28 Days of Black History day #10 Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; January 17, 1942) is an American former professional boxer, generally considered among the greatest heavyweights in the sport’s history. A controversial and polarizing figure during his early career, Ali is today widely regarded for not only the skills he displayed in the ring but also the values he exemplified outside of it: religious freedom, racial justice and the triumph of principle over expedience. He is one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years, crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.
Born Cassius Clay, at the age of 22 he won the world heavyweight championship in 1964 from Sonny Liston in a stunning upset. Shortly after that bout, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name. He subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
Ali remains the only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978.
Nicknamed “The Greatest”, Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and one with George Foreman, where he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier.
Ali revolutionized the sport of boxing by sheer power and magnetism of his personality  At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in — and indeed craved — the spotlight, where he was sometimes provocative, frequently outlandish and almost always entertaining. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing. He transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to completely “define the terms of his public reputation.
By late 1963, Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964, in Miami. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Based on Clay’s uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights, and Liston’s destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first-round knock outs, Clay was a 7–1 underdog. Despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup, dubbing him “the big ugly bear.” “Liston even smells like a bear,” Clay said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” He declared that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and, summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston’s assaults, said, “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” Clay turned the prefight weigh-in into a circus, shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight.” Nothing like this had ever occurred in the history of boxing. Clay’s pulse rate was around 120, more than double his norm of 54. Most of those in attendance, apparently including Liston, thought Clay’s behavior stemmed from extreme fear; some commentators wondered if he would even show up for the bout.
The outcome of the fight was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. At the opening bell, Liston rushed at Clay, seemingly angry and looking for a quick knockout. But Clay’s superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude Liston, making the champion miss wildly and look awkward. At the end of the first round Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston repeatedly with sharp jabs to the amazement of the crowd. Liston fought better in round two, but at the beginning of the third round Clay hit Liston with a combination that buckled his knees and opened a cut under his left eye, the first time Liston had ever been cut. Clay rested in round four, but as he came to his corner at the end of the round, he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston’s cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. (Though not confirmed, Bert Sugar claimed that at least two of Liston’s opponents also complained about their eyes ‘burning'”. ).
Despite Liston’s attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the irritation from his eyes. In the sixth, Clay dominated, hitting Liston virtually at will. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by TKO. Liston stated that the reason he quit was an injured shoulder. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted “eat your words!” Then, during the now-infamous in-ring interview following the match, Clay shouted, “I shook up the world!” “I talk to God every day.” “I must be the greatest!”
When Clay won, he became the youngest boxer (22 years old) to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion, though Floyd Patterson was the youngest to win the heavyweight championship at 21, during an elimination bout following Rocky Marciano’s retirement. Mike Tyson broke both records in 1986 when he defeated Trevor Berbick to win the heavyweight title at age 20.
Clay, now having changed his name to Muhammad Ali following his conversion to Islam and affiliation with the Nation of Islam, met Liston for a rematch in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. Originally scheduled for Boston the previous November, it was delayed due to Ali’s emergency surgery for a hernia three days before. Postponed six months, the fight proved to be as controversial as the first was shocking. Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked down by a punch later dubbed by the press as the “phantom punch” because no one saw it. Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, and referee Jersey Joe Walcott did not begin the count. Liston rose after he had been down about twenty seconds, and the fight momentarily continued. But suddenly Walcott reversed himself and stopped the match, declaring Ali the winner by knockout. The entire fight lasted less than two minutes.
Rumors circulated almost immediately after the fight – and continue to this day – that Liston dropped to the ground purposely. Various reasons include threats on his life from the Nation of Islam, that he had bet against himself and that he “took a dive” to pay off debts. Slow motion replays show that Liston was jarred by a chopping right from Ali, although it is uncertain whether the blow was a genuine knock-out punch.
Ali’s second title defense was against Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight champion who had lost twice to Liston in first-round knockouts. Patterson had made what Ali considered denigrating remarks about his religion; Ali dubbed Patterson a “white man’s champion” and taunted him with the name “Rabbit.” At times during the fight, Ali appeared to toy with Patterson, refusing, for example, to throw a single punch in the first round and easily avoiding Patterson’s lunging “kangaroo punch.” Some felt Ali deliberately prolonged the fight to inflict maximum punishment. Ali won a 12-round TKO. Patterson later said that he strained his sacroiliac, a statement supported by video of the fight. The clowning and taunting of Patterson was criticized by many in the sports media.
