Inside Lines: Happy anniversary Muhammad Ali, battling illness but a great survivor

 

While the immensely courageous Vitali Klitschko battles for democracy in Ukraine, the man he admires most, both as a boxer and fellow freedom fighter, celebrates a significant anniversary this week. It will be 50 years on Tuesday since a 22-year-old Muhammad Ali defeated the Mafia-run, seemingly invincible ogre Sonny Liston in Miami and "shook up the world"

He did so twice, first by forcing the battered and bemused Liston to retire at the end of the sixth round, and then by announcing that Cassius Clay ("my slave name") was no more and that he accepted the teachings of Islam.

Liston was the most terrifying individual I have ever encountered in sport. There was nothing sunny about Sonny, a sullen, brooding hulk who had served time for armed robbery, had clubbed most opponents senseless and was managed by known racketeers. I thought he would annihilate Clay the loudmouthed braggart, who was not to America's liking either. It was a fight with no hero but two villains.

Learning that Sonny, said to be 32 but probably nearer 40, had a phobia about madness, Ali put on an astonishing act at the weigh-in, foaming at the mouth and screaming like a dervish. It scared Liston witless, and by the end of the sixth round of a baffling fight he became the first heavyweight champion since Jess Willard in 1919 to quit on his stool, claiming a shoulder injury.

Some still argue it was a fix, but you don't throw a fight by enduring the sort of beating that Liston did. Ali simply psyched him out of it, and did so again in the even more bizarre return in Lewiston, Maine, when Liston fell in the first, caught off balance by the so-called "phantom punch". Again they said it was bent. But I believe that Liston, fearing he would be cut to pieces by the young tormentor hovering over him famously yelling, "Get up you bum, get up you bum and fight!", simply bottled it, fearing he was again going to be humiliated.

Six years later Liston was found dead, supposedly from an overdose of heroin. However, the suspicion remains that he was bumped off, curiously one of several Ali opponents to die either violently or mysteriously: the Argentinian Oscar Bonavena was shot dead outside a Buenos Aires brothel, and Trevor Berbick, the last man to fight, and beat, Ali in 1981, was clubbed to death in Jamaica.

It was another old foe, Joe Frazier, who once declared when Ali showed no signs of retiring: "The trouble with him is that he doesn't know how to die." The irony is that at 72, and ailing as he is, Ali has outlived most of the 53 opponents in his 61 fights, not least Smokin' Joe himself. Others Ali has outlasted include Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams, Archie Moore, Buster Mathis, Sonny Banks, Jimmy Young and Henry Cooper.

So, happy anniversary Muhammad, still the People's Champion.

Money talks, Amir

Amir Khan finally admits he has lost out on a massive payday with Floyd Mayweather. "He's running scared," he says. Hardly, Amir. The bottom line is that Mayweather reckons your recent form doesn't bring enough to the table and that there is more to be made by fighting Marcos Maidana.

That's why he calls himself the Money Man.

Climbing is on the up

Ice climbing, in which contestants attempt to scale man-made glaciers, is seriously being considered for the Winter Olympics. What next: snowball fighting?

a.hubbard@independent.co.uk

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