Saturday, June 04, 2016

THE Greatest

'Champions aren't made in 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.'
    Muhammad Ali who died on Friday at the age of seventy four was, at his peak, arguably the most famous man on the planet. His prodigious boxing talent was matched only by a towering self-belief and ability as a Premier League self-publicist and World Class comedic wit. 'I am The Greatest,' he said, and who - ultimately - could doubt the opinion of a man who won the World Heavyweight Championship three times? His outspoken support for civil rights endeared him to millions of people across the world, this blogger very much included, yet it also made him a potent hate-figure to large racist chunks of Middle Class America who saw him as an uppity, full-of-his-own-importance Black who should know his place and respect his 'betters.' That was the world of the 1960s which Muhammad Ali, in no small part, helped to change. No obituary of him should ignore that above any other aspect of his life.
Muhammad Ali fought, not only Sonny Liston, Smokin' Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, et al, he also took on the American Government. He fought The Law and The Law - briefly - won. But, in the end, it was Ali who emerged the victor, on all levels. He stayed on his toes, literally, during bouts - as in life - sometimes quickly moving his feet forward and backward while his upper body stayed in place. The mesmerising move became known as 'The Ali Shuffle.' Fans on every continent adored him and relished his wit, his athletic prowess and his humanity. His death came after a lengthy battle against Parkinson's. Ali was diagnosed with the disease in 1984, three years after he retired from a boxing career which began when a skinny twelve-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky.
      He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in January 1942, the son of a sign painter and was named after a prominent Nineteenth Century slave abolitionist. It was a fitting moniker for a man who would spend his life challenging the sick attitudes which once allowed one man to enslave another. When he was twelve, he reported his bicycle had been stolen and told a police officer that he was going to whup the culprit's chin when he caught up with him. The officer, Joe Martin, trained young fighters at a local gym and suggested that Cassius learn to box before he challenged the thief. Cassius quickly took to the ring, making his competitive debut in 1954 in a three-minute amateur bout. 'He stood out because he had more determination than most boys,' Martin later recalled. 'He was easily the hardest worker of any kid I ever taught.' Over the following five years, Cassius's amateur career flourished and he won a number of awards including the Golden Gloves Tournament in 1959. In 1960 he was selected in the American team for the Rome Olympics. At first, he refused to go because of a fear of flying. Eventually, according to Joe Martin's son, he bought a second-hand parachute and wore it during the flight. It was worth the effort. On 5 September 1960, he beat Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to become the Olympic light-heavyweight champion. He received a hero's welcome when the US team returned to New York but the reality of the segregated society in the American Deep South hit home when he got back to Kentucky and was refused a table in a restaurant because of his skin colour. He claimed in his 1975 autobiography that he threw away his Olympic medal in disgust after that incident, though it was later revealed that he had actually lost it a year after his return from Rome. Though only eighteen, he joined boxing's paid ranks and began his professional career later the same year with a six-round points win over Tunney Hunsaker, a police officer from West Virginia. 'Clay was as fast as lightning,' Hunsaker said after the bout. 'I tried every trick I knew to throw him off balance but he was just too good.' Cassius also took on Angelo Dundee, the trainer who would contribute so much to his boxing success. A steady succession of victories, reinforced by outrageous self-advertising and occasional cynical dismissal of his opponents as 'bums', brought him fame, if not universal popularity. Cassius's extraordinary manner in the ring involved dancing around his opponents like a lightweight. He taunted them, delighting crowds with his showboating arrogance, shuffling feet and lightning reflexes - as one of his corner men famously said, he would 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.' He offered further hostages to fortune by predicting not merely his opponents' defeat, but when, precisely, he would dispose of them. 'They must fall/in the round I call,' he boasted, his witty poetry becoming almost as famous as his methods of dispatch. (His friend, the noted sports journalist George Plimpton once credited Ali with creating the shortest poetic quotation in the English language delivered when he was guest speaker at a Harvard graduation ceremony in 1975: 'Me/Whee!') He was sharp, sassy and very pretty. The press dubbed him 'The Louisville Lip.' He called himself, simply, 'The Greatest.' On his first trip to London in 1963, he was floored in the fourth round by the British champion Henry Cooper (the punch from 'Enry - The 'Ammer - was so hard, Cassius recalled, 'my ancestors back in Africa felt it!'). But, helped by Angelo Dundee cutting his glove and causing a delay so that Cassius could clear his head - he fulfilled his pre-fight prediction when cuts to Cooper's eye forced his retirement in the next round.
