Article by:Christopher Dawson
I’m sitting here in my room and my Facebook page is exploding with articles announcing to the world that the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, has died at the age of 74. A lot of people don’t necessarily enjoy calling him the Greatest because he dodged the Vietnam War because it went against his religious beliefs and Muhammad shook up the boxing world with his brash, colorful attitude that would lead to him dancing in the ring, performing the famous ‘Ali Shuffle’ and hitting his opponents with stinging insults that were followed by punches that stung even worse.
Born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky and entered the world of boxing at the age of 12 so he could beat up an older boy who stole his bicycle. Winning the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, it was not long before the brash young talker turned pro and quickly started making a name for himself.
Cassius would go on an impressive win streak and finally got his chance at the World Heavyweight championship, which was around the waist of the dangerous Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston. The bold young Clay was quick to announce, ‘Liston ain’t great! I’ll take him in eight!’ and that was the guarantee he made. On February 25, 1964, the 22-year-old Clay stood across the ring from Liston and used his foot and hand speed to hold the larger champion at bay, dancing around and peppering him with punches. The match was not without controversy as Liston has been accused of covering his gloves in some sort of ointment that was used to blind his younger, faster challenger.
The bending of the rules did not stop fate and Cassius overcame Liston, causing the champion to quit on his stool before the seventh round and a new World Champion was crowned. Clay danced around the ring in shock and awe of his accomplishment all while shouting two phrases that would stick with him throughout his life. Those phrases being, ‘I shook up the world!’ and ‘I must be the greatest!’
Soon after this win Cassius would convert to Sunni Islam and his name was changed to Muhammad Ali and that name would be his for the rest of his life.
Muhammad’s conversion sparked controversy and he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and would lose his world title in the process. He was denied a boxing license in every state and from 1967 to 1970, Muhammad Ali never boxed a single match until his return match against Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970.
This paved the way for the greatest series of matches in Ali’s career: his trilogy with Joe Frazier. The two men were polar opposites as Ali was loud, talkative and not afraid to be the center of attention and Frazier was reserved and calm.
On March 8, 1971 the two men, both undefeated and both with legitimate claim to the Heavyweight Championship fought in Madison Square Garden in a match titled ‘Fight of the Century’ and it was on this night that Ali received his first professional loss, but he would soon rebound from this defeat.
Frazier would go on to lose the championship to George Foreman and Ali was quick to make the challenge against the monstrous young champion. On October 30, 1974, Ali and Foreman met in Kinshasa, Zaire in the Rumble in the Jungle and Ali would stun the world by knocking out the stronger, more dangerous Foreman in the 8th round and returned to the United States with the World Heavyweight title for the second time.
Ali met Frazier twice more in the 1970s, one of those matches being the famous Thrilla in Manila, and Ali would also face powerful puncher Ken Norton in three grueling bouts that centered around the World Title.
Despite his ups and downs Muhammad Ali had a successful career and after tough losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, Ali retired in December 1981.
Many viewed Ali’s retirement as bittersweet since he had once been such a dominating figure and was now just a shell of his former self. It became sadder when the news of him suffering from Parkinson’s disease was made public in 1984. Either way of how you look at Muhammad Ali, a trash talking champion, a quiet man in his senior years, a ‘draft dodger’ who stood up for his personal beliefs, there is no denying his impact on United States pop culture. How many times have you play fought with a friend and made the bold declaration, ‘I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’?
I was not lucky enough to live and see Ali during his prime. I am lucky enough to be able to watch his fights on YouTube and on ESPN Classic. More than that I got to enjoy the stories of this boxing legend from my grandfather, a big boxing fan in his own right. Words cannot fully express how to describe a man that I never got to meet, but I feel that he is as familiar to me as the funny uncle who always tells jokes at Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how appropriate those jokes might be.
Muhammad Ali is, was, and always will be a very polarizing figure in the history of the United States, from now until the end of time. His ability to light up a room with his strong declarations and his fast talking style was hard to ignore. Many that were close to him also called him a kind, caring man that did anything and everything he could to help you. Ali was also known to have a soft spot for children and enjoyed having playful sparring sessions with children in his ring during breaks of his training.
I want to remember Ali not only for his matches in the ring, but for having the courage to stare authority in the face and not change who he is in a time of conflict. He refused to fight an unnecessary war at a time when civil conflict was on fire in his home country and Ali would not allow himself to be pushed around by ‘The Man’ as he would say. Muhammad stayed true to himself and his fans, but most importantly he stayed true to the American people. He never changed who he was. He would not go and killed the Vietnamese because he had not fight with them and did not agree with or support the Vietnam War. He had a quote about this and it was, ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be.’ Muhammad would not be a killer for a government that did not respect him or his people.
Muhammad Ali was a man that captivated his country and whether he was loved or hated, he fought for what he believed was right and never backed down from a fight or a challenge. I view Muhammad as the greatest heavyweight of all time and one of the greatest boxers to ever get in the ring. He lived a compelling life and now that life has ended.
I wish I could have met Muhammad at least once. I wish I could have looked into his eyes to see that fire still burning and to shake hands with a man so fast and powerful that it probably would have made weak in the knees to do so. I want to end this little article with my favorite Muhammad Ali quote, a quote that I try to live by, ‘He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.’ I believe that and I agree with it.
Rest in Peace, Muhammad Ali, and thank you for your showmanship, your gratitude, your courage and never ending drive to be yourself at all times, no matter what.
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