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For legions of his fans across the world, Ali was the living embodiment of the American Dream – even as he blasted the “white establishment” and was stripped of his world heavyweight championship title at the height of his career for evading the draft due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.
With his lightning-quick style and nail-biting “rope-a-dope” strategy – which he employed to staggering effect in historic matches in Africa and Asia – Ali raised the profile of boxing, electrifying audiences with his irreplaceable combination of strength, technique, showmanship and bravado.
Out of the ring, his outspoken, often outlandish, but always entertaining comments to the press transformed the image of the largely silent African-American athlete who concentrated on his sport and was managed by professionals.
But at the height of his professional career, Ali was also a divisive figure because of his controversial embrace of the Nation of Islam and his ties to black militant figures Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.
In the eventful era that was the 1960s, Ali was at the vortex of all the controversies gripping his country, sticking up and paying for his principles with the pugnacious charm he employed in and out of the ring. By the end of the millennium, the former world boxing champion was named “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.
The ‘Louisville Lip’ abandons his ‘slave name’
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, into an African-American middle class family, the young Clay took up boxing at the age of 12 after his bike was stolen.
Fuming over his stolen bicycle, the 12-year-old reportedly told a Louisville police officer he was going to find and “whup” the thief. The police officer, Joe Martin, replied that the boy had better learn how to box first. Martin went on to become Ali’s first coach.
His first brush with fame came in 1956, when he won the Golden Gloves tournament for novices. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves. By 1960, he had won the light heavyweight gold at the Rome Olympics and his international reputation was set.
The Olympic gold medalist’s predilection for pre-fight bravado came to the fore before the epic 1964 heavyweight championship, when he famously called his opponent Sonny Liston “the ugly bear”. The drama increased during the pre-fight weigh-in when Clay – nicknamed the “Louisville Lip” – kept shouting at Liston, “someone is going to die at the ringside tonight”.
No one died, but the young Clay did manage to knock out Liston in one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
It was also his last major match as Cassius Clay. By the end of 1964, Clay had converted to Islam, joining the Nation of Islam, just as the black pride movement was gathering steam in the US. He eventually abandoned his so-called “slave name” for Muhammad Ali.
From boxing ring to antiwar campus circuit
If Ali’s embrace of the Nation of Islam was a controversial move, his most contentious action was yet to come.
In 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion after he refused to join the US military. His boxing licence was promptly suspended, his titles stripped, and instantly Ali became a household name on campuses and lecture halls across the US.
For three years – from the age of 25 to 27, considered the peak years of a professional boxer – Ali was out of the ring. But the “Louisville Lip” was still wowing audiences as he toured the country as a speaker at colleges and universities, delivering some of his greatest speeches to rapturous audiences as his case worked its way through the courts.
In 1971, the US Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction and “the Black Superman” could get back in the ring – for some of history’s most memorable fights.
The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire
In September 1974, when Ali arrived in Kinshasa, capital of what was then Zaire, the crowds exploded, screaming, “Ali, bomaye” – or “Ali, kill him.”
Ali was taking on the unbeaten heavyweight champion George Foreman in a historic fight, billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” and the showman-boxer was enjoying every minute of his Africa trip.
The run-up to the October 30, 1974, match saw the “Louisville Lip” at his most outlandish – to the delight of journalists and audiences across Africa, and the rest of the world.
When asked if he had a poem for the much younger Foreman, the former boxing champion shot off, “I hospitalise a brick. I’m so bad I make medicines sick. I’m so fast man, I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet,” before ending with a, “I can drown the drink of water and kill a dead tree. Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.”
To see Ali fight in the “Rumble in the Jungle” was to believe he truly was The Greatest.
Decades later, when the Oscar-winning documentary “When We Were Kings” was released in 1996, audiences were once again treated to the spectacular display of what came to be called Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy.
In a move that broke the unwritten rules of boxing, Ali got himself cornered to the rope early in the match, braced himself and just allowed Foreman to pummel him, with the intention of tiring out the reigning world champion.
Only midway through the match did Ali start returning punches and by the eighth round, Ali knocked down Foreman amidst pandemonium in the ring. The Greatest was back.
More famous matches were to follow – notably the 1975 fight against Joe Frazier in the Philippine capital, called “The Thrilla in Manila”.
‘When there were giants in the land’
By the late 1970s though, Ali’s boxing career was starting to decline. In 1981, after losing his heavyweight title to Trevor Berbick, “The People’s Champion” announced his retirement.
Three years later, he made another wrenching declaration, when he announced that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological condition.
The last few decades of Ali’s life were devoted to philanthropic projects, including the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Arizona and the Special Olympics.
Despite the progression of his condition, Ali remained active in public life. In 1998, he was made a United Nations Messenger of Peace and in 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President George W. Bush.
In the course of his eventful life, adults had been mesmerised by his charm, skill and chutzpah. Little boys on the streets of Africa and Asia have played mock-fights crying, “I’m Aaah-lee!” Teenagers have danced to the drumming beats of songs hailing Ali’s exploits, such as “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)” and “In Zaire”.
For a generation who lived through the dramatic era when Ali captured and vocalised the dissenting mood of a nation – from black consciousness to the anti-war movement – Ali will remain “The Greatest”.
As his former opponent in the ring George Foreman recounted, “Those were the days when there were giants in the land. Muhammad Ali, he’s the proof that there were giants in the land.”