagonist never tried to make amends face to face.

Happily, the fury of his younger years gave way to grace as he aged. The inflammatory language he spewed during his Nation of Islam days assumed a more unifying tone and even after his body began to break down he continued to maintain a breakneck schedule of personal appearances. The most poignant moment of Ali’s post-boxing career took place during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Ali, his left arm shaking uncontrollably, lit the cauldron inside Centennial Olympic Stadium.

The awards he received throughout his life too numerous to mention. He was inducted into THE RING’s Hall of Fame in 1987 and three years later the International Boxing Hall of Fame enshrined him into their initial class. He was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1974 and in that same year he was named Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America. In 1997 he received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN and in 1999 he was named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century. In 2005 he received an unprecedented triple: The Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the U.S. as well as Germany’s Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold for his work with the United Nations and the civil rights movement. That same year, the non-profit Muhammad Ali Center opened in Louisville, which also renamed Walnut Street Muhammad Ali Boulevard. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was awarded number of honorary doctorate degrees.

When the BBC’s David Frost asked Ali how he would like to be remembered, he said the following:”I’d like for them to say he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness, he took one quarter of laughter, one pinch of concern, and then he mixed willingness with happiness. He added lots of faith and he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over the span of a lifetime and he served to each and every deserving person he met.”

For the vast majority of the people who were fortunate enough to meet him, Ali did just that.

What a life he lived and what a legacy he leaves behind. There never will be another like Muhammad Ali.


Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last six years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected].