Thursday, June 9, 2016

Remembering Muhammad Ali

On June 3rd, the world was saddened by the news of the passing of the legendary Muhammad Ali at the age of seventy-four. A man known simply as “The Greatest.” Ali will certainly go down in history as a great fighter and as someone who transcended the sport of Boxing.

Since learning of Ali’s passing, I have quite frankly struggled in trying to find the words that would do this legend justice. After all, Muhammad Ali was much more than just a great boxer. As a child, I spent many days studying films of Muhammad Ali. Like most, I was drawn to not only his immaculate Boxing skill, but also his gift of gab.

Ali was known for making bold predictions of when his fights would end by using poetry. A skill that was often entertaining, but also got under the skin of many of his opponents. When I think of some of my favorite moments of Ali’s career there are a few that stand out in my mind. When discussing some of the most defining moments of Muhammad Ali’s career, you must start with the moment where he proclaimed himself “The Greatest.” The moment in February 1964 when the fighter then known as Cassius Clay, a significant underdog dominated a “Knockout Artist” in Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight championship. Ali’s hand speed, lateral movement, and quick reflexes were on full display as he battered Liston over the course of six rounds before Liston retired in his corner surrendering not only the World Heavyweight championship, but also ushering in a new era. The new champion proclaiming after the fight that he had “Shook Up The World” and was “The Greatest.” One of the most iconic and played back scenes in Boxing history.

Although there is no disputing Ali’s greatness and place in history, I, like many others have wondered what might have been if his career were not interrupted by his suspension in 1967 for refusing induction into the United States Armed Forces citing his religious beliefs. The Heavyweight champion of the world stripped of his title and banished from the sport during the prime of his career. Even though some did not agree with Ali for taking the stance that he did as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, one might argue that it was in many ways his finest moment.

Ali not only demonstrated deep convictions, but in doing so he sacrificed a significant period of his career. Whether or not one agreed with his stance, the willingness to sacrifice three years of his prime by putting his principles/convictions over the prospect of whatever money he could have made during that time is something that took courage. It is something that I will always respect.

Although Ali would fight twice in 1970, it would not be until 1971 where his Boxing license would be fully reinstated following his conviction for draft evasion being overturned by the United States Supreme Court. This of course, would lead to a showdown with a man that most automatically associate with Muhammad Ali, a man by the name of Joe Frazier in what was “The Fight Of The Century” and the beginning of one of Boxing’s greatest trilogies in March 1971.

There is no dispute that the first encounter between Frazier and Ali was Boxing’s first “Super Fight” as two undefeated fighters, both stars of the sport, each with a claim to the World Heavyweight championship entered the ring at New York’s Madison Square Garden to do battle. The fifteen round bout was a grueling back and forth battle. A fight where Ali would suffer the first loss of his career, but would also show his mettle in defeat. Many will remember the devastating left hook Frazier landed flush on the jaw of Ali that sent him down to the canvas in the fifteenth round of that fight.

In all truth and honesty, Frazier hit Ali with the kind of punch that would have ended the night for most fighters. Ali quickly got up from the knockdown and finished the fight, losing a hard-fought fifteen round unanimous decision in a battle that lived up to every bit of hype that preceded it and remains one of my all-time favorites.

Ali would avenge the loss to Frazier by winning a twelve round unanimous decision in their second encounter in January 1974. It would be in October of that year where Ali would get a second opportunity to regain the World Heavyweight championship. Ali’s opponent would be George Foreman in the fight known as “The Rumble In The Jungle.”

Much like his first encounter with Sonny Liston, Ali was cast in the role of a significant underdog against a fighter known as a knockout artist in the form of the unbeaten George Foreman. An argument could be made that a contributing factor to Ali’s underdog status prior to that fight against Foreman was the fact that Foreman had destroyed Joe Frazier in two rounds in January 1973 as well as knocked out Ken Norton, a fighter who would also go on to have a trilogy against Ali, but also a fighter who famously broke Ali’s jaw in winning the first of their three encounters in March 1973.

As was the case when he took the title from Sonny Liston however, Ali would once again defy the odds by implementing a simple, yet brilliant strategy known as the “Rope A Dope.” Ali spent the majority of the fight on the ropes allowing the heavy favorite Foreman to fire away with his offense, much of which were blocked by Ali. As the fight progressed, Foreman gradually tired and by the eighth round, Ali turned the tables on an exhausted champion, landing a left hook to the head followed by a straight right to the head sending Foreman down for the count. At thirty-two years old, Ali had become only the second man in history behind Floyd Patterson to regain the World Heavyweight championship. The “Rope A Dope” strategy implemented by Ali was perfectly executed and should be viewed as a masterpiece.

Of all the great fights in Muhammad Ali’s career however, the one that always stands out in my mind above all others, is his the third encounter with Joe Frazier in October 1975 in a fight known as “The Thrilla  In Manila.” The fight, which took place in the Philippines exceeded the grueling battle that the two fighters waged against each other in their first meeting in 1971 and ranks as one of the most brutal fights in Boxing history.

Although some felt that Frazier’s best days as a fighter were behind him prior to the third fight, the former champion would respond by giving Ali a hellacious battle. Both fighters affected by extreme heat throughout the fifteen round world championship bout battled through what had to be extreme exhaustion. Ali outlasting Frazier to earn a fourteenth round stoppage after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch, concerned for his fighter’s welfare as Frazier was battered and essentially blind due to the punishment he sustained from Ali over the course of the bout, stopped the fight.

Even though Ali would go on to lose and regain the World Heavyweight championship in two fights against Leon Spinks in 1978 becoming the first fighter in history to win the World Heavyweight championship three times, a distinction he held until 1996 when Evander Holyfield defeated Mike Tyson in the first of two fights to tie Ali, one could make a justifiable argument that Ali should have retired after the “Thrilla In Manila“ as his legacy as a fighter was more than secure. As much as this observer has struggled over the last several days not only to find the words to do Ali justice, it will also be difficult to get used to the idea that this icon is no longer with us. Ali was not only a fighter in the ring, but also an important figure in history outside of Boxing. A man who stood against discrimination, unjust war, fought for equality, and ultimately stood for peace.

Muhammad Ali has certainly left a legacy that will last forever. Mr. Ali, You fought the fight of a lifetime. Rest well.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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