Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Greatest


"You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Wait 'til I kick Foreman's behind!" -- Muhammad Ali, 1974.

Brash. Stylish. Principled. Proud. These are just some of the words which come to mind when you think of Muhammad Ali. Not just a boxing champ, he was a media sensation who brought an audience back to boxing that had slipped away during the sport’s dark years -- a period in which the Kefauver Commission had explored boxing’s connections with organized crime and rendered the whole enterprise suspect. After bringing the fans back, he stood up for his race and religious principles, suffered greatly for his courage, and fought his way back to the top as only a man of Ali’s enormous self-confidence ("I am the greatest!" was his mantra) and larger-than-life stage presence could have done.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on this day in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, he exploded onto the boxing scene by winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics in Rome in 1960; and in an act of defiance after returning to the U.S. and being refused service in a Southern diner, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. "My holiday as a White Hope was over. I felt a new, secret strength," Ali later recalled. His frustration with American race relations was a constant theme during his career, and by the force of his personality he somehow managed to rise to stardom without having to play by all the "Jim Crow" rules which other African-Americans had to follow. Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis, Jr. -- these near contemporaries would all have to play by white men’s rules to some degree, being polite and subservient by word and deed, even if their impact would be felt in their ability to beat whites at their own contests.

A group of white businessmen in Kentucky sponsored young Cassius Clay’s professional career, wisely letting him become the charismatic politician/star he was born to be as they saw to his training and conditioning. Even in the ring he was unconventional, dancing around with his arms dangling, and he wasn’t given much of a chance against the scowling champ Sonny Liston in February 1964, but he beat him in 7 rounds to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. In his rematch with Liston later that year, Clay dropped Liston in the first round, then stood over him in one of the most unforgettable tableaux of 20th century sports, shouting "Get up, you bum!" through his mouthpiece.

During that first year of his first title, Clay converted to the Nation of Islam through the influence of Malcolm X, shed his "slave name" and became known as "Muhammad Ali" -- a gesture which unnerved white fans. After the Liston fights, Ali successfully defended his title 8 times, until in 1967 he was threatened with a jail sentence for refusing to enter U.S. military service in Vietnam on religious grounds, and his title was stripped from him by the World Boxing Association. Jack Johnson, similarly, had his title yanked from him behind the scenes after being convicted under the Mann Act in an episode that also had the unmistakable stench of racism. True, Ali was succeeded by another African-American, Joe Frazier, but Frazier was not an avid purveyor of "black power"; to white America at that time, Frazier was safer.

In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction, and Ali returned to boxing, losing to Frazier in his first attempt to regain the title in 1971. By 1974, when the towering new champ George Foreman agreed to face him in Zaire, fight fans feared for Ali’s life; but with a combination of pre-bout mind games and sheer stamina in the ring (employing the now famous "rope-a-dope" defense), Ali outlasted Foreman’s brutal punches and knocked him out in the 8th round to regain the title. After 10 more defenses (including the classic "Thrilla in Manilla" against Frazier in 1975), Ali somewhat jadedly fought another Olympic gold medal winner, Leon Spinks, and lost on points in February 1978 -- only to steal the WBA title back 7 months later.

He then promptly retired, his body failing to live up to the expectations of his always ready mouth. Driven by financial difficulties, he fought once more for the title against Larry Holmes in 1980 at the age of 38, and once more again in a disastrous non-title bout the following year, before Parkinson’s Disease made it impossible for him to fight and slowed his speech to a silence out of which not even Howard Cosell could coax him. His overall record, which seems like a mere meaningless footnote: 56 wins (37 knockouts) and 5 losses.

Everyone, it seems, has a story about meeting Muhammad Ali -- which means that he's probably personally touched more lives than almost any other living human being I can think of. I've met him twice -- once at a trade convention in New Orleans, and again at a Parkinson's benefit. He instantly commands a room, and he bears his role as living icon with powerful dignity, and with an unfailingly wry sense of humor.

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