Muhammad Ali, Olympic Boxing Gold Medal winner, three time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion and world icon passed away yesterday. Ali had suffered for 32 years with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.
Before I went to bed Friday night the reports were coming in that Ali was in the hospital on life support. Things didn’t sound good, but Muhammad Ali had overcome great odds before.
I can’t say I was shocked (that would come later) when my wife woke me at about 2am to say that Ali had died. We had fallen asleep with the bedroom tv on and she woke up to the news.
The next morning reports and rememberances of Muhammad Ali were all over the tv and internet. And rightly so. Muhammad Ali was the self-proclaimed “Greatest” who later was ready to give up the braggadocio title, but could not because the world had accepted it as reality. Muhammad Ali transcended boxing. Especially to those of us old enough to remember his start as Cassius Clay.
In 1960, at the young age of 18, Cassius Clay won the Gold Medal in Olympic boxing. He was an American Hero and ready to become a professional boxer. Yet when Clay returned to the states, he was refused service at a diner because he was black. In 1963, Clay became a American Muslim but kept it a secret.
In 1964, the undefeated Clay (19 – 0) got a title shot against the Heavyweight Champ, Sonny Liston. Liston was heavily favored because of his knockout power, his intimidating presence and reputation as a thug. Liston would be a man fighting a boy. Clay taunted Liston prior to the fight and backed up the taunts with a 6th round TKO.
After winning the title, Clay announced his conversion to the Muslim faith and his name change to Muhammad Ali. Although this didn’t sit well with some of his fans, Ali stayed true to his beliefs.
Ali gave Liston a rematch and knocked him out in the first round. Ali then went on to win 8 more title matches before being stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing to comply with the draft due to religious reasons. Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Although released on appeal, Ali was not allowed to fight or leave the country, so he took to the lecture circuit to speak out for civil rights. In 1971, Ali won his appeal and could once again box. Still, he had lost 4 years of his prime.
Ali’s comeback fight was against Jerry Quarry. I remember watching the fight on tv with my dad. Ali won in by TKO in 3 rounds. Ali had another fight which he won before challenging Joe Frazier for the title.
The fight against Frazier was the first of their 3 meetings. It went 15 rounds in what some called the “Fight of the Century” and ended with a unanimous decision for Joe Frazier. It was Ali’s first loss.
Between 1971 and 1973, Ali reeled off 10 more wins. Then he fought Ken Norton and lost on a split decision. Ali went through most of the fight with a broken jaw. Seven months later Norton and Ali fought again, but this time Ali won the split decision.
In 1974, Ali and Frazier II took place. I remember listening to the radio for round-by-round updates to learn that Ali won on a split decision. Ali and Frazier were now 1 and 1. Ali’s win put him in line for the title shot against George Foreman.
Foreman was 40 – 0 with most of his wins by KO or TKO. Ali was the underdog, but as we all know won by 8th round KO. Ali defended his title 3 more times and then was ready for the rematch with Frazier.
The fight went 12 brutal rounds before Ali won by a unanimous decision. Ali jumped into another brutal battle when 9 months later he took on George Foreman in a bout Ali won by KO in the 8th.
Ali’s next fight (which he won by TKO in the 15th), against Chuck Wepner, inspired Sylvester Stallone to create Rocky. Ali racked up two more wins and then it was time for the rubber match with Frazier.
Dubbed, by Ali, “The Thrilla in Manila,” the fight went 14 brutal rounds before Ali won by TKO. Ali would fight six more times including wins over Ken Norton and Ernie Shavers before Ali signed to fight Olympic Gold Medalist Leon Spinks.
The fight was televised and I remember watching it. Ali didn’t look to be in the best of shape perhaps taking Spinks too lightly. As the fight went the 15 rounds it became obvious that it would be a close decision… and it was. Spinks won via split decision and became the new Heavyweight Champion.
The Spinks – Ali rematch was set up 7 months later and Ali came back in much better shape winning a unanimous decision. Ali retired after that fight only to come back two years later to lose by TKO in the 10th to Champion, Larry Holmes. The following year Ali lost a 10 round decision to Trevor Berbick and then retired for good.
Most fighters when they finally retire slowly drift away from the public’s consciousness. Not so with Muhammad Ali who over the years had increased his popularity through displays of his wit and charm with appearances on many entertainment programs. So people were shocked to learn just a year after Ali had retired from boxing that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
That didn’t stop Ali from traveling the world to promote humanitarian causes. In 1985 Ali went to Lebanon and in 1990 to Iraq to broker the release of American hostages. When the Olympics were in Atlanta in 1996, Ali was chosen to light the Olympic flame. In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom which is the highest award a civilian can achieve.
Muhammad Ali was a boxer who transcended boxing. Ali’s popularity wasn’t limited to the United States or people that shared his same faith. Ali was a man of the world, a true people’s champion. And it will be a long time before we ever see another like him.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Muhammad Ali’s family, friends and fans.