Muhammad Ali could have stayed just a boxer and still wowed the world. But he never would have been satisfied with that. Born with the ‘slave’ name of Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior, Ali was the rare example of a sportsperson turned crusader of subjects considered sensitive and even anti-national.
By returning his white name and choosing an ‘African’ one, Ali gave the racially marginalised a reason to take pride in being black. Turning to the Nation of Islam was his way of showing “I care a damn”. By saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”, Ali courted the ire of the administration but won American hearts. Refusing to enlist for the army forced Ali into an exile but he never backed out of his stance. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” he said.
He hobnobbed with the rich and the famous, had a string of partners but was also generous towards children. Never done with insisting on clean living, nutrition, Ali had even gone down to a six-year sparring partner just to make him feel happy. He was that loudmouth who always put on a good show for the crowd, inciting them and often the opponent by predicting how many rounds it would take him to win. But he also was the most hardworking boxer in the gym and a complete athlete.
It was Ali who inspired Apollo Creed, that trashtalking entertainer with a plethora of nicknames who decided to give the rookie a chance to fight him just out of his generosity. Thus came alive the character of Rocky Balboa who inspired many to take up boxing.
In real life, a teenager couldn’t bear the sight of his hero being thrashed to pulp by Larry Holmes. That night saw the birth of Mike Tyson who returned seven years later to avenge his hero’s loss by dismantling an ageing and overweight Holmes. Ali was ringside throughout the fight. And many hadn’t missed the words ‘Do it for me’ Ali had whispered into Tyson’s ears just before the bout began.
Unlike many champions before and after him, Muhammad Ali didn’t have an unbeaten record. Ali’s first loss came in his 11th year of professional boxing when he went down to Joe Frazier in the ‘Fight of the Century’ at the Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. It made him only hungrier. By the time Ali got a rematch, he wasn’t the lithe 22-year-old boxer who literally danced around Sonny Liston, evading his vicious hooks that could easily knock one’s head off, making him tired before finally raining those quick blows on him.
His best years were possibly lost to the exile after refusing to serve in the army. Before that, Ali walked his talk of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. So quick on his feet was Ali that Brian London had once told him after a third round loss, “I would like a return match but only if you put a 56 pound weight on each ankle.” Liston had got his rematch before that but was knocked out in the first round itself. And who can forget that match against Ernie Terell?
It had become way more personal for Ali when Terell insisted on using his ‘slave’ name in the days running up to the fight. Ali got his pound of flesh in what was possibly the cruellest flight of his life. He kept pounding away at Terell until the 15th round, shouting “What’s my name?” after every hook, jab and upper cut. Terell didn’t lose for five years after that but the world remembered what Ali could do when he was angry.
The loss against Frazier was a reality check for Ali. And even though Frazier had lost the world heavyweight title to George Foreman, Ali trained harder for the rematch to prove a point to himself. Once he had beaten Frazier on January 28, 1974, Foreman was the next target at what came to be known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ that took place in Kinshasha, Zaire on October 30 the same year.
Ali was immediately popular but Foreman courted controversy when he landed with an Alsatian dog that was considered a symbol of colonial Belgian repression. Foreman had suffered a cut to his eye but still possessed the most powerful punch in boxing history. He was also seven years younger to Ali which in boxing time is a huge advantage. But this Ali was different. He absorbed Foreman’s punches on the ropes rather than evading and dancing out of the way in a technique later called ‘rope-a-dope’. Having done enough to tire out Foreman, Ali took him out in the eighth round.
That win, along with a difficult but well-deserved victory against Joe Frazier in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ rematch on October 1, 1975 underlined Ali’s greatness. But Ali knew that all along. He knew that when he first crossed the Atlantic to take on British champion Henry Cooper in 1963.
Then the back of his robe read ‘Cassius Clay the Greatest’. Twelve years later only the name had changed. When he had beaten Liston, Ali was almost maniacally shouting “I am the king! I am the king! King of the World! Eat your words! Eat your words!”
Not all agreed back then. Ultimately, the world got used to it, just like he had predicted.