A Tribute To Muhammad Ali
By Sina Latif
The 3rd June 2016 was the day the whole pugilistic community and the rest of the world could not have prepared for, mourning the death of a hero who was truly bigger than boxing.
As today marks the anniversary for the death of Muhammad Ali, the man who changed boxing forever, time is taken out to celebrate his legendary life and career.
Words can’t possibly do the career, accomplishments and impact of an individual of the calibre of Ali any justice, but I will try.
Ali was more than just a boxing champion. He left an imprint on the world which far surpassed his achievements within the ropes around a boxing ring.
After converting to Islam at age 22 and changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, he stated:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
A man not afraid to stand up for his beliefs and speak up, he was destined to leave a lasting legacy away from the ring.
It was in the ring, and his stunning victory in 1964 over the fearsome and seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston, which started the legend and the most incredible of journey’s for Ali.
How correct the boastful young 22-year-old was in screaming “I shook up the world! I must be the greatest!”
Neither Ali himself or the rest of the world knew the accuracy of this over-excited then-Clay’s statements.
The next morning, the most influential fighter ever, declared his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and became a politically polarising figure in the US, starting his impact on society and commencing the intriguing story of Muhammad Ali. It was no longer the story of Cassius Clay.
In 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the United States military on religious grounds whilst the US was at war in Vietnam. Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and had his boxing license withdrawn by every major state boxing commission in the US, essentially preventing Ali from fighting in the country and he also had his passport taken away.
He did not fight between March 1967 and October 1970 due to his refusal to join the army, being unable to fight for over three years of his athletic prime between the ages of 25 and 28, and so his golden years were missed, just as he was entering his sensational prime.
Ali’s last three fights before the ban were the best performances of his whole career. The years of his career when youth and experience would have coincided were missed. He was never the same after his return.
However, he would not lose his dignity. Ali lost the crucial, prime years of his boxing career because of the quality that made him such an incredible fighter, his resilience and determination to never back down from a fight.
Ali was a sportsman who used his standing to make a statement when it quite literally cost him everything. Can you name many, if any, that would do the same?
Ali viewed the war as a worldwide war on people of colour. His refusal to join the army became a symbol of resistance to discrimination and oppression.
After Ali was allowed to resume his career in 1970, the world, and boxing, was ready for him. He was no longer just a boxer, he was a celebrity and the whole world’s eyes were on him. He re-invigorated the importance of boxing as an international sport.
There has never been, and likely never will be, an athlete like the man they call “The Greatest.” He became one of the best ever in his profession, whilst becoming an international phenomenon who became an important political figure and a catalyst for social change. How many can you name who have done the same?
Ali was the greatest athlete to ever risk his body and health for his sport and more crucially, for his people. Ali went far beyond being a world-famous heavyweight champion. He was gifted with amazing physical abilities in order to have a platform for a much greater cause, to fight against racism and for equal rights.
His status as a celebrity drove him towards, rather than away from, saying things that challenged the social norms of the time. Ali spoke publicly on many occasions regarding the injustices black people were facing in America.
It must be addressed with importance that aside from being an important world figure, Ali was a truly great boxer.
Ali was the first athlete to transcend sports, but at his best, Ali was also a transcendent talent in the ring. In the mid-60’s, he was the greatest heavyweight to have ever lived.
This still remains true today. In the ring, Ali was special, meaning he was original. He had tremendous speed, reflexes, general athleticism, intricate footwork and a beautiful ‘flicker’ left jab, all wrapped in a single heavyweight in a way never previously seen.
Past his prime in the 70’s, when Ali was no longer a butterfly floating, it was his ring IQ, with his incredible will and heart, which led to his success.
After his comeback in 1970, Ali had lost some of his speed and lightning-quick reflexes that had made him unbeatable in the 60’s, but he was on a journey to establish a legacy deserving of someone who names himself “The Greatest.”
In the span of five years from 1970 to 1975, he fought 22 times. During this period, he had the most historic trilogy in the history of boxing against Joe Frazier. Two tough back-to-back battles against Ken Norton, his historic knockout of George Foreman, and victories over a host of top-level contenders including Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo, Floyd Patterson and Ron Lyle.
These were not just stay-busy fights, they were fights at the highest level possible. In Ali’s case, they were fights during the 1970’s golden era of heavyweight boxing, the greatest decade in history for the blue-ribbon division. This second phase of his career cemented his legacy and legend.
Ali fought in the deepest heavyweight division of all time, and emerged as its dominant champion. Few fighters in the history of boxing, across all weight divisions, have fought a trio as formidable as Liston, Frazier and Foreman. Three opponents who are all in or very near the all-time top 10 heavyweights consensus list.
He is a three-time heavyweight champion in an era of unbelievable talent. The likes of Joe Louis, Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis, some of the other greatest heavyweights of all time, did not fight so many dangerous in-prime opponents.
Many feared for Ali’s life prior to his showdown with Foreman. Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s loyal corner man and motivator, stated before the fight:
“Ali will find a way to win. Ali will prove he is the greatest.” Some of the most accurate words ever spoken.
After this historic victory over the seemingly-invincible Foreman, he had to be the greatest.
Against Liston and Foreman, in fights where there was legitimate fears for Ali’s life against two of the most intimidating, hardest-hitting heavyweights in history, he triumphed as a huge underdog.
The way Ali made others feel about themselves was incredibly spiritual. When Ali said:
“I am pretty” he was also saying “Black is beautiful.”
When Ali refused to go to war, he was not only making a stand against the US government, but to armies worldwide, that war is wrong.
When Ali lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 games in Atlanta, he became a symbol of hope and bravery for people suffering with Parkinson’s disease.
In the ring, Ali was poetry in motion, floating around the ring with such elegance never previously seen and inflicting damage with quick punches that were not seen coming. He did indeed ‘float like a butterfly’ sting like a bee’.
Ali’s speech may have deteriorated more and more over the years, but not even Parkinson’s could dim the light of Ali. His aura continued to grow forevermore.
Whether in the ring against Liston, Frazier and Foreman, or in his contempt of the Vietnam draft and his public battle against Parkinson’s, Ali was the bravest of men and an inspiration for so many.