I’m sure we are all aware that Muhammad Ali turned 70 years of age today.
As well as wishing him a happy birthday, it’s no better time to look back at the career and life of a man who transcending not just boxing and sport itself, but changed the world.
Lest we forget his wonderful boxing career, but despite racial tension between himself and the late great ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier, he was the man to open many doors for the black community in what was still a very racist world in the late 1960s.
He also took the brave (and controversial) stand of not enlisting in the armed forces when asked in 1967, with the infamous quote,
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…..no Viet Cong ever called me n*gger.”
Ali was the Heavyweight champion at the time, and many say at the peak of his powers when he was arrested on evasion charges and stripped of boxing licence until 1970.
Many say it was at this time that the legend of Ali was born, as after stopping Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, he faced Frazier in what is now known as ‘The Fight of the Century’. Ali was dropped in the final round by a left hook and lost a split decision, his first professional defeat after 15 brutal rounds.
This ushered in the ‘super’ fights in Heavyweight boxing, including a brutal war with Ken Norton, which Ali lost on split decision before winning the rematch. He also gained vengeance on Frazier in a non-title match in 1972.
The stage was now set for to face the formiddable and seemingly unbeatable George Foreman who had blasted Frazier out within three rounds and had been knocking contenders out for fun when the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was announced.
It was the first ‘mega fight’ to involve Don King who brokered the deal in Zaire, and so began a build-up with Ali selling the fight like only he can. If like me you weren’t around first time around, I recommend you watch the fantastic ‘When We Were Kings’ documentary as well as reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight, possibly the greatest sporting book ever written.
There was the delay when Foreman cut in training to add to the drama, and as we know the ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics employed by Ali who basically allowed the towering Foreman to punch himself out.
Then in the 8th round a combination from Ali dropped Foreman who did not make the count, and Ali had shocked the world again.
Even watching it now, you can see the shock and euphoria this created around boxing. It was truly an event like no other, and one we are unlikely to see again anytime soon.
Ali and Frazier weren’t finished with each other yet though, and a year later they faced off in what was dubbed the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, with Ali taking the victory after Frazier did not make the 15th round. Both men showed unbelievable guts, with Ali stating it was the closest he ever came to dying after the fight.
From here Ali many thought should gave retired, with subsequent losses to Larry Holmes (who would go on to dominate the Heavyweight scene) and journeyman Trevor Berbick.
Sadly he was another fighter who went on too long, and three years after his final fight in 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, for which you can see some tell tale signs in his later interviews and even fights when he barely fought back against Holmes and Berbick.
In the modern era a lot of fans credit Mike Tyson with getting them interested in boxing, myself included. But no other boxing even comes close to the legacy that Ali left on the sport. He was tough, had an iron chin a big heart and most of all he could fight. Plus he always fought the best. During a boom period in the 1970s the matchups involving Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes and even the late Ron Lyle are absolute treasures to the sport.
Fighters still today credit ‘The Greatest’ as their inspiration and their reason for taking up boxing (Dereck Chisora being the obvious one), which is surely the most telling compliment of all.
Happy Birthday Muhammad!