The following year Cassius challenged the formidable world champion Sonny Liston, whom he referred to as 'that ugly old bear.' Clay was given no chance by the boxing press - nor, indeed, by The Be-Atles (a popular beat combo of the 1960s, you might've heard of them) who met Cassius during training for the fight in Miami where they were appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. 'Hey, you guys aren't as dumb as you look,' he reportedly told them. 'No, but you are,' alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie John Lennon replied. But, in the fight, Cassius ran rings round his older opponent and forced Liston to quit on his stool at the end of the sixth round. 'I shook up the world!' a near-hysterical Cassius declared to television after the fight.
Away from the ring, Clay was a fierce opponent of the racism which blighted large areas of the United States in the 1960s. By the time of his fight with Liston, he was already involved with The Nation Of Islam, a controversial Black Muslim movement which called for separate black development. The policy was in direct contrast to the more inclusive approach favoured by other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. In 1964, Cassius had heard the black activist Malcolm X speak and subsequently joined The Nation Of Islam, an organisation which terrified much of White America, mixing fundamentalist religious teachings with radical black politics. In keeping with the casting-off of his 'slave' past, Cassius also changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Previously, although admired by all but the most blinkered and ignorant of boxing fans for his talent he was badly disliked by the more conservative (for which read racist) elements of society because of his perceived arrogance. Now, he joined a group which many right-wing Americans and most of the media regarded as dangerous subversives, Ali became a pariah, one of his country's most hated men. Almost all of the boxing world insulted Ali by pointedly refusing to address him by his new name; one notable exception was the respected boxing commentator Howie Cosell, who became a close friend of Ali as they verbally sparred in interviews for the rest of Cosell's life (Ali often getting much comedy value from Cosell's rather obvious toupee). Once, Cosell said that Ali was being truculent. 'Whatever truculent mean, if that's good, I'm that,' replied Ali. In a title defence in 1967, Ali's opponent, Ernie Terrell, constantly referred to Ali by his birth name during the build-up to their fight, only for Ali to hand out a fifteen-round battering, constantly pulling back from delivering what would have been an easy knock-out blow so that he could taunt and humiliate his opponent further.
Ali had further stoked the pre-fight ill-will by labelling Terrell 'an Uncle Tom nigger who is going to get his ass whupped.' The Daily Torygraph wrote that the resulting fight was 'the nastiest display of Ali's celebrated ring career,' declaring, 'the fight will be remembered for Ali's constant taunts of "what's my name?' to an opponent he was apparently content not merely to defeat, but also to belittle.' Ali became a hate figure for large sections of the more racist end of the American public and barely more than two thousand people turned up to see his rematch with Liston in 1965, which he controversially won with a first-round knockout. Eight more title defences followed before the Terrell match - including fights against Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Brian London and a rematch with Henry Cooper. But, when Ali refused to sign the oath of allegiance to join the US Army ('I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong,' he was reported as saying. 'No Vietcong ever called me nigger'), he was stripped of his title with almost indecent haste by the boxing authorities who seemed to have been looking for an excuse to bring this uppity individual down to size. More worryingly, he was also given five years in jail, a sentence which was subsequently quashed on appeal four years later. Ali had failed the Armed Forces qualifying test in 1964 because his spelling skills were below average (he told reporters, with a cheeky grin, 'I told you I was The Greatest, I never said I was The Smartest!') However in 1966, with manpower needed for Viet'nam, these tests were revised and Ali was reclassified as A-1. This meant he was eligible for the draft. When notified of his new status, Ali declared that he would refuse to serve and publicly considered himself a conscientious objector on religious grounds stating 'War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. We're not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah.' Ali became the symbol of opposition – particularly black opposition - to the war at a time when Lyndon Johnson was still in office and US public opinion against the war was, largely, confined to protest singers and left-wing intellectuals.
