Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 19, 2012

Still The Greatest, After All These Years

“How terribly strange to be seventy.” More than four decades have passed since Paul Simon wrote that lyric in his song “Old Friends;” yet the old line has been on my mind this week. Muhammad Ali turned seventy on Tuesday, and it is indeed strange to think of The Greatest, The People’s Champion, The Louisville Lip, as a senior citizen completing his seventh decade.

We are used now to a world in which communication to nearly all parts of the globe is virtually instantaneous; a world in which celebrities and athletes can truly be known everywhere. But in fact that has happened comparatively recently. We American sports fans regard Babe Ruth as immortal. But in truth, he is immortal mostly to Americans and perhaps some European fans of the Great Game. In his time Ruth was anonymous to many parts of the world, and even where he was famous news of his exploits might well have arrived in some distant land long after the actual event had come and gone. Tiger Woods is today’s preeminent example of a universally famous and recognized American sports figure. Before there was Tiger, there was Michael Jordan. But before there was Tiger and before everyone wanted to be like Mike, at a time when there had never really been anyone previously, there was Ali.

Of course before he was Ali he was Cassius Clay, who as a young amateur compiled a record of 100 wins and just 5 losses. He won six Golden Glove titles in his home state of Kentucky, two national Golden Gloves championships and an AAU national title. He capped his amateur career by winning the Gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Less than two months after his Olympic triumph, he scored his first professional victory with a 6-round decision back home in Louisville.

After that first win he hooked up with trainer Angelo Dundee, and together the two took on all comers in the heavyweight division. Little more than three years later, with a professional record of 19-0, Clay had risen through the ranks to become the top contender to champion Sonny Liston. It was not an entirely smooth trip. At 6 feet 3 inches he was tall for a fighter, and he had an unorthodox style of holding his hands low and relying on his incredible foot speed to avoid punches. Some of those early fights were close, and twice he had been knocked down by opponents. Many opined that at just 22 he was still too young and green to pose a serious challenge to the mighty Liston, who had twice brutalized Floyd Patterson. Oddsmakers installed Liston as the heavy favorite for the February, 1964 bout.

At the weigh-in the challenger’s pulse was more than twice its normal level, and thought was given to postponing the fight over concerns for Clay’s health. But neither the fight doctors nor especially Sonny Liston understood that they were in the presence of far more than just a boxer. Clay was a showman who controlled the narrative of virtually every one of his bouts; and the appearance of nerves to the point of panic would simply add to his legend when he toppled the champion. He had already become known for calling, often correctly, the exact round in which he would stop an opponent. Now he added to the game’s lexicon when he announced that against Liston he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Pressed by reporters as to how he would avoid the devastating punches of the champion, Clay told them that “your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

Against the expectations of the pundits the young challenger dominated the fight from the opening bell. He was far faster and more mobile than Liston, and able to use his superior height and reach advantage to pummel the champion. The only moment of doubt came in the fourth round, after Clay had opened a cut under Liston’s left eye in the third. An ointment used by Liston’s corner to close the wound had gotten onto his gloves, and when Liston hit Clay in the face the substance got into Clay’s eyes, stinging and temporarily blinding him. Whether it was a potentially decisive accident or a desperate bit of cheating will never be known. Clay used his speed to avoid Liston through the balance of the fourth and the entire fifth round. By the start of the sixth his vision had cleared, and the man who one week later would change his name to Muhammad Ali seized control of the bout, battering Liston at will. In the run-up Ali had predicted an eighth round victory, but when the bell rang for the seventh Liston stayed on his stool.

Three years later Ali would be stripped of his title for refusing induction into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. Through four long years of legal appeals Ali maintained his right to be a conscientious objector even as his prime boxing years slipped by. He was excoriated when he refused to take three steps forward at the armed forced induction center in Houston in 1967; but by the time the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 1971, just months after he had finally been allowed to return to the ring in late 1970, public opinion about both the war and Ali had moved.

In part because of that shift, in part because of his charisma, showmanship and eloquence, and certainly in large part because of his phenomenal ability as a fighter, Ali’s fame grew exponentially. He engaged in a pugilistic holy war against Joe Frazier through a triumvirate of bouts that surely are the most famous series of fights between two boxers ever. He made American boxing an international sport. The last of the battles against Frazier was 1975’s “Thrilla in Manila,” fought in the nearly 100 degree heat of the tropics. One year earlier he scored his most stunning victory in Kinshasa, Zaire. Thought by virtually everyone to be hopelessly overmatched against reigning champion George Foreman, who had brutalized both Frazier and Ken Norton, Ali claimed the heavyweight title for the second time when he invented the “Rope-A-Dope.” Through seven rounds Ali leaned far back against the ropes, protecting his head with his gloves and allowing Foreman to pound away at this body. By the eighth round the champion had punched himself out, and Ali floored Foreman with a quick combination in the middle of the ring. “When We Were Kings,” Leon Gast’s 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary about the Ali-Foreman fight is one of the finest sports films of all time. Nearly four years later Ali won the title for a record third time by defeating Leon Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome.

In the end he stayed too long of course; star athletes almost always do. And now, years later, the lightning speed of feet and hands and the rhyming eloquence of Muhammad Ali are long gone, taken by the inexorable spread of Parkinson’s, an opponent that not even The Greatest can defeat. But if the Louisville Lip is now silent, and public sightings rare, for anyone who ever saw him fight memories abound. They are memories of a man who raised the sweet science to unprecedented heights; and took those around him, including Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Dundee, and Howard Cosell to name just a few, to a level of fame they would not otherwise have known. They are memories of perhaps the best heavyweight of all time. They are memories of the son of a Louisville painter and his wife who worked as a domestic, who rose up to become the first American athlete truly known around the globe. Happy birthday, champ. In our memories, you will always float, you will always sting, and you will always be The Greatest.

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