Muhammad Ali obituary: One of the greatest who ever lived – and a good man

'I believe in Allah and I believe in peace I’m not a Christian any more,' he said as he announced the news of his conversion

Bob Mee
Thursday 15 March 2018 17:41
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Muhammad Ali dies aged 74

To a whole generation of young men, Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer, more than a sportsman. He was freedom of spirit personified. His outrageous defiance of the rules, his sense of mischief, his unswerving belief in social justice, all fitted the mood of his times.

It was the most horrible of ironies that Ali, once so young, so gifted and so downright noisy, should spend his last years trapped in a mask which allowed him to speak only in mumbles and whispers.

That Ali of all people should have ended like this was cruel, yet somehow, just as he had done so many times inside a boxing ring, he found a way to turn the circumstances to his advantage. When boxing was finally prised out of his reluctant system, to be replaced by Parkinson’s syndrome, he settled down to live the rest of his days with discipline and dignity. He accepted his disability as a positive part of his human “journey” and he set out to fulfil the missionary purpose he felt was a part of his Muslim faith.

Muhammad Ali dies- Boxing world pays tribute to 'The Greatest'

“People say I had a full life,” he told his biographer Thomas Hauser. “But I ain’t dead yet. I’m just getting started. I want to live a good life, serve God, help everybody I can.”

He began life as Cassius Clay Jnr, in 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Cassius Snr, was a frustrated artist who scraped a living out of signwriting. From him the young Clay learnt about style and flamboyance. His mother, Odessa, whom he always called Bird, was the focal point of the family. It was Odessa who made things happen, who held everything together. From her, Clay learnt about discipline and dedication.

In 1960 Clay was the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medallist, but when he arrived home there were still restaurants he could not enter, still white people who called him “boy”. After one racist incident, he once claimed to have thrown his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River.

The same year he signed a professional contract with a group of 11 white Louisville businessmen and, a little later, linked up with the trainer Angelo Dundee, who stayed with him to the end of his career. He was a supreme self-publicist. He took to boasting and predicting the round in which he would knock out his opponent, and to making up rhymes which he would bellow out to anybody who would listen.

True, he had some scares, most notably when Henry Cooper dumped him on the seat of his trunks before losing on a terrible cut at Wembley Stadium in 1963; but he survived them, and in 1964 he beat the formidable Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. Clay, as he still was, baited the brooding, menacing, mob-owned Liston throughout the build-up. He called him “a big, ugly bear” and even arrived at the champion’s house lugging a bear-trap and followed, naturally, by a legion of photographers. In a playful rhyme he predicted “a total eclipse of the Sonny”.

He overdid it just once, when he interrupted Liston as the champ played craps in a Las Vegas casino. Liston stood only so much heckling, then growled: “Listen, you nigger faggot. If you don’t get out of here in 10 seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.” Clay was genuinely terrified – and left without another word.

In Miami, on 25 February 1964, Clay’s bizarre behaviour at the weigh-in led to his being fined by the Florida commission. He shouted so much he raised his own blood pressure to the point where the examining doctor pronounced him “emotionally unbalanced and scared to death”. It was a psychological masterstroke. Liston, who had served time for armed robbery and been arrested 100 times, was fearless in the face of violence, legalised or otherwise, but he was wary of craziness in all its forms. Liston, still unsure of what he was dealing with, retired at the end of the sixth round, claiming a damaged shoulder. “I told you,” Clay yelled at the stunned rows of writers who had, to a man, picked Liston. “I shook up the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest . . .”

It took only 24 hours for him to shake the world again. “I believe in Allah and I believe in peace,” he said. “I’m not a Christian any more.” Cassius Marcellus Clay was discarded as a slave name. Muhammad Ali replaced it. For the previous three years he had been attending meetings of the Nation of Islam, a black militant group who were making their presence felt in a turbulent decade. This was the America of assassinations: of John F. and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X. It was the America of the civil rights movement.

Very few understood what was going on. “People didn’t know what a Muslim was,” Dundee said. “I swear to God, I thought it was a piece of cloth.” Even boxing writers were scathing about Ali’s change of faith. As late as 1971, six years after he became Muhammad Ali, Ring magazine still referred to him as Cassius Clay.

Yet, in spite of the wave of gathering hatred, in the ring Ali was supreme from 1964, when he dethroned Liston, to 1967 when he refused to be drafted into the US Army and was exiled from boxing. He knocked out Liston in one round of a ridiculous rematch, stopped the former champion Floyd Patterson and outscored the tough Canadian George Chuvalo. In London, he cut Henry Cooper to defeat again at Highbury in 1966 and knocked out an apprehensive Brian London. And he stayed in Europe to stop the German Karl-Heinz Mildenberger.

Ali’s three-round stoppage of the explosive Cleveland Williams, from Houston, in November 1966, was probably the most complete performance of his life. He also won a tasteless 15-rounder against Ernie Terrell, of Chicago. Terrell, in a rather wooden attempt to sell tickets, repeatedly called him “Clay” and, for 15 rounds that bordered on torture, Ali screamed at his outclassed opponent: “What’s my name?” His last fight as a young man was a compassionate seventh-round knockout of the long-time contender Zora Folley in March 1967.

Ali was beyond question the best heavyweight of his generation. And at 25 he was still only coming to his peak. As great as he was, nobody knows how much greater he might have been. By the time of the Folley fight, Ali’s objection to fighting in the Vietnam War was known. In a radio phone-in, he had already said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” And when the call to make the symbolic step forward came in April 1967, he stood still. In June 1967 he was sentenced to five years in jail and fined $10,000 – the maximum punishment the system would allow – for refusing to be drafted. His passport was confiscated. In what now seems an astonishing reaction, Ali was also stripped of his world title and banned from fighting by every state in the United States.

