One of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions the world has seen, with courage, conviction and wit that made him an inspirational figure
Saturday 4 June 2016
Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74, was acclaimed by many as the greatest world heavyweight boxing champion the world has ever seen. He was certainly the most charismatic boxer. His courage inside and outside the ring and his verbal taunting of opponents were legendary, as were his commitment to justice and his efforts for the sick and underprivileged.
Three times world champion, Ali harnessed his fame in the ring to causes outside it. He was a convert to Islam and the personification of Black Pride. He anticipated the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s by refusing to join the armed forces.
He made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, delivered medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba, and travelled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 US hostages shortly before the first Gulf war. Repellent though he found many aspects of US foreign policy – and repellent as the establishment found him when in 1967 it banned him from the ring for three years for refusing the draft – the nation embraced Ali as time passed, realising his unique ambassadorial value. In 2005, he received his country’s highest civilian honour, the presidential medal of freedom, from George W Bush, an incumbent whose views he must have detested.
But it all stemmed from boxing. His matchless magnificence, the self-proclaimed “greatness”, was invented early as a cheery prizefighter’s publicity stunt. It was a greatness that was to balloon and achieve near-universal acceptance as he became acknowledged as a beacon not only for downtrodden African Americans but for global Islam as well, not to mention the anti-war movement or poverty in developing countries. In the middle of press conferences, reporters would earnestly ask him about solving the Palestine problem, or if he could have a quiet word with Moscow about President Ronald Reagan’s star wars programme. Ali was a rebel with a cause – lots of them.
He played the sovereign to the hilt. He played the victim. He played the clown. He played the camera. But, above all, he played the sport. He was the best heavyweight boxer there had ever been since the Marquess of Queensberry set down his rules in 1867, undeniably the best since Kid Cain KO’ed Sugar Ray Abel. First as Cassius Clay, then as Ali, this remarkable boxer totally reset the marks, utterly changed all inviolate techniques and tenets. Four years after winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, he won the undisputed professional world heavyweight championship, taking on all comers. He was to regain the title twice, an achievement that remains unmatched. His career in the professional ring spanned an astonishing 21 years. Of 61 contests, he lost only five, four of them when he was long past his majestic best. Thirty-seven victories were knockouts.
Ali’s fabled predecessors in his kingdom were Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Johnson was a puncher-boxer and dandy; Dempsey an uncomplicated hitter; Tunney had grace and nerve and fast feet; Louis’s fast hands punched in a blur of combinations, and he had a killer instinct as well as chivalry; Marciano had relentless oomph and steam-hammer cruelty. Ali had every single one of all those qualities in abundance, as well as timing, intelligence, wit and an extraordinary courage which, in the end, becursed his wellbeing. Yet, through the final third of the 20th century, rheumy-eyed, scarred and bent-nosed ancients would shake their heads at his virtuosities, sigh, and insist that the big, bold champions of their far tougher olden days would have ambushed, cornered, speared and most damnably done for the swankpot in no time. But as the fearless Ali strutted on, inventing new ways, new scenes, new angles, new endings, those croaking pronouncements of veterans petered out. No one believed them any more, not when Ali was in his prime, in his pomp.
He was born the eldest son of Cassius and Odessa Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, and named Cassius Marcellus after his father. His mother was listed on the birth certificate as a household domestic, his father as a signwriter. The family lived on Grand Avenue in the segregated city’s black west end. In the Kentucky state census rolls, all four of his grandparents were described as “free coloureds”. One of Odessa’s grandfathers, Tom Moorehead, was the son of a white man called Moorehead and the partner of a slave named simply as Dinah. Odessa’s other grandfather was a white Irishman, Abe O’Grady, born in County Clare, who married a “freed slave woman, name unknown”.
It was a small but happy family (there was soon a second son, Rudolph), in which penury was taken for granted. The brothers were both good boys, the neighbours recalled, unfailing attendees of the Baptist Sunday school. Odessa was a serene and saintly homemaker, though her husband was a rascally tale-teller and liked to drink. This led to occasional court appearances. He paid the fines and, as a self-imposed additional penance, painted religious murals for various Baptist chapels around the city. The two boys would sometimes help. “Louisville was more peaceful, less dangerous then,” Rudolph recalled many years later, “except if we strayed off-limits, then white boys would threaten: ‘Hey, nigger, get back to your own.’”