Ali's stance directly inspired the Olympic Project for Human Rights movement at San Jose University which would lead to the memorable so-called 'Black Power' protests at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and he became a potent symbol of black defiance, the sporting equivalent of maverick political outsiders like Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and George Jackson. Ali subsequently claimed that the Government offered him a face-saving deal: If he would go, quietly, into uniform, they would keep him well away from the front line, allow him to defend his title and put on boxing exhibitions in a similar arrangement to that which Joe Louis had enjoyed during World War II. Ali told them where to stick their deal. During this period, as more and more people began to turn against the war, support for Ali's stance grew. Ali financially supported himself by opening a restaurant chain called 'Champburger' and visiting many universities to give speeches about his beliefs. (It has been alleged, though never confirmed, that he also received financial support from other boxers, most notably Joe Frazier who had taken the vacant world title in Ali's absence.) As Jerry Izenberg, one of America's foremost sports journalists, observed decades later: 'Ironically, after all he went through, the affection for Ali is largely colour-blind. He reached a point where, when people looked at him, they didn't see black or white. They saw Ali.' After three years, Ali was granted back his boxing licence and returned to the ring in 1970 with a three-round win over Jerry Quarry. But, his enforced absence had taken its toll on his speed and fitness and, in 1971 he was beaten for the first time in his professional career by Smokin' Joe Frazier in what was dubbed at the time 'The Fight Of The Century.'
Ali would gain his revenge three years later in a close rematch. As a former champion, he also lost to the under-rated Ken Norton - having his jaw broken in the process - but, otherwise, he kept winning, fighting (and easily beating) the likes of Joe Bugnar as he waited, impatiently, for another title shot.
Perhaps Ali's greatest moment came in October 1974 when he defeated the formidable George Foreman in Zaire in the so-called 'Rumble In The Jungle.' As with the first Liston fight, Ali was given little chance against the powerful Foreman who had beaten Frazier the previous year to become undisputed world champion and some commentators even feared for Ali's safety.
The event was the flamboyant Don King's first venture as a promoter. He managed to get both Ali and Foreman's signatures, but King didn't have the money and needed a country to sponsor the bout. Zaïre's military dictator, Mobutu Sésé Seko, was eager for the publicity such a high-profile event would bring. He is said to have diverted ten million dollars from state funds as prize money. The original scheduled date for the fight was 25 September 1974 but a week before, in a sparring session, Foreman was cut and the fight was delayed by a month. Ali spent the time becoming popular with the Congolese people and using their love of his showmanship to play mind-games with his opponent. Before he arrived in Zaïre, most Africans had assumed that Foreman was actually white and when he did arrive, he brought his pet German shepherd dog with him - the same breed used by Zaïre's hated former Belgian colonial rulers. While Ali was winning hearts and minds, Foreman remained locked in his hotel room, brooding. A popular local chant leading up to - and during - the fight was 'Ali bomaye!', which translated as 'Ali, kill him!' The fight's start time, in the early hours of the morning in the UK, was designed to catch prime-time in America. Nevertheless, a company called Viewsport showed a live-feed of the bout on closed-circuit TV to an estimated audience of one hundred thousand punters at the thirty five cinemas throughout Britain.
Ali told Angelo Dundee before the fight that he had a plan. He did - to dance Foreman off his feet as he had done with Sonny Liston a decade earlier – but by the end of the first round he realised that in the savage jungle heat, he was doing more work than his opponent. From round two Ali began an apparently defensive policy, lying against the ropes, allowing Foreman to come at him and absorbing punishment (a strategy Ali later dubbed 'rope-a-dope'). As a result Foreman expanded all of his energy throwing many punches which either didn't hurt Ali or were easily blocked. When the two fighters were locked in clinches, however, Ali consistently outboxed Foreman. He also taunted his opponent, provocatively yelling 'they told me you could punch, George!' At the end of the eighth round, Ali sprang out of his defensive shell and sent Foreman sprawling to the canvas with a picture-perfect combination just as a thunderstorm dramatically broke above the stadium. There was a moment where, as Foreman was going down, Ali pulled back his right arm and seemed to be considering another blow. But, he held back, apparently not wishing to destroy the perfect aesthetic of the moment. 'The punch Ali never gave Foreman' has, subsequently, become a much-used phrase to describe an inelegant or crass example of beating someone when they're already on their way down.
