What a life. What a man.
I confess to complex feelings about Muhammad Ali. I've been a big boxing fan all my life. I subscribe to RING magazine, "the Bible of boxing." I read about boxing and have a small library on "the sweet science." (I highly recommend The Library of America's AT THE FIGHTS, an anthology of the best writing about boxing from Jack London, Sherwood Anderson, Red Smith, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.)
I Tivo all the fights on TV that I can and watch them subsequently, when I can fast-forward through the one-minute breaks between rounds. I buy pay-per-view fights. I watch Jim Lampley's excellent THE FIGHT GAME on HBO. I visit MaxBoxing and other Internet sites. I saw a heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas once – Tyson-Holyfield I – which was tremendous fun. I'll watch fights on Spanish-language TV even though I don't speak Spanish.
So you see, I'm a serious fan. And there was no bigger, more controversial, more important boxer in my lifetime than Ali. In fact, at the time of his death last week at the age of 74, he was probably the most famous, most recognizable person on Earth ... which is quite a statement to make about an athlete who retired in 1981 and had been largely silenced by Parkinson's disease for many, many years.
When I was young, boxing was a major sport. In the first part of the twentieth century, the major sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. All have now largely receeded into the background. Arguably, MMA – mixed-martial arts – is bigger today than conventional boxing. I'm fairly sure that more people know Ronda Rousey, the MMA star, than Tyson Fury, the current heavyweight champion of the boxing world.
Ali was easily the most talented heavyweight boxer that I've ever seen. (Alas, only on television.) At 6'3" and more than 220 pounds, he was biggest fast heavyweight of all time, or the fastest big man of all time. His skills inside the ring were simply astounding. Just take a look at some of the YouTube links below to see how fast, how sharp, how intelligent he was. He really did "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
His professional record was 56 wins (37 knockouts, 19 decisions) and 5 losses (4 decisions, 1 knockout – a very sad TKO loss to Larry Holmes in his next-to-last fight when he had already been exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson's.) He also won a Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics and had 100 wins and only 5 losses as an amateur. If he had stopped fighting when he should have – after the third fight with Joe Frazier, the "Thrilla in Manila" -- there would have only been two professional losses.
But, of course, Ali was more than just an athlete. I'm old enough to remember him as Cassius Clay when he was a major figure of controversy during the era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Because of his refusal to be inducted into the Army for the Vietnam War, he was suspended from boxing between March 22, 1967 until October 10, 1970 – more than two and a half years of his absolute prime as a heavyweight – and charged with draft evasion. That sentence was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on a technicality by an 8-0 decision.
Everything about him – his style, his name change, his affiliation with the Nation of Islam – challenged the White establishment. To be truthful, I was never fond of Ali's braggadocio. (I'm old-fashioned and believe that you should let other people brag about you.) And I never liked it when he called Joe Frazier an "Uncle Tom." Joe Frazier was a great fighter and deserved better, but Ali knew that controversy drove the box office.
Ali knew how to get attention and, as he said, "It's not bragging if you can back it up."
He was funny and entertaining and clever and endlessly interesting. He was never ever boring, in or out of the ring.
No athlete was ever as socially significant as Ali. The way he progressed, from a callow, juvenile "brat" to become a statesman and international symbol of peace, understanding, and brotherhood is one of the great journeys in all of sports history.
Here is a sampling of the sayings of Ali, the greatest trash-talker/philosopher of all time:
"I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger."
"If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it."
"It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am."
"To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole. And for the USA won the medal of gold. The Greeks said you're better than the Cassius of old."
"It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."
"Live every day like it's your last because someday you're going to be right."
"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."
"I am so fast that last night I turned off the light switch and was in bed before the room was dark."
"Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beating each other up."
"Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it, and I didn't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me."
"It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila."
"I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'"
"Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."
"There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win."
"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."
"Don't count the days; make the days count."
"Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill."
"At home I am a nice guy: but I don't want the world to know. Humble people, I've found, don't get very far."
"If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize."
"My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world."
"I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."
"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."
"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life."
"It's lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself."
"A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted thirty years of his life."
Researching this blog, I came across lots of interesting information about Ali and about sports, in general. But I think the most remarkable fact might be that the greatest athlete of all time was probably an Australian cricketer named Don Bradman, a subject for further investigation.
Ali's Top Ten Knockouts
Ali as a master of defense
Ali's amazing speed
Ali vs. Frazier – the "Thrilla in Manila"
Ali and Frazier on "The Dick Cavett Show"
Ali and Howard Cosell – before the second Sonny Liston fight
Ali beats up Floyd Patterson for refusing to call him "Ali"
Ali predicts his place in boxing history