Unable to box, Ali took to lecturing at American universities, where opposition to the war was high. He didn’t serve a day in jail, but admitted, “I am just about what they call broke.” His popularity on the angry campuses of the United States rocketed, however. He made people think – and he made them laugh. “Now, I’m sure there’s a heaven in the sky and coloured folks die and go to heaven,” he said. “But where are the coloured angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey . . .”

Gradually the political pendulum swung. And in 1970, in Atlanta, Georgia, he was granted a licence to box. After only two warm-up fights, Ali signed to fight his replacement as world champion, Joe Frazier, in New York City in March 1971. It was billed as the “Fight of the Century”, and it remains one of the greatest heavyweight contests in boxing history. Frank Sinatra took photographs at ringside and Burt Lancaster helped out with a television commentary. Ali lost the 15-round decision. “Just lost a fight, that’s all,” he said, as his moral and political opponents celebrated. “There are more important things to worry about in life. The world goes on. I had my day. You lose, you don’t shoot yourself.”

Already he needed pain-killing injections in his hands before he could fight. His jaw was broken by the Californian Ken Norton, against whom he lost and won. He outpointed Joe Frazier in New York.

And on 30 October 1974, on a truly magnificent night in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round to regain the world title at the age of 32. “It’s fitting that I go out just like I came in, by shocking a monster that supposedly nobody can beat,” he said. “I felt like I’d been mugged,” said Foreman. Ali didn’t go out, but instead carried on for another seven years, and eventually the business that made him claimed him as its most celebrated victim.

If the victory over Foreman was a masterpiece of the unexpected, Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” win against Joe Frazier was a triumph of the will. Frazier retired at the end of round 14, but Ali admitted: “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight any more.” He said he felt close to death in what he described unforgettably as “The Near Room”.

Anniversary of infamous Mohamed Ali, George Foreman boxing match

Frazier said grimly: “I hit him with punches that would have brought down the walls of a city.” But the darkest words out of that finest hour came from Dr Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician at the time: “Ali was badly beaten up. There were welts and bruises all over his body and huge haematomas over both hips. His face was puffy. It took about 24 hours for his brain to recuperate, for his thought processes to become complete. And the effects on the rest of his body lasted for weeks.”

There and then, Ali should have stopped boxing. But the gravy train was unstoppable. People were earning good livings by just hanging around him. And he loved the attention. Second time around, with the Vietnam War almost done, Ali brought a new humour to the championship. It even affected his opponents. Chuck Wepner, otherwise known as “The Bayonne Bleeder” because of his tendency to cut, fought him into the 15th round. Before the fight Wepner tossed a blue negligée to his wife in his hotel room. “Tonight, honey,” he said. “You will be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.” Hours later he staggered back, 23 stitches criss-crossing his face, and his wife, reclining in her new negligée, purred: “Well, honey, is he coming here – or am I going over to his place?”

The Belgian Jean-Pierre Coopman drank champagne in his dressing-room to calm his fear of Ali. After four rounds, Ali leant over the ropes to the ringside television producer and yelled: “Have you got your commercials away yet, because I can’t hold this bum up much longer.” Richard Dunn, of Britain, made £100,000 for fighting Ali in 1976. As they were introduced, Dunn told Ali he was a former paratrooper. “Ah, so you know how to fall,” said the champion. Dunn lost in five.

But as he got older Ali’s powers inevitably waned. There were controversial decisions over Ken Norton and Jimmy Young. The thunderous-hitting Earnie Shavers took him 15 gruelling rounds. He took the punches that 10 years earlier he would have avoided. And eventually, aged 36, he lost to Leon Spinks.

Suddenly, the world had turned full circle. Spinks, like Ali, had won a light-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympic Games and was unbeaten and untested. A rematch was made; Ali trained hard while Spinks embraced the bright lights for seven months. It cost him millions of dollars and wrecked his fighting future. Ali won and, at long last, retired.

But he couldn’t stay away. In 1980 he attempted “one more miracle” – a championship fight with the best of the new class of heavyweights, his former sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was tragic. The grey had been dyed out of Ali’s hair. He was slow and his reflexes were numbed by the years. There has never been a more reluctant winner than Holmes. He refused to put full power in his punches, and toyed with Ali until the old champion was withdrawn after 10 one-sided rounds.

“I felt embarrassed for all my fans,” Ali said. The post-fight drugs test showed he had taken Thyrolar, a potentially lethal weight-reducing drug, and Benzedrine, a stimulant. “Ali was a walking time-bomb,” said Pacheco, who had walked away from the camp years before. “He could have had anything from a heart attack to a stroke to all kinds of bleeding in the head.”

Yet incredibly, Ali came back for one more, at the age of 39, and lost to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. By then he was probably chronically sick. In 1984 he was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s syndrome and his life altered forever.

Today’s boxers owe Ali a great debt. He took the sport off the back-burner and made it a front-line sport again. And he lived out his youth at a very special time, when to be born black, especially in the southern states of America, meant a terrible struggle for dignity and respect. Ali made that struggle easier for millions of people, not just black and not just American, all over the world.

He was a great fighter, one of the greatest who ever lived. But beyond that he was a good man. Millions across the world will remember him with immense fondness.

Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali), boxer: born Louisville, Kentucky 17 January 1942; married 1964 Sonji Roi (marriage dissolved 1966), 1967 Belinda Boyd (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1977 Veronica Porche (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1986), 1986 Lonnie Williams (one son, Asaad Amin, who they adopted). Two more children outside marriage.

Muhammad Ali was born 17 January, 1942, and died 3 June, 2016, aged 74.

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