A Boxing Memory: Muhammad Ali
No fighter is bigger than the sport itself. Many have often claimed to be, often in their own delusion of self-importance. Only one fighter has ever come close to being bigger than boxing, at one time he might even have saved it.
Muhammad Ali gave us so many memories with a few near miracles thrown in for good measure. Ali, in the great mythical but timeless debate once argued in pubs and bars but now more frequently in internet forums, is widely considered the greatest heavyweight in history. With much justification.
Ali had his faults, and many of them, a flawed genius. But inside the ring, a genius he most certainly was. In the early days, Ali was viewed as nothing but a loudmouth curiosity, despite being an Olympic gold medalist. Before his first fight with Sonny Liston, one writer said about the then Cassius Clay:
“America’s No 1 menace in the blood-bath trade.”
Ali was once hated by many in America, for different reasons in a far less tolerant time, but time and opinions changed. At least partially. But when the hate subsided, Ali finally got more. Appreciation and love eventually came.
Ali defied the odds and many opinions when he slowly but effectively dismantled the fearsome and menacing Liston in 1964. Time has dimmed what an incredible upset that was. Ali was 22 and unbeaten in 1963 when he made the trip over to England for a supposed routine win, but he was dropped heavily by Henry Cooper in the fight before Liston. Trust me, the bell saved him on that iconic night in London. The fight with Liston didn’t look too much too soon. It looked too much.
An 8-1 betting underdog Ali, many forget, that there were genuine fears for his health against Liston. In Zaire, 10 years later, Ali would face similar seemingly insurmountable odds.
There are many stories of legend, nights which belong in boxing folklore. Even if you were not around at the peak, the written word and video footage make you feel as though you belong in a time that will never be forgotten.
The way his career and prime slowly but painfully eroded away should never ever lessen what he once was. The climax to his legendary career was long and regrettable. And make no mistake, Ali paid a heavy price for fighting beyond the point of no return.
Ali had a resume few will ever match. But as good as it was, as good as he was, we didn’t get to see Ali at his absolute peak. When Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War on religious grounds, the 3+ years we lost could have added plenty to his legacy.
“We missed his peak, we were robbed of his best years,” Angelo Dundee said many times. Dundee was right.
When he returned the legs had gone in comparison to what they once were. Ali then realised he could absorb sustained punishment to keep on winning. That between the ropes resilience would come at the ultimate price.
Ali had many great nights, some like his performance of near perfection against Zora Folley in 1967 gets lost in time. The Folley fight gets forgotten when we reminiscence. It shouldn’t. It was perhaps Ali at his finest.
That little old rumble in Zaire against George Foreman in 1974 where Ali defied logic and time was the night that cemented his legacy. A fight in Manila the following year should have been the end. The trilogy fight with Joe Frazier was a near-death experience, probably the most savage fight you will ever see and it would have been the perfect send-off for both. Sadly both fighters ignored the obvious warnings that their bodies had given their all.
Ali fought on, fighting in the red, borrowing from the past, but borrowing considerably more on his future. There were dubious favourable decisions in the later years that kept his career lingering on. The likes of Ken Norton and Jimmy Young all had strong claims that they were denied victories during the second Ali championship reign.
But the longer Ali kept gambling in many different ways, the damage to his health was mounting up. The skills in an irreversible slide, his health equally so. We didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to see what was happening.
Even that farcical embarrassment of a ‘fight’ with the professional Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki came at a cost. Inoki repeatedly kicked Ali’s legs all night long, the heavyweight champion developed two blood clots in his leg and nearly had his leg amputated as a result. It was an exhibition of plenty.
When the novice heavyweight Leon Spinks beat Ali in 1978 it finally looked over for the great man. But Ali had one final miracle left in his old and abused body. When he danced his way to revenge over Spinks later the same year, Ali finally called time on his career. But it wouldn’t last.
There were many reasons why Ali returned, not all of them his. The whispers in his ear grew louder, the cash cow needed to be milked just a little more. Ali still had value in his name. Everything else had long since gone.
The final two fights in 1980 and 1981 were sad horrible affairs. Larry Holmes, the old sparring partner and the now reigning WBC world heavyweight champion, beat Ali so bad people cried at ringside. It is still one of the most sickening nights in boxing history.
When Trevor Berbick beat Ali in the Bahamas, we finally had closure. But it came far too late in the day. The damage was already done. Even then some wanted to see more. Boxing can be a cruel and shameful business.
We know how the story ended and the struggles Ali had with his health until he sadly passed away in 2016. The final unnecessary years of fighting contributed greatly to the suffering. It could and should have been so different. Ali wasn’t blameless, he always wanted to push the button one more time. But he should have been stopped.
Ali was one of a kind, a special fighter the likes of which we are highly unlikely to see ever again. He was one of the most dominant, important and iconic figures in history.
“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.” President Obama