As a young boy, I had no interest in the sport of boxing. My family were football and cricket mad, so I was naturally inclined to following those sports.
Boxing never interested me as it was something that was never discussed in our household. So when Arturo Gatti and Ivan Robinson were in the middle of World War three, for the enjoyment of the crowd in the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, I was probably watching Australia take on England in a four day test match for the Ashes.
However, one name that was mentioned in our house quite frequently was that of a Muhammad Ali. As mentioned, my dad had no interest in the sport, but he was a big fan of the ‘Louisville Lip’.
My question is why? Why did my dad like Muhammad Ali? Why did he enjoy spending his evenings watching Ali glide across a boxing ring? And what attracted a man who had no interest in the sport, to view a pugilist at work?
When I first got into boxing, I never understood the impact of this heavyweight legend. I knew he was the self proclaimed ‘Greatest’, but what made him different? What made him capture the imagination of millions of people worldwide? I decided to do some initial research and was intrigued at what I found. I saw a heavyweight boxer dance in the ring like a middleweight!
Bobbing and weaving, he was dodging punches with so much ease that it was visibly frustrating his opponent. I was watching Muhammad Ali put on a clinic against then champion, Sonny Liston. I was amazed and mesmerised with the level of skill on show, so much so, I wanted to watch more.
“Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing.
And the punch raises the Bear clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising, and the ref wears a frown,
for he can’t start counting ’til Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view,
the crowd is getting frantic,
but our radar stations have picked him up – he’s somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight,
that they’d witness the launching of a human satellite.
Yes, the crowd did not dream when they lay down their money,
that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Ali’s fight with Forman will forever be one of the greatest achievements in the sport. His bouts with Frazier will always be regarded as one of the best, if not the best trilogy. However, one of the first fights I watched of the heavyweight was against the Canadian, George Chuvalo in their first bout. It was as memorising as it was brutal. The Canadian challenger put up a valiant effort and really forced the fight to the champion. Jab after Jab, the man from Louisville would snap back the head of his opponent, in order to deter him. This was to no avail. Chuvalo would stomp forward like a raging bull, trying to land some hellacious shots to the head, but especially the body. He wanted to take Ali to a place he had never been as a champion, but it ended up being to no avail.
I remember slowly leaning forward, until I could feel the edge of my seat, enthralled with the action I was watching. I was thinking how brave Chuvalo was, but also how much of a master boxer Ali was. I was not even sure why I chose to watch this particular fight, or why it still remains as one of my favourites. For me, it was a bout which summed up the early career of the man from Louisville. He was a special talent, which was so pleasing to the eye, but was dangerous to his opponents.
“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?
Wait ’til I whup George Foreman’s behind.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
His hand can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.
Now you see me, now you don’t.
George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.”
It’s incredible to think that people praise Ali as one of the greatest, when boxing was only an aspect of his legacy.
There are many fans and experts who rightfully state that Ali was not the greatest boxer, with reference made to the great Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong, just to name a few. However, I always say that, although the Louisville native was not the greatest boxer, he was the greatest to have ever boxed. What I mean by this, was Ali’s decisions outside of the ring which made him a mountain on the boxing landscape, for all to marvel at.
It is said that the heavyweight champion is on top of the world. In the golden era of the division, this would have been even more so true. The heavyweight champion would have had the power to do whatever he please, but with great power comes great responsibility. You could lose everything in an instant, should you decide to go against the grain. Even with this in mind, Ali was a great advocate of social change. It was something that so deeply ingrained in him, and was enhanced by his conversion to Islam. The brash little Cassius Clay was transformed into the more mature Muhammad Ali. Just as Ali would have nothing stop him from becoming heavyweight world champion, nothing stopped him from letting his thoughts be known. He had stubbornness to stray away from the stereotypical image of a champion with an artificially engineered personality. Whatever he felt, he would make clear and whatever he believed, he would pursue. The champion of the world did not earn a moniker like the ‘Louisville Lip’ for no reason. His stance to refuse draft from the Vietnam War was something that sent shockwaves across the world. It was a stance that angered many in the United States, but in my opinion it was an immensely courageous act. Losing everything he had worked for from a young Olympian in Rome, Ali was stripped of his title and banned for three of his prime years. On the outside we saw the strong minded champion, but deep down inside the decision must have killed him.
“Everyone knew when I stepped in town,
I was the greatest fighter around.
A lot of people called me a clown,
but I am the one who called the round.
The people came to see a great fight,
but all I did was put out the light.
Never put your money against Cassius Clay,
for you will never have a lucky day.”
However, he was not ready to give in; his hiatus outside the ring, was met with a continually growing civil rights movement. He would spend his time utilising the gift of public speaking to highlight the oppression of the African Americans in a time where racism was at its peak. Working with his spiritual and political teacher, Malcolm X, Ali did all he could to bring social change to his homeland.
In 1967, Ali presented one of his most powerful speeches on the topic of the civil rights. In a speech entitled ‘Black Is Best’, Ali retorted “Black dirt is the best dirt. Brown sugar causes fewer cavities, and the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
As I read up on the impact this legendary figure had on the sport which I now love, and also the impact he had on social change, I cannot help but feel a sense of admiration, respect and appreciation towards what Ali had accomplished. I still enjoy and cherish the moments I spend with my dad talking about one of the greatest fighters to have ever graced a ring. We will continue to watch the ‘Thriller in Manilla’ and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, but we would rather forget the ‘Drama in the Bahamas!’ Ali’s legacy transcends beyond the sport, to the point where his character and fights appeal, not only to those in the realm of boxing but also, outside.
Me and my dad would like to thank Muhammad Ali for giving us years of joy and excitement. 1000 words will not do his legacy any justice, but I hope I can get across the importance Ali had to me and my life. If you would like to know about one of the most fascinating sportsmen of our age, I implore to read up on the 100’s of great sources of literature detailing the man they call quite simply – ‘The Greatest.’