A landmark has been reached, one deserving of our attention.
On January 17, against all the odds, Muhammad Ali celebrated his 70th birthday. Arguably the greatest sportsman of all-time, certainly one of the most influential, when he first arrived on the scene there had never been anything like him before in boxing or any other sport.
He first came to prominence as Cassius Clay when he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Back in his home town of Louisville he claimed he threw his medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a ‘whites only’ restaurant.
Turning professional he bemused the sporting press of the time with his brash and confident boasts, proclaiming loudly that he was the greatest fighter the world had ever seen. He was dismissed as arrogant and disrespectful, but what the press failed to notice was his sly sense of humour and intelligence.
He also had a different style of boxing that involved him being quick and nimble on his feet – the soon-to-be famous ‘Ali Shuffle’. Before his first title fight against Sonny Liston in 1964 he routinely dismissed Liston as an “big, ugly bear” and told in a poem how he would defeat the champion, finishing off with the lines:
“Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight,
That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.
Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,
That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.”
And they did, Clay stopped Liston at the end of the sixth round. He leant over the ropes and yelled “I shook up the world!” at the group of reporters who had written off the “Louisville Lip” before the bout. He was only 22. In a rematch the following year he knocked Liston out in round one.
By this time Clay had changed his name. He had joined the controversial Nation Of Islam, dismissed Cassius Clay as his “slave name”, and became Muhammad Ali.
In 1967 Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying: “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”. He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years.
Thriller in Manila
When he returned in 1970 he was noticably carrying more weight and had lost some of his speed and suffered his first ever professional defeat to “Smokin’” Joe Frazier in 1971. But it was in the 1970s that he took part in two matches that have long gained legendary status.
In 1974 he fought world title holder George Foreman in ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ - captured in the remarkable documentary film ‘When We Were Kings.
Now, Foreman wasn’t the cuddly uncle in an apron selling grills that you see today. He was one of the most ferocious boxers that there had been. 6ft 4in tall, in a fight against Frazier Foreman had delivered a punch that literally lifted his opponent off of his feet. Nobody gave Ali much of a chance. They should have known better. Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round, winning his title back at the age of 32.
He then faced Joe Frazier for the third an final time in the ‘Thriller in Manilla’. They fought in nearly 100°F for 14 rounds before Frazier’s corner stopped him coming out for the 15th.
Ali would lose and win back the title again, fighting right up until 1981, but many think he should have retired after the final Frazier fight.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, repeated blows to the head perhaps being the cause. But let’s not dwell on that – no matter his condition, let’s celebrate that he’s with us at all.
Ali won the world heavyweight title three times. He won 56 out of 61 fights, 37 of them by a knock out. ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. We shall never see anyone have such an impact in sport again. Happy birthday, champ.