Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Greatest

We lost the great one -- a man who not only transformed a sport but the way we look at athletes and their role in society.  Muhammad Ali was unlike any athletic figure in history because he was so much bigger than boxing itself, forcing people to look at him who otherwise would have turned away.

Perhaps the biggest single moment was when he defied the US government and refused to be drafted into the army.  You have to wonder why he wasn't granted a deferment like so many other athletes at the time.  I suppose it was the fact that many didn't like his close association with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.  He had converted to Islam after his title fight with Sonny Liston and proudly joined Malcolm and others in speaking out against the social injustices in society.  Maybe the draft board thought this would be a good way to quiet him down.  But, it only drew more attention to him as he was joined by the top athletes of the day in the historic Ali Summit to tell the press why he wasn't going to serve in Vietnam.

It took four years for him to get the charges dropped, and finally get reinstated in the sport in 1971 thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that overturned the conviction by a unanimous vote.  He had not only been stripped of his title but his peak years as a fighter, and would have to work his way back into the title picture for an additional three years before his memorable fight in Zaire where he knocked George Foreman out.

He was 32 at this point, considered an "old man" in the sport.  Many refused to believe he could withstand Foreman's blows, claiming that the ropes had been purposely loosened so that he could lean back and more easily absorb the body punches.  This was his so-called "rope-a-dope" tactic, which essentially allowed him to wait until his opponent had punched himself out.  By the sixth round Foreman had nothing left and Ali finished him off in the eighth round with a flurry of punches.  Ali had overcome not only a callous US government but one of the most brutal fighters in boxing to regain his title.

Ali was universally loved by this point.  His conversion to Islam, his refusal to go to war, even his most outlandish comments had all been accepted as part of his personality.  Everyone now wanted to be like Ali, except maybe Joe Frazier, who still harbored a mountain-sized grudge for the verbal abuse Ali had heaped upon him prior to their fight in Manila in 1975.  Ali had gone too far, calling Frazier a gorilla and an "Uncle Tom."  This hurt because Joe supported Ali throughout his fight to regain his boxing license.  Frazier had beaten Ali back in 1971, and fought Ali to a virtual draw the third time around, but the fight was stopped before the start of the 15th round much to Joe's displeasure, although he could barely see at this point.  Eventually, the two would find their peace with each other and Ali praised Frazier upon his death in 2011.

It is easy to see why Ali became an icon.  We try to forget the ignominious fights that characterized his later career including the two fights with Leon Spinks that allowed him to reclaim the heavyweight title yet again.  Or, his attempt to come back one more time against Larry Holmes, who appeared unwilling to unleash his full arsenal as he didn't want to hurt Ali.  At the beginning of the eighth round, the referee mercifully called the fight as Ali couldn't even get up from his stool.  It was a bittersweet victory for Holmes, who had once been Ali's sparring partner and viewed him as his idol.

Having battled Parkinson's Disease for so many years, Ali looked at the world with a much more benign view. He didn't appear to harbor any grudges or wish ill on anyone, but then to hear those who knew him that had always been the case.  Ali had to work himself up for a fight and the only way he knew how was to mercilessly taunt his opponents, and of course Howard Cosell.  That was apparently his way to unleash the fury he needed to go into the ring.  Once the fight was over, Ali had nothing but the greatest respect for his opponents and for Howard.

Ali transcended sports like no other athlete except Jesse Owens.   To call him a great boxer belittled him, George Foreman said.  "He changed the whole world."  Maybe that is going a little too far, but the friendship the two formed after their historic fight in Kinshasa reshaped George and eventually gave him the motivation to reclaim the title in 1994.  The oldest fighter to do so at age 45.

As for the Greatest, he would see his daughter Laila become a championship fighter in her own right, as well as inspire countless others in and out of the ring, as we are seeing in all the tributes being paid to him.

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