At the age of thirty two, Ali had become only the second man in history to regain the heavyweight championship of the world ('ohmigod, he's won the title back at thirty two!' Harry Carpenter memorably screamed on his BBC's commentary of the fight). The Rumble In The Jungle came to have huge cultural significance, being the basis for Leon Gast's superb Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings and also Norman Mailer's book The Fight, both of which placed the events within the wider context of black American culture. Muhammad was in sparkling from during the chaotic post-fight interview for US TV with David Frost. 'Everybody stop talking! Attention!' he cried before one of sport's greatest ever tirades. 'I told you all I was The Greatest of all time … I'm still The Greatest. … All of my critics crawl! All you suckas, bow!' Ali was always great value in TV talk shows, particularly with the BBC's Michael Parkinson who interviewed him four times. 'I lost every time!' noted Parky.
Never an angel, Ali was a man with ample capacity for controversy. 'Put a hand on a Muslim sister and you are to die,' he once told an interviewer from Playboy. 'A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman.' 'And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks - or white men, for that matter?' asked the reporter. 'Then she dies,' said Ali. 'Kill her, too.' (One of his interviews with Parkinson, in particular, included some forthright comments along similar lines which are, genuinely, uncomfortable to watch from a Twenty First Century perspective.) He wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination; he was a man who could cruelly taunt outstanding - and dignified - comrades and draw accusations of rank hypocrisy for his own relentless extra-marital adventures (his first two marriages ended in divorce due, directly, to his infidelities with other women). He could be naïve and he could sometimes be downright foolish. He was, ultimately, forgiven by many not because others shared those trenchant militant views or chose to forget them, but because they were part of his growth as a man and as a character.

The victory in Zaire was also depicted in 2001's Ali, which garnered Will Smith as Oscar nomination for his fine performance in the Michael Mann-directed film. However, perhaps inevitably Ali was first portrayed in a film by himself, starring in the - frankly, rather average - 1977 biopic The Greatest, which charted his career from the 1960 Olympics through to The Rumble In The Jungle. Two years before that, Ali had met Frazier for a third and final time in the so-called Thrilla In Manila, perhaps the most brutal encounter in heavyweight boxing history, two grizzled old warriors going toe-to-toe with no quarter asked, or given. Ali said later that it was the closest he had come to death in the ring, but he was victorious when Frazier's corner halted the fight after fourteen gruelling rounds. Ali's characterisations of Frazier - as 'ugly', 'slow' and 'stupid' - during the lead-up to all three of their fights, and his infamous punching a stuffed gorilla in sparring sessions before the Manilla fight, cemented a personal animosity toward Ali by Frazier which lasted until Frazier's death. Joe and his camp always considered Ali's words to be cruel and unfair, far beyond what was necessary to sell tickets and promote the fight.
Shortly after their first fight, in the studios of ABC's Wide World Of Sports during a nationally televised interview with the two boxers, Frazier wrestled Ali to the floor after Ali called him ignorant. Ali relationship with Frazier was always rather complex - ranging from grudging respect to outright loathing - but, in their later years and, particularly after Frazier's death in 2011, Ali seemed to mellow. He once noted that many of the things he'd said about Smokin' Joe had been 'crazy talk' and that he now bitterly regretted them.
      Ali's stature as cultural icon even extended to pop charts. Johnny Wakelin & The Kinsasha Band had a 1975 hit with 'Black Superman', sample lyric: 'Muhammad was known to have said/"You watch me shuffle and I'll jab off your head!"' A year later, Wakelin produced the even better 'In Zaire': 'Once there was a battle there/hundred thousand people there ... There came a man called Elijah/With him came a superstar/In Zaire!'