Ali and then-WBA heavyweight champion boxer Ernie Terrell had agreed to meet for a bout in Chicago on March 29, 1966 (the WBA, one of two boxing associations, had stripped Ali of his title following his joining the Nation of Islam). But in February Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A from 1-Y, and he indicated that he would refuse to serve, commenting to the press, “I got nothin against them Vietcong.” Amidst the media and public outcry over Ali’s stance, the Illinois Athletic Commission refused to host the fight, citing technicalities .
Instead, Ali traveled to Canada and Europe and won championship bouts against George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London and Karl Mildenberger.
Ali returned to the United States to fight Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome. According to Sports Illustrated, the bout drew a then-indoor world record of 35,460. Williams had once been considered among the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, but In 1964 he had been shot at point-blank range by a Texas policeman, resulting in the loss of one kidney and 10 feet (3.0 m) of his small intestine. Ali dominated Williams, winning a third-round TKO in what some consider the finest boxing exhibition of his career.
Ali and Terrell finally met in Houston on February 6, 1967. Terrell was considered Ali’s toughest opponent since Liston – unbeaten in five years and having defeated many of the boxers Ali had faced. Terrell was big, strong and had a three-inch-reach advantage over Ali. During the lead up to the bout, Terrell repeatedly called Ali “Clay,” much to Ali’s annoyance (Ali called Cassius Clay his “slave name”). The two almost came to blows over the point in a pre-fight interview with Howard Cosell. Ali seemed intent on humiliating Terrell. “I want to torture him,” he said. “A clean knockout is too good for him.”. The fight was close until the seventh round when Ali bloodied Terrell and almost knocked him out. In the eighth round, Ali taunted Terrell, hitting him with sharp jabs and shouting between punches, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Ali was unable to knock out Terrell, winning a unanimous 15-round decision. Terrell claimed that early in the fight Ali deliberately thumbed him – forcing Terrell to fight with one eye – and then, in a clinch, rubbed the wounded eye against the ropes. Because of Ali’s apparent intent to prolong to fight to inflict maximum punishment, critics described the bout as “one of the ugliest boxing fights”. Tex Maule later wrote: “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.” Ali denied he intended to harm Terrell on purpose nor did he feel he was cruel to him during the bout. But for Ali’s critics, the fight provided still more evidence of his arrogance.
After his title defense against Zora Folley on March 22, Ali’s title was stripped following his refusal to be drafted to Army service on April 28, His boxing license was also immediately suspended by the state of New York; he was convicted on June 20 by an all-white jury and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for draft evasion. While his case was on appeal, he was free on posted bond and served no jail time.
Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating publicly that, “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeal process. In 1971, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall abstained from the case).
During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African American pride and racial justice.
On August 12, 1970, with his case still in appeal in 1970, Ali was granted a license on August 12 to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission, thanks to State Senator Leroy R. Johnson. Ali’s first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after Quarry was cut. A month earlier, a victory in federal court forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali’s license. He fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December, a uninspired performance that ended in a dramatic TKO of Bonavena in the 15th round. The win left Ali as a top contender against heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
Ali and Frazier’s first fight, held at the Garden on March 8, 1971, was nicknamed the “Fight of the Century”, due to the tremendous excitement surrounding a bout between two undefeated fighters, each with a legitimate claim as heavyweight champions. Veteran boxing writer John Condon called it “the greatest event I’ve ever worked on in my life.” The bout was broadcast to 35 foreign countries; promoters granted 760 press passes.
Adding to the atmosphere were the considerable pre-fight theatrics and name calling. Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment.” “Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” Ali also frequently called Frazier an Uncle Tom. Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp, recalled that, “Ali was saying, ‘the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’ Joe was sitting there smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?'”
The Monday night fight lived up to its billing. In a preview of their two other fights, a crouching, bobbing and weaving Frazier constantly pressured Ali, getting hit regularly by Ali jabs and combinations, but relentlessly attacking and scoring repeatedly, especially to Ali’s body. The fight was even in the early rounds, but Ali was taking more punishment than ever in his career. On several occasions in the early rounds he played to the crowd and shook his head “no” after he was hit. In the later rounds—in what was the first appearance of the “rope-a-dope strategy”—Ali leaned against the ropes and absorbed punishment from Frazier, hoping to tire him. In the 11th round, Frazier connected with a left hook that wobbled Ali, but because it appeared that Ali might be clowning as he staggered backwards across the ring, Frazier hesitated to press his advantage, fearing an Ali counter-attack. In the final round, Frazier knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook, which referee Arthur Mercante said was as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was back on his feet in three seconds  Nevertheless, Ali lost by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat.
