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Muhammad Ali named BBC Sportsman of the Century

Mark Staniforth
Sunday 12 December 1999 00:00 GMT

Muhammad Ali always said he was 'The Greatest'. Tonight the British public agreed by naming him BBC Sports Personality of the Century.

Muhammad Ali always said he was 'The Greatest'. Tonight the British public agreed by naming him BBC Sports Personality of the Century.

Ali, who won more votes than the other four candidates together, collected his award at a star-studded gala occasion in London.

The finest sporting heroes in Britain gazed in awe as Ali stood at the centre of the studio, boxing stars past and present having paid their own tributes to the man they unanimously called their mentor.

Parkinson's disease has stripped Ali of much of his speech and movement but he remains an irresistible icon to all.

And it was an emotional sight as Ali clasped the award and proved he had lost none of his legendary charm and wit. He said slowly: "I'd like to thank the British people for giving me this great welcome and thank you for this award.

"I had a good time boxing, I enjoyed it - and I may come back!"

In a prepared statement, Ali paid tribute to the British public, in front of whom he boxed three times professionally.

"Ever since I first came here in 1963 to fight Henry Cooper, I have loved the people of England," Ali said.

"They have always been extremely warm and welcoming to me, which is why I am especially honoured to accept the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century. I give thanks to God and to all the people in the UK who have supported me over the years."

Ali had three professional fights in Britain, most famously his first visit in May 1966. Then known as Cassius Clay, he was decked by Henry Cooper in round four before coming back to force a cuts stoppage of the Briton in the following round.

It was alleged in some quarters that Ali's corner had bought valuable recovery time after his knockdown by enhancing a small cut in his glove at the end of the round and calling for a replacement.

Ali returned three years later to stop Cooper in round six, and three months later outclassed Brian London on his last fighting visit to this country.

The BBC award is already the third Ali has received as a tribute to his influence on a century of sport. He also won the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century Award and the World Sports Award's World Sportsman of the Century.

That Ali would be officially recognised as 'The Greatest' was in little doubt. While it would be quite correct to state that the other shortlisted legends like Pele, Sir Donald Bradman and Jack Nicklaus were as accomplished in their chosen sports as was Ali in boxing - indeed, there are those who insist Sugar Ray Robinson was even better in the ring - nobody else has managed to transcend sport quite like Ali.

Using his platform as three-times world heavyweight champion, Ali campaigned against repression and abuse of civil liberties the world over. He was even willing to let his coveted crown be ripped away from him rather than join the US army and fight in Vietnam.

In retirement Ali still continues to campaign for the causes in which he believes.

His illness may have ravaged those lightning reflexes but his eyes still burn with passion and with his desire to use his position to make a difference.

And they glow with the memories of his greatest nights, of which there were many. In 1964, when he stunned Sonny Liston to win the world title for the first time. In 1974, when he once again upset the odds to knock out George Foreman in the unforgettable 'Rumble in the Jungle'. In 1975, when he was taken to the brink by Joe Frazier before triumphing after 14 rounds in Manila.

They are the greatest of memories from a man who has lived up to his boasts and become without question the greatest sportsman of the century.

Other contenders for the BBC's top award included Brazilian soccer star Pele and American track athlete Jesse Owens.

British boxer Lennox Lewis scooped the BBC personality of the year award from Manchester United football star David Beckham, who finished second and the athlete Colin Jackson was third.

"It has been ten years of trials and tribulations trying to achieve my goal. For all the young athletes may my trials and tribulations be a level of success for them," said Lewis.

Manchester United's football team were named BBC team of the year, and their manager Sir Alex Ferguson was also honored.

An award for overseas personality of the year was presented to America's world indoor sprint champion Maurice Greene.

British racehorse trainer Jenny Pitman won the BBC's first Helen Rolison award, named for a BBC presenter who died in August following a two year battle with cancer.

Pitman, 52, retired earlier this year after a 25 year career that included Grand National and Gold Cup victories. She is best remembered as the first female trainer of a Grand National winner, Corbiere.


1942: Cassius Marcellus Clay is born on January 17 in Louisville, Kentucky.

1960: Wins light-heavyweight gold at Rome Olympics. Later throws the medal into a river after experiencing racial discrimination.

Turns professional after losing just five of 105 amateur fights. Beats Tunney Hunsaker in six rounds in his first paid contest.

1963: Recovers from a third round knockdown to beat Henry Cooper in London. Cooper retires in round five due to cuts.

1964: Shocks Sonny Liston in round seven in Miami Beach to become undisputed world heavyweight champion. Embraces the Muslim faith and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.

1965: Flattens Liston in first round in a rematch in Maine in a fight in which many insist Liston took a dive. Beats Floyd Patterson to retain title.

1966: Defends his title five times including a three round stoppage of Cleveland Williams in Houston which many expect rate as Ali's finest ever performance.

1967: Stripped of heavyweight title for refusing US army draft. Is handed a five-year suspended sentence and 10,000 US dollars fine, and is banned from travelling abroad.

1970: Announces his retirement after three-year enforced absence from boxing. US Supreme Court hands back his boxing licence.

Returns in October with three round stoppage of Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

1971: Is beaten on points after 15 rounds in world title challenge to new champion Joe Frazier. Has his conviction for draft dodging reversed by US Supreme Court.

1972: Wins six comeback fights including seventh round stoppage of former champion Floyd Patterson.

1973: Loses to Ken Norton in San Diego but reverses the result with victory in the return in California.

1974: Wins rematch with Frazier - who has since lost his title to George Foreman - in New York.

Upsets the odds to beat George Foreman and win back world heavyweight title in round eight in Zaire, an extraordinary fight dubbed 'The Rumble in the Jungle'.

1975: Stops Frazier in their third meeting, the brutal 'Thrilla in Manila', when Frazier fails to meet the bell for the 15th and final round.

1976: Beats Ken Norton after 15 rounds in their third meeting in New York.

1977: Retains his title with victories over Alfredo Evangelista and Earnie Shavers.

1978: Loses his title in February when upset by Leon Spinks on points in Las Vegas. Wins back the title - becoming the first man ever to have three reigns as champion - with a points win in the return in New Orleans.

1979: Announces his retirement for the second time.

1980: Is tempted out of retirement to be beaten in 10 rounds by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas - the first time Ali has been stopped. Retires again.

1981: A shadow of his former self, Ali makes another ill-judged comeback to be beaten on points by Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.

1996: Lights the torch at the Atlanta Olympics despite the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. Is returned the gold medal he threw away in 1960.

1999: Celebrates his 57th birthday. Is named BBC Sports Personality of the Century.

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