I was five years old when Ali beat Liston for the title. Here was this brash young kid bragging that he’d beat this monster of a man. Then he did it. And then he did it again in a rematch. Ali was “the man.” He talked a lot of smack, but he backed it up. Plus it was obvious that he was having fun, so much of what he said seemed to be playful kidding around [until you stepped into the ring with him]. Ali was as cool as The Beatles or Elvis. In fact, Ali was the greatest.
I can remember the controversy that sprung up when Muhammad refused to enter the draft. Although I was against the war in Viet Nam, I felt that it was wrong to not support your country. Still, I admired Ali for standing by his convictions no matter the cost. And cost him it did. He was stripped of the title and not allowed to fight during three of what could have been his most productive years.
When Ali was once again allowed to fight, I can remember staying up late to watch it with my dad. Ali was fighting a tough guy named Jerry Quarry. Ali won by TKO in the 3rd. I had just turned 12 and Ali was still the greatest.
Less than a year later Ali fought Joe Frazier in what was to be the first of three legendary fights. Although Muhammad lost the fight, the battle become the thing of legends. Ali continued to fight and win.
Two years later, Ali fought and lost a split decision to Ken Norton. I was surprised about the loss, but even more so when I learned that Ali fought most [if not all] of the fight with a broken jaw. Six months later Ali beat Norton in the rematch. I was 14 and Ali was still the greatest.
Ali fought again the following month for an easy win. and then two months after that beat Joe Frazier in their first rematch. Their battle was another classic that went the entire 15 rounds, but this time Ali came out on top. Nine months later Ali entered the ring to fight Big George Foreman. Foreman was undefeated and had knocked out Frasier early. Heck, Foreman knocked almost everyone out early. Ali wasn’t given much of a chance. Of course we all know that Ali KO’d George in the 15th. I stayed up late listening to the results over the radio. I had just turned 16 and Ali was still the greatest.
In March of 75, Ali fought Chuck Wepner. No one gave Wepner ANY chance of winning. Still “The Bayonne Bleeder” went the distance in a losing effort and actually knocked Ali off of his feet at one point in the fight [although many say that it was more of a trip]. This fight, of course, is what inspired Sylvester Stallone to come up with “Rocky.” Ali followed with wins against Ron Lyle [talk about a huge, tough, ex-con] and Joe Bugner. In October of 75, Ali and Frazier met for the 3rd and final time. Ali won. I was 16 and Ali was still the greatest.
Ali fought regularly defending his title, winning against name fighters like Jimmy Young, Ken Norton [again] and Ernie Shavers. The Shavers fight was especially exciting. It was September 29, 1977. I was 18 years old and watched the fight while in Orlando for one of my first comic book conventions. After the fight, I got together with a bunch of my friends and played some poker. Of course we talked about how Ali was still the greatest!
Ali’s next fight was against a kid who had done well in the 76 Olympics. His name was Leon Spinks. The fight was televised on regular tv and I can remember watching it and seeing that the kid was winning. Spinks won with an upset decision. Ali later said that the loss to Spinks hurt more than any other of his career. Seven months later, at the age of 36, Ali beat Leon Spinks. I was 19 years old and Ali was still the greatest.
Muhammad didn’t fight again for over two years. Larry Holmes, one of Ali’s former sparring partners was champ, and Ali came back for “one last chance” to see him “dance.” I was at the pay-per-view the night that Holmes beat Ali. It wasn’t pretty. Still Muhammad gave it his all. As he did again when he came back 14 months later to fight a losing battle against Trevor Berbick. I was 23 years old and although Muhammad had lost, I felt he was still the greatest.
As the years have passed, Muhammad Ali’s legend has grown. He earned the nickname, “The People’s Champ” thanks to his popularity with folks of all races, soci-economic backgrounds and religions. Ali’s fans weren’t limited by borders. During his career he fought in 12 different countries; and was considered a true citizen of the world. Ali is probably more popular now than he was when he was in his fighting prime.
Today Muhammad Ali is 65 and he’s still the greatest.