Saturday, June 18, 2016

MUHAMMAD ALI: 1944-2016

If he didn’t rule boxing, Muhammad Ali at least dominated the conversation regarding the sport for twenty years.  When it came to conversation, other fighters had little else to say.  As great as his boxing skills were, we won’t remember him for this alone.  What made him probably the most famous boxer in history was the manner in which he inserted himself into popular culture through his boasting, his conversion to Islam, the changing of his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and his refusal of induction to the Vietnam draft.

He called himself the greatest, but in later years he admitted that he really didn’t mean it.  Ali actually picked this gimmick up from watching the professional wrestler, Gorgeous George.  The highlights of his career included his defeating Sonny Liston and later George Foreman – both holders of the heavyweight championship at the time of these fights and viewed as being almost invincible.  Ali actually defeated Liston twice, but the second fight ended so controversially that it’s difficult to know what credit Ali should receive.  But from winning the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics to revenging his defeat against Leon Spinks in 1978, there were many moments of brilliance during his fighting career.

Ali knocked out Archie Moore in four rounds.  He twice defeated former champion, Floyd Patterson.  Even late in his career he managed to outbox Ernie Shavers, one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history.  And no one will ever forget the three fights he had with Joe Frazier – the last in Manila and probably one of the greatest fights of the 20th Century.

Yet with his dazzling speed and his remarkable ability to slip punches thrown at his face, we forget that he had his awkward moments in the ring.  Henry Cooper knocked the then 21-year-old Cassius Clay down, and that fight may very well have ended in a knockout if not for the delay tactics of Ali’s corner man, Angelo Dundee.  Ali did have trouble with a number of lesser fighters like Oscar Bonavena, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young.  And while he fought both Ken Norton and Joe Frazier three times, it’s arguable that both of these opponents actually got the better of Ali overall in these fights.

It’s obvious now that Ali’s greatest mistake was staying around the boxing ring too long.  Like Jim Jeffries and Joe Louis, he had to see if he could make that one last comeback against a superior foe.  Larry Holmes, whose boxing skills were probably as great as Ali’s when Ali was in his prime, won by TKO over Ali in ten rounds, and it was a fight that many of us now wish had never happened.  This would probably include Holmes who was in tears after the fight for inflicting so much damage upon his hero.  (Holmes went on to make a similar mistake when he attempted a comeback fight against Mike Tyson.)  Ali still did not learn his lesson and tried to fight one more time in a losing effort to a boxer named Trevor Berbick.

We will never know how much more there would be to say about Ali’s boxing career if he had not lost three years of his boxing career due to his refusal to serve as a soldier.  The boxing world stripped Ali of his championship.  He then had to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously rule that he was certifiably a conscientious objector.  Only then could he again fight.  Whatever else we can say about Ali’s judgment, he at least did not flee the country and he risked jail time rather than serve in what he called an unjust war. Ali stated in his own defense: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Yet just like during his boxing career, we forget that Ali was not always the perfect public personality.  In fact, at times the monologues could be grating and extremely self-righteous.  Ali seemed most comfortable when he was the center of attention, and only did he during his later years seem to get past his own narcissism.

Ali said many unflattering things about his greatest rival, Joe Frazier.  Ali went so far as to call Frazier an “Uncle Tom” – a slight that is almost unforgivable considering where Frazier came from.  Ali directed this remark at a fighter who came up in much worse circumstances than Ali ever did.  Frazier, the son of a sharecropper, grew up in poverty.  Frazier gave Ali money during the time Ali could not fight.  When defeating Ali for the first time in his professional career, Frazier earned the victory and deserved respect.

Time tends to make us forget.  I recall seeing Ali on the television screen for almost as long as I have been alive.  As kids, we debated about whom would win: Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali against almost whoever else he was fighting.  Many times we hoped Ali would come out on the losing end, but that almost never happened.

Ali outlasted his opponents and the negative press.  Many sportswriters now rate Ali as the greatest heavyweight fighter in history.  Muhammad Ali, someone with little formal education, has received honors from Presidents and other world leaders.  Ali as a fighter and as a public figure endured the punishment inflicted upon him and perhaps this is where Ali’s greatness lies.  He never felt sorry for himself, and never criticized the very sport that likely contributed to his Parkinson’s disease.  Unlike the critics of boxing, he understood that he would never have had the fame and celebrity he did without his great boxing skills.  And so he took the almost 30,000 punches to the face while participating in the sport that he loved.

In the future, we will mostly read about other great fighters in the record books.  Ali’s name will show up in a large number of history books.

June 18, 2016

© Robert S. Miller 2016