Ali’s characterizations of Frazier during the lead-up to the fight cemented a personal animosity toward Ali by Frazier that lasted until Frazier’s death. Frazier and his camp always considered Ali’s words cruel and unfair, far beyond what was necessary to sell tickets. Shortly after the bout, in the studios of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during a nationally televised interview with the two boxers, Frazier rose from his chair and wrestled Ali to the floor after Ali called him ignorant.
After the loss, Ali fought Quarry, a second bout with Floyd Patterson and Bob Foster in 1972, winning a total of six fights that year. In 1973, Ali suffered the second loss of his career at the hands of Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw during the fight. After initially seeking retirement, Ali won a controversial decision against Norton in their second bout, leading to a rematch at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974 with Joe Frazier—who had recently lost his title to George Foreman.
Ali was strong in the early rounds of the fight, and staggered Frazier in the second round (referee Tony Perez mistakenly thought he heard the bell ending the round and stepped between the two fighters as Ali was pressing his attack, giving Frazier time to recover). However, Frazier came on in the middle rounds, snapping Ali’s head in round seven and driving him to the ropes at the end of round eight. The last four rounds saw round-to-round shifts in momentum between the two fighters. Throughout most of the bout, however, Ali was able to circle away from Frazier’s dangerous left hook and to tie Frazier up when he was cornered—the latter a tactic that Frazier’s camp complained of bitterly. Judges awarded Ali a unanimous decision.
The defeat of Frazier set the stage for a title fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974—a bout nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Foreman was considered one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. In assessing the fight, analysts pointed out that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—who had given Ali four tough battles and won two of them—had been both devastated by Foreman in second round knockouts. Ali was 32 years old, and had clearly lost speed and reflexes since his twenties. Contrary to his later persona, Foreman was at the time a brooding and intimidating presence. Almost no one associated with the sport, not even Ali’s long-time supporter Howard Cosell, gave the former champion a chance of winning.
As usual, Ali was confident and colorful before the fight. He told interviewer David Frost, “if you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!”  He told the press, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Ali was wildly popular in Zaire, with crowds chanting “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) wherever he went.
Ali opened the fight moving and scoring with right crosses to Foreman’s head. Then, beginning in the second round—and to the consternation of his corner—Ali retreated to the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him while covering up, clinching and counter-punching—all while verbally taunting Foreman (“is that all you got, George? They told me you could hit.”). The move, which would later become known as the “Rope-A-Dope,” so violated conventional boxing wisdom—letting one of the hardest hitters in boxing strike at will—that at ringside writer George Plimpton thought the fight had to be fixed. Foreman, increasingly angered, threw punches that were deflected and didn’t land squarely. Midway through the fight, as Foreman began tiring, Ali countered more frequently and effectively with punches and flurries, which electrified the pro-Ali crowd. In the eighth, Ali dropped an exhausted Foreman with a combination at center ring; Foreman failed to make the count. Against the odds, and amidst pandemonium in the ring, Ali had regained the title by knockout.
In reflecting on the fight, George Foreman later said, “I’ll admit it. Muhammad outthought me and outfought me.”
Ali’s next opponents included Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, and Joe Bugner. Wepner, a journeyman known as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” stunned Ali with a knockdown in the ninth round; Ali would later say he tripped on Wepner’s foot.
Ali then agreed to a third match with Joe Frazier in Manila. The bout, titled “The Thrilla in Manila”, was held on October 1, 1975 in temperatures approaching 100 °F (38 °C). In the first rounds, Ali was aggressive, moving and exchanging blows with Frazier. However, Ali soon appeared to tire and adopted the ‘rope-a-dope” strategy, frequently resorting to clinches. During this part of the bout Ali did some effective counter-punching, but for the most part absorbed punishment from a relentlessly attacking Frazier. In the twelfth round, Frazier began to tire, and Ali scored several sharp blows that closed Frazier’s left eye and opened a cut over his right eye. With Frazier’s vision now diminished, Ali dominated the 13th and 14th rounds, at times conducting what boxing historian Mike Silver called “target practice” on Frazier’s head. Still, at the end of the 14th round, Frazier was still standing and Ali appeared exhausted. The fight was stopped when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to allow Frazier to answer the bell for the 15th and final round, despite Frazier’s protests. Frazier’s eyes were both swollen shut. Ali, in his corner, winner by TKO, slumped on his stool, clearly spent.
An ailing Ali said afterwards that the fight “was the closest thing to dying that I know” and, when later asked if he had viewed the fight on videotape, reportedly said, “why would I want to go back and see Hell?” After the fight he cited Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all times next to me.”