Sunday, June 5, 2016
Muhammad Ali died the evening before last. The news reverberated across the entire planet. Reaction to his death is on a par with that of a prominent head of state, iconic show business celebrity or maybe (dare I say it) even the pope himself. Much more than a former professional athlete whose achievements and renown superseded the sport he dominated, Muhammad Ali was the very Zeitgeist of his generation.
The influence of his personality on the boxing world and beyond is one of legendary proportions. He first foray into the consciousness of the sports world was back in 1960, the year he won the Olympic gold medal as a light-heavyweight boxer as a mere 18 year old. I don’t recall if he was as brash and glib back then; at nine years old, I was not even aware of his feat until after he went professional and began to dazzle the boxing public with his fast hands, beautiful footwork and brash predictions on when he would vanquish his next opponent.
I didn’t much care for him back in those early days. He talked too much, was narcissistic and devoid of the humility expected of all athletes of that time. He wasn’t ‘grateful’ for his boxing good fortune; rather, he exuded an air of entitlement, as if his meteoric rise to the top of his profession was no surprise at all. It was preordained.
He was otherworldly handsome, his entire physical being a template for the male of the species. His self-described mantra of ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ became the most-famous tag line in all of sports. And it wasn’t just talk. During his halcyon days, he rarely got hit and, even immediately following a fight, his handsome face was literally unmarred. His hand speed and footwork was unmatched among heavyweights. Boxing aficionados had never witnessed such pure boxing skill in the ‘big boy’ division, where slow-handed punching and frequent grappling was more the norm. When Cassius Clay — Ali’s name before he converted to Islam — knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, he truly ‘shocked the world.’ The upset defied all the prognostications of the boxing pundits.
Of course there was room for the boxing ‘skeptics’ to pry apart Ali’s accomplishments. Liston, a former prison inmate, drug user and sometime ‘gangster, ‘was past his prime.’ (He was believed to be in his late 30s but no one really knew his exact age.) Early opponents defeated by Ali comprised a list of mostly lackluster no-names. The highly touted Cleveland ‘Big Cat’ Williams was on the downside of his career and, truth be told, was recovering from a gunshot wound incurred merely weeks before his fight with Ali. Zora Foley, a much-respected heavyweight contender, was also past his prime. Brits Brian London and Henry Cooper, and American Jerry Quarry, while a cut above the fodder on which Ali had feasted as he rose in the heavyweight ranks, were decidedly physically ill-equipped to match his size and speed. (Additionally, Quarry and Cooper were notorious bleeders who Ali shredded with his lightning-quick jabs and straight rights.) ‘Ageless’ Archie Moore was 42 when Ali felled him in the predicted fourth round.
When a fighter is as good and dominant as Ali was, the question always arises: But can he take a punch? What will he do when knocked down? Actually, Ali was no stranger to being knocked down, even in the years before his first bout with Joe Frazier. Sonny Banks — speaking of a ‘no name’ fighter — and Henry Cooper both had done it. But neither fighter had really tested him over the course of their fights with Ali. The seminal moments that contributed to the legend of Ali came in his fights with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and, maybe most of all, George Foreman. These fights came after his 30-month ban from boxing — after he refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam war — and only the Foreman fight didn’t go the distance. (Ali knocked Foreman out in the seventh round, using is renown ‘rope a dope’ strategy.)
It was in these fights that Ali displayed the ‘gameness’ that draws the true respect of fight experts. How does a fighter respond when the going gets really tough? Does he quit? Does the ‘dog’ in him come out? It was during the latter portion of Ali’s career, when he could no longer ‘float like a butterfly’ and was an easier target to hit, that his greatness was further solidified.
Of course Ali’s out-of-the-ring legacy is what separates him from anyone else in the annuls of boxing. He sacrificed what were probably the three most prime years of his boxing life by refusing the draft. There is so much more to be said about Mohammad Ali’s impact on not only boxing history but the history of the entire world. And it would not be nearly enough.
R.I.P. Muhammad Ali.