Cassius Marcellus Clay jr, Mohammad Ali, was everything. Nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University as a possible successor to professor WH Auden in the 1960s a genuine undisputed boxing champion (not the contaminated type of today where we have about 7 heavyweight champions) a civil rights activist, a humanitarian, a loving father, a loving son, a loving brother, charismatic, an icon, a true legend.
Born in Lousiville Kentucky in 1942, Ali soared to heights no other human being will reach as he dominated not just sports, but the world. He began his professional career in1960 after he had won light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Olympics and even here the world was taking notice of the brash upstart. He dominated the games so much that the athletes actually named a road in the games village after him.
With the games over, Clay, as he then was, decided to go professional. He was approached by a group of investors to sign a 10-year contract. They were going to promote his fights but there was a catch. He was to be paid the miserable sum of just 75 dollars a fight –not surprisingly his father Cassius Marcellus Clay sr., tore up the contract and insisted on a more lucrative one.
He did then start his career with Angelo Dundee as his trainer, Drew “Bundini” Brown as his loyal corner man and the love of his brother Rahman, He started with a win over Tunney Hunsaker and by 1964 he was ready take on “Big Bear” Charles Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight championship of the world. No one gave him a chance; after all in the words of one observer, Liston was heavyweight champion of the world for life – for he was indestructible. In a display of hand speed that no one had ever seen, with lightning footwork, with a style that was unprecedented (Ali boxed with his hands by his side) he demolished Liston that night.
A rematch was negotiated and this fight went down in folk lore as Mohammad put Liston to sleep with his Phantom Punch. Some people said Liston took a dive in round 1, after being paid to throw the fight, yet replays in slow motion years later showed that Ali had connected with a lightning fast jab that no one at ringside saw but that snapped Liston’s head back and put him in the canvas for the 10-second count. The Phantom Punch was followed by other tactical moves that have gone down in boxing folklore – the Bolo Punch; the Malaysian Waltz (when he fought Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur); the Ali Shuffle and of course the Rope-a-Dope of Zaire where he realized his speed was not the solution to beating Foreman and thus in an instant switched from his lifelong tactics to a completely new style.
He continued to knockout all the great challengers of his time –“Big Cat” Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell – the list is long until the Vietnam War came calling and the greatest injustice in the history of sport. From 1967 to 1970 he was banned from boxing. Ali lost his job, his income, but he never lost the love of the millions of boxing fans. As he said, he was the “People’s Champion”.
But destiny was not to be thwarted; Ali was reinstated by the US Supreme Court and he took on Jerry Quarry and then Oscar Bonavena as warm ups for the Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier. The point here is that no one ever saw him box in his prime. From age 27-30, at a time when heavyweight boxers are at their prime, Ali was sidelined on account of his beliefs. He lost to Frazier, lost to Norton, beat the two of them in re-matches, and then came back against Foreman in a fight the build up of which was unprecedented. No one gave him a chance yet he outfoxed Foreman that night in Zaire, took on Frazier for a third time in Manila which remains the most brutal fight in heavyweight boxing history, and it was here that he walked out of the gates of boxing into legend.
When he visited Ghana in 1963 as Cassius Clay, the fans were so wild about this charismatic pretender to Liston’s throne that they seized the gangway when the plane landed, stormed the plane, snatched clay, and paraded him through Accra, leaving Nkrumah waiting for about an hour at Flagstaff House. Ali’s brother Rahman who accompanied him said the scene on the plane was so chaotic that he thought that they had walked into an assassination trap! When he beat Foreman in Zaire, rumour in Senegal was that Ali was in a plane that had touched down at Dakar airport on transit to the US. The boys in Senegal took over the national airport, searched the planes that day and had to be satisfied that it was just a rumour.
Ever since he quit the ring, people expect boxers, especially heavyweights, to be in the mould of Ali’s character, to be as handsome as the man and to be as poetic as the man but this is impossible. There will have to be another planet populated by 6 billion humans for us to discover someone similar to Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.
I guess it will be difficult for any sports person on this planet to be on top of their game and at the same time recite:
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, hospitalised a brick
I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
The butterfly has flown.