He was Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay, a member of the Nation of Islam and a man of peace, an Olympian and a conscientious objector, a three-time heavyweight champion — despite losing more than three years of his prime to suspension — then a cautionary tale for the ills of boxing, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Muhammad Ali — who shocked the world, becoming King of the World and the greatest of all time, who packed so much life into one lifetime — died Friday night. He was 74.
Ali the prizefighter is sometimes lost in the noise that is Ali the most recognizable man in the world, the political activist, the mouth. But let there be no doubt. Ali (56-5, 37 KOs) was a big, quick, relentless fighter who knocked out other men.
He was a heavy underdog in title fights against Sonny Liston (1964), George Foreman (1974) and Leon Spinks (1978) and won them all. Ali beat Liston by TKO in six rounds. He knocked out Foreman — a most prodigious puncher — in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, employing the “rope-a-dope” strategy. He avenged a loss to Spinks by unanimous decision in 15 rounds. He was 36 years old.
Ali beat his toughest rival Joe Frazier in two out of three fights. “The Fight of the Century” (1971) was the first — a matchup of two undefeated heavyweights with contrasting styles in possibly the biggest sporting event of all time. Ali lost by unanimous decision. The “Thrilla in Manila” (1975) in the Philippines was third. Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, refused to allow his fighter to answer the bell for the 15th round. Frazier, his eyes swollen shut, protested. “The closest thing to dying that I know,” Ali said.
There were other highlights. Ali viciously taunted and beat former champions Floyd Patterson (twice) and Ernie Terrell, because they called him “Cassius Clay” and not his new Muslim name. “Say my name,” he yelled with every punch. He lost to Ken Norton, but beat him in two rematches. He survived a ninth-round knockdown against Chuck Wepner, whose gutty effort was the inspiration for Rocky.
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. He was arrested. “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said. “No Viet Cong never called me n****r.”
The same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. He was denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. A few weeks later, he explained his position, flanked by Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was later called the “Ali Summit,” the most impressive collection of Black Power in sports history.
Ali was suspended during his athletic prime — three years, ages 25, 26 and 27 — and he was still the greatest. A member of the Nation of Islam, he spent those years speaking at colleges and universities, criticizing the war and advocating black pride and racial justice. He counted Malcolm X as an advisor and Martin Luther King as an ally.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision, granting Ali his conscientious objector status.
Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble.
Muhammad Ali invented trash talk.
It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.
He called himself the greatest even before he beat Sonny Liston.
I am the greatest. He’ll fall in eight to prove that I’m great. If he keeps talkin’ jive, I’m going to cut it to five.
He beat Floyd Patterson by TKO in 12 rounds.
I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.
He knocked out Brian London.
You have to give him credit — he put up a good fight for 1½ rounds.
He finished Oscar Bonavena by TKO in 15 rounds.
I hit Bonavena so hard it jarred his kinfolks all the way back in Argentina.
He fought Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.
He beat Foreman.
I told you all, I was the greatest of all time.
Ali upset Leon Spinks for his third heavyweight championship, but he lost three of his last four fights — the most telling to former sparring partner Larry Holmes, who mercifully beat on Ali for 10 rounds, often urging the referee to stop the fight. Ali failed to answer the bell for the only time in his career. “It was the saddest sports event I ever covered,” sportswriter John Schulian said.
Four years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which sometimes results from head trauma. He had sustained substantial punches from Frazier, Foreman, Spinks, Holmes and finally Trevor Berbick in his final fight. The price of being the greatest.
Ali was beloved in retirement. He met five sitting presidents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in 2005. Ali — a former militant Muslim and conscientious objector — lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 Games. The most recognizable man in the world.
Ali was not a deity. He was flawed. He could be cruel, jabbing at Frazier’s dark skin and calling Patterson an “Uncle Tom,” even though he was a civil rights activist. He was a philanderer to his first three wives. He had nine children, two the product of an affair with his second wife before they were married.
He was also a man of grace — from his “Ali shuffle” to the way he touched people, in person and through television. Ali gave black people dignity by being pretty, by being militant.
Even his name is a superlative. Muhammad means “worthy of praise,” Ali “most highest.” The greatest.