Young Cassius was no scholar, and by the end of his schooling, only an occasional attendee. He could scarcely read or write when he graduated from Central high school in 1960, and ranked 376th in the graduation class of 391. Long before then, however, his abundant energies had been devoted to boxing.
When he was 12, in October 1954, his cherished bicycle was stolen. The white policeman, Joe Martin, to whom he reported the theft, happened to be the organiser of a boys’ boxing club in the basement of the city’s Columbia auditorium. He never got his bike back, but it was a life-changing encounter. Encouraged also by a black trainer, Fred Stoner, within two months the spindly, sassy youngster weighing 90lb had won (on a split decision) his first official three-minute, three-round amateur bout against another rookie, Ron O’Keefe. Over the next six years he contested a further 107 junior bouts, won two national Golden Gloves titles and two national Amateur Athletic Union titles, and was chosen for the US team for the 1960 Olympics. He leapt to such glamour with relish – and a nerveless, original skill – and in the final of the 178lb (light-heavyweight) division, the 18-year-old defeated – and bewildered and perplexed – the three-times European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, of Poland.
These were the first Olympics to be televised live around the world. And the world took notice. I did, for sure, and remember thinking: “This madcap kid doesn’t even hold up his guard. He just dances and sways – and punches in lightning flashes.” I still recall Neil Allen’s prescient report in the Times: “The American has given the impression of being so much a showman that we have waited throughout the tournament for someone to wake him up with a solid punch. Nobody has, and in the final last night Clay, like some loosely strung marionette, put his punches together in combination clusters and pummelled the Pole about the ring. Only great courage kept the triple European champion on his feet. We still have not seen whether the new gold medallist can take a punch but I expect him to be among the professionals next year so we shall know his worth soon enough.”
And so it came to pass. In 1960 a consortium of old-money Kentucky businessmen were ready to launch the young Olympian’s paid career – with a $10,000 down payment and a guaranteed $333 a month against ring earnings (the latter was split 50/50 for the first two years, then 60/40 for the next four of the six-year contract). It was a good, fair deal, and three days after signing, on 29 October 1960, Clay made his debut as a pro and defeated in six one-sided rounds Tunney Hunsaker, a former chief police officer, in Louisville’s packed Freedom Hall. Hunsaker lived off the history of it till his death 40 years later. The consortium hired a canny veteran, Archie Moore, as Clay’s trainer, but the two never got on and instead he went south to Florida, to Angelo Dundee’s celebrated Fifth Street gym in Miami. The skilled and caring Dundee was to be at Ali’s side and in his corner for the next 21 years.
As his fleet and rangy physique bulked up, his looks and build now matched his charm and cheek. The artist LeRoy Neiman observed: “Suddenly he resembles a piece of classical sculpture with no flaw or imperfection, his features and limbs flawless and perfectly proportioned.” The engaging nature, too, began to resonate as Clay cut a swathe through the well-selected heavyweights’ Second Division and he allowed his ego full rein on self-promotion. Imitating the white, vaudeville television love-to-hate wrestler Gorgeous George, his forecasts bragged the precise round he was going to win, sometimes combining such box-office larks with couplets of doggerel. One was: “I’ll Just Say ‘Boo!’/He’ll Go in Two” (Lamar Clark, KO 2); another was “Ol’ Mitt Likes t’Mix/He falls in Six” (Alex Miteff, KO 6). In 1963, Clay returned to Europe for his first foreign professional fight against Henry Cooper (“London’s a Jive/’Enery Lasts Five”), and although he was floored for the first time, he duly stopped Cooper in the fifth – as he had predicted.
Spring 1964 was momentous for Clay in several ways. Dundee, daringly, deemed him ready for Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion. Liston smiled for once. The boxing fraternity chortled. This, or so the knowing forecast went, would be the end of a half-diverting saga of an appealing loudmouth. We would hear of him no more, for Liston and his ogre status made both an art and science out of first, intimidation, then sadistically inflicted pain. Hadn’t Liston not long before humiliatingly laid to waste, twice inside six minutes, the Olympic champion of 1956, Floyd Patterson?
