HERO BOXER ALI
HE IS MY GREATEST
By Ras Abimelech
Born on 17 January 1942, the younger of two brothers (Rudolph Valentino Clay was later to box as Rahman Ali) he was named after the 19th Century slave abolitionist and politician, and brought up as a Baptist. As a 12-year-old, Clay had taken up boxing on the advice of a white Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, after saying he wanted to “whup” the thief who had stolen his bicycle.
A brash 18-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr wins the Olympic light-heavyweight title, defeating Polish opponent Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final and showing early signs of the uniquely flamboyant, fast-fisted style that was to become his hallmark. He was so proud of his gold medal, he didn’t take it off for two days.
He went on to win two national Golden Gloves titles, recording 100 wins and five losses. In an early biography he claimed he threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River in disgust after being refused service at a “whites only” restaurant. He later admitted he actually lost it and was given a replacement during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he lit the flame in one of the most moving moments in the history of the Games.
Ali is a phenomenon with his art that is his word sound as the undisputed heavyweigt champion he traveled the world.
Ali had reigned in an age when boxing crowns were not tawdry bits of bling. He turned it into an art form, making a ballet out of brutality.
He later said ‘Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up’
Ali was not a saint, A serial womaniser nature!, he had a darker side which surfaced after he became champion and a member of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam movement.
perhaps understandably considering the past injustices to black people by white America. Having been barred from a local fast-food restaurant because of his colour, when he returned from Rome after winning the Olympic light-heavyweight title in 1960 he placed his gold medal on the counter and ordered a hamburger. “We still don’t serve niggers,” he was told. “That’s OK,” the then Cassius Clay is said to have cheekily replied. “I don’t eat ’em.”
But there is no longer a trace of malice in him. Throughout his illness he has never had an ounce of self-pity, and he is as generous with his time as he is with his money. “Whenever you see him, you just want to hug him,” says one of his seven daughters, Hana.
With a new anti-war mood sweeping the United States, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction he never did go to jail and Ali was free at last to exercise his civil rights, and some uncivil lefts. He had more wins, against Oscar Bonavena, before Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who had become champion and helped him with cash handouts in the lean years, became the first man to beat him, in Madison Square Garden’s “Fight of the Century” in 1971.
There have been many moments to shed a tear, but on the night of 2 October 1980 where an 18,000 crowd assembled for what was to prove Ali’s penultimate fight.
One of those fight was when the icon disintegrated before our eyes as Ali, a 38-year-old robotic shell of the sublime athlete of his heyday, suffered a savage beating that even his opponent, Larry Holmes, was reluctant to administer, repeatedly beckoning to a dispassionate referee to end the idol’s agonising humiliation. Even the media were pleading “stop it, stop it” amid counter-cries from some in the Ali entourage fearful of losing their meal ticket.
The Rumble in the Jungle
Ali’s eighth-round knockout of another ogre, fellow Olympic champion George Foreman, in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, remains one of the most magical episodes in sport. “Oh my God, he’s won the world title back at 32,” declared the BBC commentator Harry Carpenter as Ali’s right hand sent Foreman corkscrewing to the floor, with an 80,000 crowd chanting “Ali bombaye” (Ali kill him).
All through the fight Ali employed his “rope-a-dope”, leaning back into the ropes that were purposely slackened by Dundee to absorb Foreman’s thunderous body blows. “That your best shot, George?” he challenged a befuddled Foreman, who Dundee correctly predicted would “blow up like an old bull elephant”. As he was counted out at around 3.30am the heavens opened and the ringside became a raging torrent.
The Thrilla in Manila
It was, said Ali, “the closest thing to dyin'” after the epic they called “The Thrilla in Manila”. Ali, on the point of exhaustion, collapsed with relief when, in the last of their celebrated trilogy, Joe Frazier, bloodied, bruised and half-blind, was forcibly retired on his stool by compassionate trainer Eddie Futch with just three minutes left of an all-time classic in which boxing’s most bitter rivals had punched much of the hate out of each other.
Ali hasn’t floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee for over 30 years but he is still in there fighting, perversely outliving the majority of his 50 opponents, among them Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper, whose left hook back in 1963 came within a split second, or a split glove, of changing the course of boxing history.
Banned, stripped of his title and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in early 1967 for refusing the Vietnam draft (“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong they never called me nigger”). Ali’s licence was finally restored after a three-and-a-half-year exile in which he lectured in mosques and colleges.
Gift of the jab: Memorable quotes
‘Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife’
‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see’
‘It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila’
‘I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him [Frazier] names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologise for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight’
‘Nobody has to tell me that this is a serious business. I’m not fighting one man. I’m fighting a lot of men, showing a lot of ’em, here is one man they couldn’t defeat. My mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people’
Muhammad Ali dancing years have ebbed away and the famous shuffle is no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble, he remains the most recognisable human being on earth, and among the best-loved.
When he told the world he was The Greatest, we believed him, because he surely was. Perhaps not the greatest boxer Ali himself always acknowledged that Sugar Ray Robinson held that title but when the argument turns to who is the greatest sports figure in history, it is no contest.
Sport’s biggest irony is that the greatest orator it has known is now reduced to a mumble, the face that launched a thousand quips partially paralysed, through Parkinson’s Syndrome, the nerve-numbing condition from which his housepainter father died, but which in Ali’s case was surely done by 10 fights too many.