By Ajeyo Basu
New Delhi, June 4: Muhammad Ali was not a mere boxer, he was much more, the greatest as he claimed and adored by millions around the globe. He was not loved for his amazing boxing skills alone, more for his endearing beliefs.
He was an inspiration for not only sportspersons but also to millions around the world. His fearlessness gave the blacks the confidence to fight for their rights.
Born on January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, a small town in Kentucky alongside the Ohio river, Ali was the first to win the world heavyweight title three times.
An outspoken advocate of civil rights for black people, his opposition to what he perceived to be the white dominated establishment prompted him to join the Nation of Islam and refuse to serve in the Vietnam war.
Brash and witty, Ali had the unique ability and towering self-belief to back his words with his deeds.
His pugilistic might was spread over three different decades and his record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts tells it all.
He took to boxing at the age of 12. When his bicycle was stolen, the young Cassius Clay approached police officer Joe Martin to report. Ali told the officer that he was going to bash up the thief if he could lay his hands on him.
Martin, who trained young boxers at a local gym, suggested that the youngster should learn to fight before confronting the thief.
Clay quickly took to the ring, making his competitive debut in 1954 in a three-minute amateur bout.
Clay first shot to fame at the global level by winning the light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics as a supremely talented 18-year-old.
Strangely for a boxer who knocked down fearsome opponents in the ring with such flamboyance, Clay at first refused to travel with the US boxing squad to Rome due to his fear of flying.
Eventually, he bought a second hand parachute and wore it on the flight. It was worth all the effort. On September 5, 1960 he beat Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland to become the Olympic champion.
He received a hero’s welcome when the team returned to New York, but the reality of the segregated US society hit home when he got back to Kentucky and was refused a table in a restaurant. Ali claimed in his 1975 autobiography that it prompted him to throw away his Olympic medal in disgust.
He turned professional soon after with Angelo Dundee — who would contribute so much to his boxing success — as his trainer.
Clay stunned the critics and boxing fans around the globe by defeating the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion at the age of 22.
In the build up to the fight, Clay had taunted Liston and predicted that he will win by knockout.
He coined one of his most famous quotes, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” ahead of the fight.
But most boxing fans regarded Clay’s statements as the claims of an overconfident loudmouth and Liston — known for his awesome punching power — was widely tipped to win by knockout.
During the fight, Clay repeatedly outfoxed Liston with his speed, footwork and reflexes, chipping away at his opponent with powerful jabs. By the sixth round, Liston’s left bicep, which had borne the brunt of Clay’s assault, was swollen, prompting his corner to stop the fight as Clay won by technical knockout.
“I shook up the world,” a near-hysterical Clay declared after the fight.
As for his staunch opposition to racism, his outspoken advocacy of civil rights for black Americans caught on. He started to attract the ire of the establishment due to his involvement with controversial black rights group ‘Nation of Islam’ and black rights activist Malcolm X.
By the time of his first fight with Liston, he had already converted to Islam. But he was stopped from making a public announcement by boxing promoters who feared that it would affect the turnout at the Clay-Liston fight.
According to Ali, Cassius Clay was his “slave name”, and he took exception to anyone who continued to use it. Fellow African-American boxer Ernie Terrell refused to acknowledge Ali’s Muslim monicker and during the lead up to their fight in 1967, insisted on referring to him as Cassius Clay.
Terrell’s stance riled Ali and the two almost came to blows over the name issue in a pre-fight interview.
An angry Ali handed out fearsome punishment to Terrell throughout their 15-round fight, repeatedly screaming, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?”
Ali became a hate figure for sections of the white American public and barely more than 2,000 people turned up to see his rematch with Liston, which he controversially won with a first-round knockout.
But Ali’s Muslim faith and his strong conviction to stand up for his beliefs cost him dearly when he refused conscription to join the US Army during the Vietnam War.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali reportedly said.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong — no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
After Ali’s title defence against Zora Folley on March 22, 1967 he was stripped of his title due to his refusal to be drafted to army service. His boxing license was also suspended by the state of New York. He was convicted of draft evasion on June 20 and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He paid a bond and remained free while the verdict was being appealed.
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. This was the time when Ali was in the prime of his physical power — from age 25 to almost 29.
Ali appealed against the ban and eventually in 1971, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling.
On August 12, 1970, with his case still in appeal, Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission. Ali’s first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after his opponent suffered a cut.
But his enforced absence had taken its toll on his speed and physical form and in 1971 he was beaten for the first time in his professional career by the legendary Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 in what was termed as the ‘Fight of the Century’ in New York.
Ali would get his revenge three years later.
One of the greatest moments in Ali’s career came on October 30, 1974 when he knocked out reigning champion George Foreman in Zaire in a fight famously billed the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ to regain the world championship title.
As in the first Liston fight, Ali was widely perceived as the underdog, but he restored his reputation with an eighth round knockout.
Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in the Philippines on October 1, 1975, coming out on top in the “Thrilla in Manila”. It was a brutal fight which tested the physical and psychological limits of both boxers. Ali was declared the winner when Frazier failed to emerge for the 15th and final round.
Ali’s three fights with Frazier would have a profound effect on the career of both men and contribute a great deal to Ali’s legacy.
Six defences of his title followed before Ali lost on points to Leon Spinks in February 1978, although he regained the world title by the end of the year, avenging his defeat at the hands of the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion.
Ali’s career ended with one-sided defeats by Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, many thinking he should have retired long before.
Ali retired in 1981 and soon found signs of sluggishness and neurological damage. He thereafter received treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
The legendary boxer had been hospitalized several times in recent years, including in early 2015 with a severe urinary infection that was initially diagnosed as pneumonia.
Ali had been hospitalised in Phoenix, Arizona this week due to respiratory problems.
“A true great has left us. Muhammad Ali transformed this country and impacted the world with his spirit,” said Bob Arum, his long time boxing promoter.