BOXING – ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!’ Some may feel it’s taken us too long to get to the man many sim-ply know as ‘The Greatest’ but you all knew it was coming and it is true to say that Muhammad Ali is possibly the most legendary fighter of all time. This is not simply because of his sublime boxing ability but because he transcended the sport to become an iconic social figure, politically active and assuming a worldwide status only matched by Nelson Mandella. Quite simply you can visit any corner of the globe and everyone has heard of and loves Ali (except Joe Frazier who still hasn’t forgiven him).
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942 and he actually fought his way to Olympic Heavyweight gold under that name in the 1960 Rome Olympics and already his unique talent and style was visible for all too see. The drama and controversy that was to elevate his story to legendary status was already there too, as Clay, disillusioned by the fact that even as an Olympic winner he couldn’t get served in a ‘white only’ restaurant in his home town, was said to have thrown his medal into the river in disgust.
His talent for self promotion, his cockiness and his incredible way with words, making up ditties about his opponents and predicting which round they would fall (the number of successful predictions is staggering), coupled with his huge talent and blinding speed, made him an instant attraction, if only to see him get knocked out. Always astute, Ali played on this love/hate rela-tionship, milking the reactions, stoking them, to the point that his 1964 fight with ageing champion Sonny Liston was a must see event, with most of the audience and television viewing public wanting to see Liston thrash the upstart.
They were to be hugely disappointed and everything we have come to associate with Ali came out in that fight. The hard hitting Liston was humbled by Clay, and a new breed of boxing was ushered in with the new champion. Clay was mobile, elusive, accurate, lightning fast and carried a dig (history shows that a man not renowned for his knockout punch had in fact a high KO percentage). Modest he wasn’t and the immortal words ‘I told you I’m the greatest!’ were uttered, launching a rollercoaster ride that would see him become the first ever three time heavy-weight boxing champion.
Finding politics and religion, Clay finally became a Muslim, taking the name that would become iconic, Muhammad Ali and his subse-quent career was dogged by run-ins with an establishment that hated his brash attitude and loudly proclaimed radical black civil rights beliefs. The establishment finally got him over his statements on the Vietnam war and refusal to sign up for service and he was stripped of the title and banned from boxing. Many say that Ali was never quite the same when he was allowed to comeback, that he was banned at his very peak, but he still gave us some of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
Not least were his fights with great champions Joe Frazier and George Foreman, including the Thrilla in Manila’ and ‘the rumble in the jungle’.
The latter, in Zaire, where an ageing Ali took the title from the seemingly invincible Foreman, with his ‘rope a dope’ tactics is probably the most iconic fight in World boxing history. It also cemented the reputation of the man who had everything, for alongside his superb defence Ali had a huge heart, taking seven rounds of terrible punishment before stopping Foreman. He also fought fifteen rounds against Ken Norton with a broken jaw and his stoppage of Joe Frazier in fourteen rounds came after one of the most brutal wars in boxing history, with both men later hospitalised.
Like many before him, Ali boxed on well beyond his prime and when he finally retired he was already showing a sign of what many feared was brain damage. It was in fact the onset of Parkinson’s disease but although his fight career was over, the legend of Ali was moving into a second phase, his humble acceptance of his ill-ness finally endearing him to even his staunchest critics and there wasn’t a dry eye Worldwide when Ali lit the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Olympics. Now the great man is a revered figure, making many appearances for charity and at peace with his infirmity and although his words are slurred nowadays for many of us he will always be ‘the Louisville lip’ who could ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’