Ali could, and perhaps should, have retired after The Thrilla In Manilla, but he fought on often against men who were, seemingly, hand-picked to be on the receiving end of an easy Ali spanking, including one staggeringly dreadful mismatch against the British champion, Richard Dunn. When he did fight someone with a bit of quality, you rather feared for him. In 1976, he had a third - bruising - encounter with Ken Norton and, controversially, won on points, a fight that many observers felt he'd actually lost. Afterwards, he told Sportsnight's Harry Carpenter that this was, definitely, his last fight. But, it wasn't, he chose to carry on. In Las Vegas in February 1978, the inevitable happened, Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks, the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion who was twelve years his junior. The return fight in New Orleans eight months later drew a world record gate, with millions more watching on television. This time, astonishingly, Ali produced on final moment of greatness and took a unanimous decision to win the world title for an unprecedented third time at thirty six.
Generous - perhaps even reckless - with his money, Ali is thought to have earned more than sixty million dollars from his ring career but, by 1979, he seemed to have little of it left. That may be one of the reasons why he refused to call time on his career, but he was clearly a fading force when he lost his title for the last time to his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes in Las Vegas in 1980. It was a sad and inglorious end, Ali looking overweight and often breathless and Holmes, seemingly, genuinely concerned for his former friend's welfare. Ali had one more fight after that, against the Canadian Trevor Berbick in December 1981 and, after losing on points, he finally retired from the ring at the age of forty. Soon afterwards, rumours began to circulate about the state of his health. His speech had become slurred, he shuffled and was often drowsy. Parkinson's Disease was eventually diagnosed, a condition only too obvious when, with courage and immense dignity, he lit the 1996 Olympic cauldron in Atlanta.
Rumours about Ali's health periodically became a subject of heated discussions in the US and abroad. But he continued to travel, receiving an ecstatic welcome wherever he appeared, especially in the developing world, where he was particularly revered. In Britain, BBC viewers voted him Sports Personality of the Century, and he was given a similar award from Sports Illustrated in the US. In 2005, Ali received America's two highest civilian awards - the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom - for 'exemplary services' to the country. The same year saw the opening of the non-profit Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, which promotes 'peace, social responsibility and respect.' Ali's record as a boxer remains impressive despite those last few, unwise years. His professional career spanned twenty one years, during which he won fifty six of his sixty one fights, thirty seven by a knockout, and he lost only five (all, except in the case of Berbick, to genuinely world class opponents). But he was much more than that.
'The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life,' he once said. He was a great showman whose off-the-cuff quips and improvised poetry won him many friends and admirers, not least in the UK (this blogger, for example, well remembers his fund-raising visit to the North East in 1977). His high profile gave his espousal of civil rights additional weight and he was a hero to large numbers of people - both black and white - both in the US and further afield. And, late in life, when this magnificent athlete was brought low by a debilitating disease, his quiet dignity impressed everyone he met. Ali's fame transcended the boxing ring and he used that fame toward what his daughter Hana called 'a relentless effort to promote peace, tolerance and humanity around the world.' He was welcomed by American presidents, world leaders like Nelson Mandela and foreign dictators including Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. His role as an ambassador of peace started in 1985 when he travelled to Lebanon to try to secure the release of four American hostages. In 1990, he was credited with securing the release of more than a dozen American hostages from Iraq just days before the start of the first Gulf War and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. He also used his notoriety for charity work, helping raise millions of dollars for food and medical relief around the world. In 1998, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. 'Muhammad feels that everything he did prior to now was to prepare him for where he is now in life,' his wife, Lonnie said in 2012. 'He is very much more a spiritual being. He is very aware of his time here on Earth. And he has sort of planned the rest of his life to do things so that he is assured a place in Heaven.' Rarely has any person transcended his sport in the way Ali did, to become one of the best-known figures of his time.
He is survived by his nine children, including his daughter Laila, who like her father, became a world champion boxer and by his fourth wife, Lonnie.