Liston was presumed invincible and the greenhorn, fresh-faced challenger was an unprecedented 8-1 underdog – odds that lengthened when, at the weigh-in, Clay’s apparent hysterics had doctors pronouncing him traumatised by fear. Come the bell, the upstart nervelessly played it cool, almost a laughingly gay matador, his speed of hand and foot totally nullifying Liston’s wicked jab, the key to his armoury. Dismantled brick by brick and tile by tile, Liston aged 10 years in less than 20 minutes and retired on his stool before the start of the seventh (the round in which the challenger had predicted “the ol’ bear would be trapped and wrap’t”). On 25 February 1964, Clay was crowned world heavyweight champion for the first time. In the rematch in May 1965, Liston keeled over in a fainting funk inside a round.
Two days after his first defeat of Liston, Clay announced his conversion to Islam, and on 6 March, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston later complained that the Black Muslims, a separatist sect, had threatened him in an attempt to throw the fight. Old ham boxing writers were happy to believe him, and so were America’s rightwing rednecks. Such a charge was at least given credence as the newly renamed boxer was a minister in the Nation of Islam, and the group’s self-proclaimed “messenger”, Elijah Muhammad, had, to all intents, become the boxer’s manager. (Ali was to convert to orthodox Islam in 1975.)
The US of the mid-1960s was a nation seething with racial undercurrents. (Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and Martin Luther King three years later.) The rest of the world was comparatively oblivious to all of this, and while to a large, white tranche of the US, Ali became public enemy No 1, his televised contests with Liston had girdled the globe so, even by then, whatever name he chose, his sporting legend was assured.
However, for all his brilliance in the ring – hands as fast and deadly as a cobra’s strike, feet in a riverdance blur never before seen in a heavyweight – America’s inevitable white backlash to his religious defiance bit back with merciless retribution. This change of mood among white Americans coincided with Ali’s second US army call-up to serve in Vietnam. Although he had already failed in 1964 the draft’s preliminary intelligence tests in literacy and numeracy (placed at just 16 in an elementary attainment level of 30) – “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest” – fresh calls for his induction came in 1966.
Establishment outrage reached spittingly aggressive proportions when Ali, pleading deferment on religious grounds, told reporters: “I ain’t no quarrel with them Vietcong … no Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger’.” Within an hour, outraged, all US boxing bodies suspended his licence and stripped him of his title. In June 1967, a court confirmed the ban unanimously. Ali was prevented from boxing until 1970 – that is, between the ages of 25 and 28, which undoubtedly should have been the pinnacle and prime of his athletic resplendence. His really “greatest” years were arguably stolen. (The conviction for refusing to join the armed services was reversed in June 1971 by the US supreme court.)
When the three-year ban expired, he returned to the ring, in October 1970, with a three-round stoppage of Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, although observers could already detect a glimmer of unease about his work. He knew the ravishing speed and the split-second timing of his punches were fractionally out of kilter. He never reclaimed the full package; lost property, stolen property. I was pleased, at least, to have witnessed his pre-ban splendours – say, against Cleveland Williams at Houston in November 1966, or Zora Folley in New York in March 1967.
Nor, after the ban, it must be said, was Ali’s passing, nasty and vindictive side ever again in evidence, such as when he bullyingly and hurtfully “carried” the hapless, injured Patterson in 1965, or malevolently taunted to painful humiliation for the full 15 rounds Ernie Terrell, who had addressed Ali as Clay at the weigh-in at Houston in 1967. Those were not pretty sights.
If the two fights with Liston, epic in their theatricality and outcome, had begun to compile the legend, then the three contests with the uncomplicated, brooding warrior Joe Frazier, in 1971, 1974 and 1975, clinched the immortal deal. Here was an unmissably dramatic, defining, second act. Only six months after the exile’s return against Quarry, Ali squared up to the remorselessly committed hitter “Smokin’ Joe” to challenge for his own usurped title. After a thunderously pulsating, draining 14 rounds it was dead-level. In the last, a fearsome Frazier hook crunched into Ali’s jaw, broke it, and dumped him on the canvas, sprawling on his back. Frazier deservedly won the decision – but the fact that Ali somehow gathered himself to his feet and attempted to fight back not only had the fans round the world swooning at the heroism, but it gave notice of the added, and unconsidered, ingredient that would embrace Ali for the rest of his life.
