Muhammed Ali in the eye of history

Yet again, the cold hands of death have bared their fang, this time in far away United States of America, the quintessential face of boxing, Muhammad Ali was snatched away at the age of 74, thus closing an era not only in the gentleman’s sport.

Ali 7Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he was the eldest son of a father who while alive between 1912 and 1990 also bore the same name Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. on January 17 1942. His mother was Odessa Grady Clay.

Ali place of birth was Louisville, Kentucky. He grew up a normal child in a family deeply steeped in Christian tradition but his foray into boxing was accidental. The story goes on to state that his interest in boxing came when his beloved bicycle was stolen by some neighbourhood bullies.

A tearful 12-year-old Clay reported the theft to Louisville police officer Joe Martin and vowed to beat the culprit to a pulp pummel the culprit. Unknown to him, the Martin was also a boxing trainer who was to later suggest that the young Cassius must first learn how to fight, and he took Clay under his wing.

The friendship indeed worked wonders as the young budding talent about six weeks later won his first bout in a split decision thus commencing a career that would eventually make him a global icon.

By the age 18 Clay had won two national Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union national titles and 100 victories against eight losses. After graduating high school, he traveled to Rome and won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.

Ali 6With the Olympic gold medal under his belt, Clay won his professional boxing debut on October 29, 1960, in a six-round decision. From the start of his pro career, the 6-foot-3-inch heavyweight overwhelmed his opponents with a combination of quick, powerful jabs and foot speed, and his constant braggadocio and self-promotion earned him the nickname “Louisville Lip.”

He thus went on to have an illustrious career by becoming the first individual to win the heavyweight boxing title three times. In all, he won 56 times in his 21-year professional career.

Muhammed Ali3Outside the ring, Ali’s outspokenness on issues of race, religion and politics made him a controversial figure during his career, and the heavyweight’s quips and taunts were as quick as his fists. To register his displeasure with the prevailing political order in the US, he changed his name to Muhammed Ali in 1964 after joining a religious pressure group mostly peopled by radical elements in the African American society. The group is called, Nation of Islam.

After winning his first 19 fights, including 15 knockouts, Clay received his first title shot at the World tile on February 25, 1964, against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

Although he arrived match venue in Miami Beach an underdog, the 22-year-old Clay relentlessly taunted Liston before the fight, promising to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and predicting a knockout.

When Liston failed to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round, Clay was indeed crowned heavyweight champion of the world. In the ring after the fight, the new champ roared, “I am the greatest!”

The following morning, Clay, who had been seen around Miami with controversial Nation of Islam member Malcolm X, confirmed his conversion to Islam in a press confefrence. On March 6, 1964, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad bestowed on Clay the name of Muhammad Ali.

Ali solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship by knocking out Liston in the first round of their rematch on May 25, 1965, and he defended his title eight more times. Then, with the Vietnam War raging, Ali showed up for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces on April 28, 1967.

Citing his religious beliefs, he refused to serve. Ali was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and revoked his heavyweight belt.

Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but he remained free while the conviction was appealed. Many saw Ali as a draft dodger, and his popularity plummeted.

Banned from boxing for three years, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War on college campuses but as public attitudes turned against the war, support for Ali grew. In 1970 the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated, and the following year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision.

After 43 months in exile, Ali returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, and knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round. On March 8, 1971, Ali got his chance to regain his heavyweight crown against reigning champ Joe Frazier in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.”

The undefeated Frazier floored Ali with a hard left hook in the final round. Ali got up but lost in a unanimous decision, experiencing his first defeat as a pro.

Ali won his next 10 bouts before being defeated by Ken Norton. He won the rematch six months later in a split decision and gained further revenge in a unanimous decision over Frazier in a non-title rematch.

The victory gave the then 32-year-old Ali a title shot against 25-year-old champion George Foreman. The October 30, 1974, fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, was dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, the decided underdog, employed his “rope-a-dope” strategy, leaning on the ring ropes and absorbing a barrage of blows from Foreman while waiting for his opponent to tire.

The strategy worked, and Ali won in an eighth-round knockout to regain the title stripped from him seven years prior.

Ali successfully defended his title in 10 fights, including the memorable “Thrilla in Manila” on October 1, 1975, in which his bitter rival Frazier, his eyes swollen shut, was unable to answer the bell for the final round. Ali also defeated Norton in their third meeting in a unanimous 15-round decision.

On February 15, 1978, an aging Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks in a 15-round split decision. Seven months later, Ali defeated Spinks in a unanimous 15-round decision to reclaim the heavyweight crown and become the first fighter to win the world heavyweight boxing title three times. After announcing his retirement in 1979, Ali launched a brief, unsuccessful comeback. However, he was overwhelmed in a technical knockout loss to Larry Holmes in 1980, and he dropped a unanimous 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981. After the fight, the 39-year-old Ali retired for good with a career record of 56 wins, five losses and 37 knockouts.

In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, possibly connected to the severe head trauma suffered during his boxing career. The former champion’s motor skills have slowly declined, and his movement and speech are limited. In spite of this, Ali remained in the public spotlight, traveling the world to make humanitarian, goodwill and charitable appearances.

He met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990 to negotiate the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he traveled to Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Ali had the honor of lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In 1999 Ali was voted the BBC’s “Sporting Personality of the Century,” and Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century.”

Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a 2005 White House ceremony, and in the same year the $60 million Muhammad Ali Center, a non-profit museum and cultural center focusing on peace and social responsibility, opened in Louisville.

Ring Magazine named Ali “Fighter of the Year” five times, more than any other boxer, and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Ali has been married four times and has seven daughters and two sons. He married his fourth wife, Yolanda, in 1986.

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