‘I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.’
In 1960, a young Cassius Clay would win boxing’s light heavyweight crown in the Rome Olympics. The world was about to witness the excitement, the candor, the wit, the wisdom, the humility, the humanity and the nobility of this flashy boxer from Louisville, Kentucky.
‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’
I remember those words dearly. This was the mid-60s. I was barely able to read and write then, but my dad taught me this great sounding line that easily caught my fancy. Us little tykes in the neighborhood would then take turns with 2 pairs of smelly, oversized, worn-out boxing gloves and make like this new boxing sensation with the pretty face and the pretty rhyme. Cassius Clay, they said his name was.
‘He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me.’
Long before trash talking became in vogue, Ali was dishing it out for all the world to take notice. Nobody thought Ali would beat big, bad Sonny Liston. Liston had demolished former champ, Floyd Patterson not just once, but twice – on both occasions via fearsome, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, totally merciless 1st round knockouts. But Ali was not intimidated. He knew how to play mind games, unnerving the menacing Liston even before they entered the ring in 1964.
‘I’m king of the world!!! I’m pretty. I’m a bad man. I shook up the world!!!’
Ali – a 7-1 underdog – surprised everyone by punishing Liston, and forcing him to wave the white flag on the 6th round. And to prove that this was no fluke, the young and cocky Ali would follow this up with a more convincing 1st round KO on their rematch a year later!
‘I got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.’
And then he was gone. For a while. Didn’t want to fight in Vietnam, he said. Many branded him a coward, a bad example for the youth. But then, slowly, ever so grudgingly, many more started to rally in his defense. He was against the war. And so were many others, whose voices he was now championing. And who were now emboldened by his mere presence and support.
‘Cassius Clay is the name white people gave to my slave master. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.’
Upon embracing Islam, he chose the name Muhammad Ali. To signify to one and all that he was no longer a slave, that he was a free man. Outside the ring, Ali continued to make headlines.
‘He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.‘
From the squared arena, he would move on to fight bigger battles. Taking on life’s bigger issues. Against all sorts of discrimination, against poverty, against depravity. Against injustice and intolerance.
‘To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.’
After sacrificing 4 prime years of what would have been a dominating period in boxing’s premiere heavyweight division, he was back. With his speed, with his skills, with his shuffle, with his swagger. And once again, he would be called. To fight the formidable, equally-talented, also undefeated ‘Smokin Joe’ Frazier. In what would be named ‘The Fight of the Century’, Ali would lose his first fight by unanimous decision in 1971.
‘I hated every minute of training. But I said: Don’t quit. Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’
But he persevered. He didn’t allow his first loss ever to dampen his spirits. He remained a top heavyweight contender, while at the same time weighing in on life’s other challenges.
‘That man’s so ugly, he should donate his whole face to the US Bureau of Wildlife.’
Three years after his loss to Frazier, he would redeem himself in their rematch with a unanimous decision win. His musings on ‘Smokin Joe’ created a love-hate relationship that Joe carried to his grave. In his latter years, Ali would apologize and admit his ramblings were meant to generate interest for their bouts.
‘If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!’
Following his win over his arch-rival, Joe Frazier, Ali would be pitted against the new heavyweight champion, unbeaten George Foreman. Heavy -hitting ‘Big George’ had dethroned Joe Frazier via a sensational 2nd round knockout in 1972. His impressive 40 wins, no loss record with a whopping 37 knockouts made him the huge favorite over the 32-year old Ali. But Ali would remain the sentimental favorite. He would have other plans.
‘Last week, I murdered a rock, I injured a stone, hospitalized a brick, I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.’
In this much-awaited ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, Ali’s trash-talk would go full throttle. The fight may have featured Big George’s power against Ali’s speed and technical skills. But Ali’s mind games were already at work way before game-time.
‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.’
Despite overwhelming odds, Ali would weather Big George’s bullying ways and tame him via a sensational 8th round knockout. Ali’s tactical genius was on full display as he introduced the ‘rope-a-dope’ to tire out the intimidating Foreman, before finishing him off with a 5-punch combination. Capturing the world crown for the second time in a major, major upset in October 1974.
‘Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are.’
In 1975, he gave ‘Smokin Joe’ a 3rd and final fight in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’. In what he would call ‘the closest thing to dying that I know’, he would win the fight via a 14th round TKO. Ali continued to fight even as his speed and his skills would start to diminish.
‘The man who views the world at 50 the same as how he viewed it at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.’
Years after retiring, in 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. From the numerous head shots he absorbed in his 2 decades of boxing. Despite being hampered by the disease, Ali he would continue to be in the limelight. Standing up for what he believed in. Supporting noble causes. Still fighting. Still rambling. Always projecting a positive presence.
‘Live everyday as if it were your last, because someday you’re going to be right.’
The great Muhammad Ali finally left us. He lived his life to the fullest. He will always be remembered. With fondness and love. Thank you for the memories, champ!
Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
You’ll never be forgotten
My Muhammad Ali
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