"I know where I'm going and I know the truth and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." Muhammad Ali
When something has been done once, its never the same to do it again. After you have seen an Andy Warhol, making art out of soup cans is not impressive. After you have run the four minute mile, no one can break that barrier again. Who knows the name of the second person on the moon, the second to summit Everest, the second to fly an airplane? There is a different, untrodden path that pioneers take and there in lies their greatness. That is what makes Ali the most inspirational sports star of all time. He did things that no one else had done, and he did it in a manner no one else had even thought of. He invented come backs before Michael Jordan. He invented rap before Run- DMC. He invented self-promotion before Donald Trump. And he questioned the war before there was an anti-war movement.
Along the way, he won the Heavy Weight Championship of the world an unprecedented three times while being banned from boxing for three and a half years at the peak of his career (before beating Frazier and Foreman and Spinks). He also changed the nature of the sport. Boxing before Ali was a slug fest, where energy was conserved and big hits won fights. Along came Ali, with dancing feet, glancing hands and a mouth that simply could not be shut. He won fights by getting in the minds of his opponents before the first punch was thrown. And then for good measure, he got in the ring and dazzled them with his movement, with his ability to absorb punishment, and if all else failed by opening a can of whupass on his opponents. He was a thinking fighter, before thinking in the ring was fashionable.
Those of us who have seen Ali fight might remember him by his fights with Larry Holmes or Trevor Berbick (his last two), but Ali as a fighter should not be judged by those. I have written about how nearly all great athletes find it difficult to retire, and Ali, financially bled by a posse of hanger-ons was no exception. But this was the same champion who initially won the heavy weight title of the World as a 7 to 1 underdog to Sonny Liston. He was then known as the "Louisville Lip" for his brash predictions that he will "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee", a phrase still known the world over 43 years later. The title picture above, Ali's most famous, is paradoxically from the rematch with Liston where Ali was booed. Liston had refused to acknowledge him as Ali and kept calling him by his old name of Cassius Clay. Ali is infamously asking Liston "what's my name?".
A few victories later Ali got prosecuted by the government for refusing to fight in Vietnam and lost his boxing license for three and a half years. He famously explained, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong... They never called me nigger." He was reinstated in 1974 and lost the "fight of the century" to Joe Frazier. He then spent another three years trying to get a shot back at the Heavy Weight crown. Along the way he beat Frazier and split two fights with Ken Norton. Then at the age of 32, he got his chance against the hard hitting George Foreman in the famous "rumble in the jungle" in Zaire. Foreman had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in two rounds each, while Ali had not been able to knock either boxer out in over 50 rounds. Ali went in as a big underdog but pulled the rope-a-dope on Foreman and won the Heavy Weight crown for the second time.
After a few title defenses, Ali then had his decisive third fight with Frazier, known as the "Thrilla in Manilla". This was perhaps his greatest fight yet (and his fiercest rivalry). Ali won but fittingly fainted on the canvas afterwards. Perhaps he should have retired by now but he defended his title another six times before losing it to Leon Spinks in 1978. Then he famously won it back to become the first Heavy Weight Champion ever to win the title three times. His fight with Larry Holmes in 1980 should not ever have happened on medical grounds. A complete medical at the Mayo clinic revealed he had difficulty with muscles involved in speech, early signs of Parkinsons. But commercial interests prevailed and the rest is history.
It is not possible to understand his legacy without knowing how unpopular Ali was in his early fighting days, for joining the black Muslims, for oppossing the war, for being anti-establishment. Before his very first shot at the title with Liston, fight promoter Bill McDonald threatened to cancel the bout if Ali did not denounce the black Muslims. After fighting his whole life to get a crack at the title, Ali did not even flinch. He had no intention of renouncing his new religion. It got worse. When he fought the deeply Catholic Floyd Patterson, it became a religious war and the brash Ali prevailed and was widely reviled. It got worse. Ali refused to join the army. The Chicago Tribune ran eleven anti-Ali draft stories in a single issue. There were all kinds of stories of the army trying to cut a deal with him in exchange for induction; to let him defend his title and put on exhibition fights. But Ali did not budge. He lost everything, including three and a half years of his fighting prime, just to stand up something he believed in. Not many people did that.
In his journey he became perhaps the most known face on earth. He had a following from Asian dictators to African village children to the biggest statesmen in the world. As an aged dethroned champion, when he couldn't light up the ring anymore, when Parkinson's didn't leave him even with control of his own faculties, it would have been all too easy to spend his time at home in Louisville. But he used his popularity and became a UN messenger for peace. He traveled all over the world, lending his name to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education and promoting adoption. Even the last few years, severely restrained by Parkinson's, Ali has still traveled for these worthy causes an average of 200 days a year.
Sure, there can be an argument between Ali and Joe Louis as the Greatest Heavy Weight Champion of all time, but there can be never be an argument, that as a sports star, who is "the Greatest".