In a sport where comparative ability is fuelled by subjective opinion, Clay announced himself as “the Greatest”–prematurely undoubtedly, but quite probably prophetically. Four years earlier, Clay had returned from Rome, with an Olympic gold medal round his neck; earned in the name of a country that denied him a meal in downtown Louisville purely because of the colour of his skin.
Soon after defeating Sonny Liston, Clay announced his membership of the Nation of Islam, renounced his “slave name” and decreed that he would be thenceforth be known as Muhammad Ali. The organisation was openly anti-white and Ali’s conversion polarised public opinion, but ability inside the ring afforded the eloquent youngster an oft-used religious and political platform.
What interests me most about this remarkable man are his early fights; those contests that helped shape the legend that he became. That fight with Liston was the twentieth of Clay’s professional career and much as I’m sure many of you could name plenty of boxers that Ali fought during the 1970s (as well as the two disastrous forays into the ring in the following decade); how many of those first nineteen opponents could you name?
Clay’s professional debut was against a tough, experienced police chief from West Virginia, Tunney Hunsaker, who had this to say after losing a six-round decision: “He was as fast as lightning. I tried just about every trick I knew to throw him off balance, but he was just too good.”
For the most part, Clay’s early performances were as impressive as his pre-fight forecasts; his feet and fists were every bit as quick as his wit. There were a few setbacks along the way, including a first knockdown at the hands (or rather left hand) of Lucien “Sonny” Banks in February 1962. Clay got to his feet to complete a fourth round success (thereby fulfilling yet another prediction), and Banks sadly died three years later as a result of injuries sustained in a ninth round knockout loss to Leotis Martin. Four fights later, Clay dispatched Alejandro Lavorante in five rounds, in a bout where the judging the better-looking fighter was considerably harder than the harder puncher. Tragically the handsome Argentinian suffered a serious head injury in his next fight (against Johnny Riggins) and spent more than a year and a half in a coma before passing away two months after Clay had become world champion.
Arguably the closest Clay came to tasting defeat during the 1960s was against the ever-popular Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium in June 1963. Clay was unceremoniously dumped to the canvas courtesy of a left-hook (colloquially known as ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer): “I caught him in the fourth round. I thought ‘thank God for that’, but then the blooming bell went” was Cooper’s typically understated reflection many years later, and history relates that Clay opened up an horrific gash over Cooper’s left eye in the fifth forcing the referee to bring proceedings to a halt….
And then came Liston….
Clay’s antics in the build-up to the fight as well as his skill and courage after the opening bell sounded are well documented; but the scale of the “shock” remains difficult to fully comprehend over forty years later. As Muhammad Ali a number of defences followed, with the 1966 demolition of Cleveland Williams showcasing the movement, speed and punching power of the champion. It was majestic, and surely a sign of greater things to come, but Ali’s career was interrupted as a result of a ban imposed following a refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
However you view Ali’s stance, he was prepared to risk his career and his liberty because of his beliefs and principles, and over time, as public opinion towards the conflict and in favour of civil rights, Ali’s popularity soared. He returned to the ring in 1970 and his original conviction was eventually overturned the following year.
The trio of Olympic gold medallists turned world champions (Ali, Joe Frazier and George foreman) heralded a golden age of heavyweight boxing—within which the name of Ken Norton should also be included—and the early morning victory over Foreman in Zaire followed by the final instalment of the Ali-Frazier trilogy are rightly viewed as two of the sport’s most iconic moments. Ali should have hung up his gloves after those gruelling fourteen rounds in the Philippine heat… he didn’t, and everyone will have their own views of the effects on Ali’s health.
Was he “the Greatest”? My opinion is that he was… and is, but had he been able to continuing fighting between 1967 and 1970, I don’t think there would be any need for a debate, because the world would surely have seen Muhammad Ali at the absolute peak of his powers.
The Clay that beat Liston (the first time) was brilliant; the Ali that dismantled Cleveland Williams was as near to perfect as I’ve ever seen. Williams (despite the injuries he’d sustained in a shooting incident in 1965) was a fine boxer—Sonny Liston rated him as the hardest puncher he ever fought—but Ali (complete with his trademark shuffle) was irresistible that night.
During his enforced absence from the ring, some of the speed had left his legs… he wasn’t the same fighter—nearly, but not quite the same. But now is not the time to wonder what we missed; today we celebrate Muhammad Ali, the boxer, the man… the kind, caring, and compassionate man. There will be some who didn’t agree with his philosophies, but his beliefs were strong and steadfast, and the regard in which he was held transcended his sport, as well as his religion and skin colour.
I have always tried to avoid having “heroes” because the higher the pedestal, the further the fall. Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay was the exception. He’s not the greatest boxer of all-time; he is the greatest athlete of all time. An incredible fighter; a wonderful inspirational human being; we will never see his like again, and the world is a poorer a place without him.
Rest in peace Ali. You certainly shook up the world....