Arguably the greatest sportsman of all times, boxing legend Muhammad Ali is no more. Ali’s fame transcended sport during a remarkable heavyweight boxing career that spanned three decades. He had been hospitalized in the Phoenix, Arizona, area with a respiratory ailment this week.
Born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Ali began training for a boxing career at the age of 12 and at 22 won the world heavyweight championship in a upset win over Sonny Liston. He converted to Islam in 1964.
While he played a violent sport in the ring, Ali was a pacifist in real life. He refused to be conscripted in the Army in 1967 owing to his religious beliefs and to mark his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam war. He was arrested, found guilty on draft evasion charges, stripped of his boxing title and banned from boxing. However, he emerged victorious in his appeal to the US Supreme Court in 1971, which overturned his conviction.
Ali remains the only heavyweight champion to have won the title thrice in a row in 1964, 1974 and 1978. Ali won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins with five knock outs.
He was named as the “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by BBC magazine.
His greatest fights
For a heavyweight Ali had a unique style – dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a bee – that took boxing as a sport to the pinnacle of popularity. Ali first tasted defeat in his 1971 title fight with Joe Frazier. He had been out of boxing for over five years and this showed in the fight. However, he took his revenge three years later when he floored Frazier convincingly.
His greatest fight, perhaps, was with George Foreman in Zaire in a series labelled as Rumble in the Jungle.
Remarkably, Ali was the underdog in this fight and was given little chance against Foreman who was at the peak of his career as a professional. Typical of his unique but effective boxing style – float like a butterfly and sting like a bee – Ali did not attack much in the first eight rounds, just taking the punches and tiring him out. At the end of the eighth round Ali pulled a tactic, which he later termed as ‘rope a dope’. He simply sprang out of his defensive shell, and floored Foreman with a crisp combination to the face. With this fight Ali became only the second man in history to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.
In his own words, Ali perhaps got closest to death in the ring a year later in his third fight against Joe Frazier in what was dubbed as Thrilla in Manila. He emerged victorious when Frazier’s corner halted the fight after 14 rounds.
The Twilight Years
Ali lost his title in February 1978 to Leon Spinks in Las Vegas. Spinks was the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion and 12 years younger to Ali. However, Ali retook the title at the age of 36 with a unanimous decision in the return fight in New Orleans.
Ali was not champion for long however. He lost the title to his former sparring partner Larry Holmes in 1980. At the age of 40, Ali had his last fight against Canadian Trevor Berbick in 1981, which he lost.
His long and hard fought boxing career had begun to tell on his health and he finally took retirement from the sport at the age 40. Ali’s health became a point of debate in the public domain with people arguing for and against the effects of Boxing as a sport on individual well-being. That Ali had Parkinson’s syndrome became public knowledge when he lit the Olympic torch with great courage and dignity in 1996.
In 2005 Ali was conferred the Presidential Citizen Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – two of America’s top civilian honours. In his later years, Ali continued to take up causes related to human rights and the issues affecting the underprivileged. Wherever he went, he received a hero’s welcome, especially in the underdeveloped countries.
Ali’s record as a professional boxer is impressive. He fought a total of 61 bouts, won 56, five by KO, and lost five. But more than that it was his impact on the public discourse, his public stand for the weak and the underprivileged that will be remembered for long. During his heyday and later, Ali championed the cause of the black athletes in USA, and eventually inspired many across the country to emerge out of the shadows and find their spot in the sun.
Rarely have we seen a sports personality having such an impact on the public discourse during his lifetime. Muhammad Ali, the legend, the inspiration to many, will be missed.
Raj Machhan is Head, Digital Media at Daily Post India.
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