Should we call it adversity? Well, here is sheer, dauntless, leonine courage. Worldwide love of, and tributes to Ali today are not so much for his astonishing, upfront, youthful and winning talents, but for his bravery at heaving himself from the canvas that New York night in 1971.
Ali avenged that defeat by Frazier with a points victory in the return contest in the same New York ring three years later. In 1975, the last payday was generous enough for the two ageing fighters to meet for a third time in Quezon City, in the Philippines – “the Thrilla in Manila”. The venom and pain of it was excruciating. To all intents, it was a requiem for both men’s illustrious prizefighting. It ended with Ali collapsing but, by minutes, the winner because Frazier was mercifully retired by his cornermen at the end of the 14th and penultimate round. They had nearly beaten each other to death. The doyen of British sportswriters, Hugh McIlvanney, was at the ringside: “There was nothing morbid or sadistic about the thrill that their performances sent through the blood. What we felt was awe at the spectacle of two extraordinary men setting new limits for themselves, pushing back the boundaries of their courage, their physical and psychological capacity.”
A year before what should have been, by every doctor’s recommendation, the (sort of) triumphant last hurrah in the Philippines, Ali’s global ambassadorial obsessions saw him stripped for battle in the even more unlikely setting of Kinshasa (then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The posters for this contest dubbed it “the Rumble in the Jungle”. It was probably the seminal boxing match of all time, the dramatic unities perfectly in place: perceived goodie v baddie, impossible odds, totally unforeseen outcome.
The 25-year-old George Foreman was cast as the behemoth beast, but boxing had not seen a hitter of such concussive, one-punch power, demonstrated in Jamaica when he took the title from Frazier. Ali might possibly have had an answer in his prime, but not now, not at a fading, spent-force 32 years old. But as well as his wilful courage, in this (what we thought) would be the last chapter of his glories, we came also to marvel at the brazenness. For seven sweltering rounds, against all prognoses, Ali allowed Foreman, the brutish, one-blow Goliath, actually to punch himself out on his arms, as Ali himself lay on the ropes, head back as if out of a bedroom window to check if the cat was on the roof. Ali called it his “rope-a-dope” trick – and the world caught its breath when finally he came off the ropes, feinted with his left and, with a single right hander, felled the bewildered Foreman.
Unaccountably champ again, Ali went on boxing. He had easily enough of a fortune left, however generous he was with it, and in the ring he was now being hit with increasing regularity and hurt. In February 1978, he lost the title to the workaday Leon Spinks and regained it once again that September – but tiredly, for now the feet were flat, the reflexes dull, the senses dimmed. His speech was slurring badly.
He retired, came back, retired again and was just short of his 39th birthday when he allowed himself to challenge the giant he-man Larry Holmes in October 1980. He was calamitously, cringingly, beaten up over 10 rounds by a mercifully unvenomous Holmes – but badly beaten up he still was. It was not till December 1981 – just five weeks off 40 – that sense and his friends coaxed him from the ring and quietly led him away after a last humbling from Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
Ali’s health nosedived almost at once. Soon he was seen scarcely able to talk or walk, his speech descending into inaudible mumbles, the once stimulating “Ali shuffle” becoming a harrowing shamble. It was pitifully obvious that Parkinson’s disease was severely debilitating his brain and limbs. Yet the soulful, mischievous brown eyes still spoke eloquently of his wit and charm. With pride, difficulty and a dignified, if silent, eloquence, he lit the torch to open the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Thousands wept as he did so.
At the turn of the millennium, Ali was voted, far and wide and undisputed in umpteen countries, man of the century, sportsman of the century, and personality of the century. In 2005 he opened a museum built in his honour in Louisville. And in 2011 he made rare public appearance the funeral of his former opponent, Frazier. At last year’s opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, he seemed extremely frail and was only able to walk a few steps. However, he received a rapturous reception from the 80,000-strong crowd.
Ali is survived by his fourth wife, Lonnie; and by two sons and seven daughters.
• Muhammad Ali, boxer, born 17 January 1942; died 3 June 2016