Everything about Muhammad Ali was bigger than life; his talent, his bravery, his personality. And, like a Greek Tragedy, even his trials were bigger than life.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., in segregated Louisville Kentucky, January 17th 1942. He began boxing at 12 after his bike was stolen and he wanted to "Whoop" the boy who did it. A policeman suggested he learn how to box.
Learn to box he did. In 1960 at the age of 19 Ali (then still Cassius Clay) won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Olympic games in Rome.
Fast forward to 1964, the undefeated (19-0) Clay takes on fearsome heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, and stops listen after seven rounds. Clay leaps from his stool and dances around the ring in ecstasy, while the almost entirely white audience watches in stunned silence.
Moments later, he announces that he was joined the Nation Of Islam and that his name is now Muhammad Ali. Becoming the first major African-American athlete to convert to Islam.
Over the next couple of years, Ali dominated the heavyweight division. With wins over the likes of Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and finally Zora Folley, Ali proved that he was one of the best heavyweights of all time and almost certainly the fastest punching heavyweight ever.
But he was so much more than that. Ali loved the whole spectacle of his fame. He loved to brag and talk trash and make predictions and say outrageous things; he was smart and funny and had opinions. The world had never seen an athlete quite like him. And he seemed to save his best stuff for one sportscaster, Howard Cosell. Between Ali and Cosell it would be hard to calculate who did more for whom. Suffice to say, it was a beautiful TV friendship.
The old saying goes; "Great times make great men." Well, Ali's times were great. All at once, around Ali, was the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1967, Ali called himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. He gave up the heavyweight crown, was fined $10,000, lost his passport and faced five years in prison. Thankfully, Ali did not have to go to prison but he was unable to box professionally for three years, at the height of his prime. During that time, Ali made a living speaking at colleges.
Finally, in 1970, Ali was able to return to boxing, with a win over heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry.
The stage was set for Ali to fight for Joe Frazier's title at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Frazier won the fight, after scoring a knockdown in the 15th round, with a perfect left hook. Ali got up and finished the round but the damage was done. Frazier won the decision.
In one of his next fights, Ali lost a close 12 round decision to the little known Ken Norton. Ali's career seemed to be waning. But over the next couple of years, Ali waded through the best heavyweights in the world and earned a title shot against new heavyweight Champion George Foreman. Foreman, himself an Olympic Gold Medalist, (1968 Mexico City Games) was undefeated and had amazingly knocked out Joe Frazier in three round and Ken Norton in two. Ali was not given much of a chance.
And then Ali deployed on of the great strategic fight plans in big time boxing history. He lay on the ropes and LET Foreman pound on his arms, until he got tired. The Rope-A-Dope, Ali called it and it worked. The only problem with the strategy was that if almost any other fighter allowed George Foreman to pound on him, that fighter would be knocked out very quickly. But Ali had such toughness and stamina that he withstood Foreman's barrages and, by the end of the 4th round, Foreman was clearly slowing down. Toward the end of the 8th round, Foreman was all but completely spent and Ali knocked him out with a blistering salvo of hard punches to the head.
The next, and many would say, last Great fight of Ali's career was the fight Ali called "The Thrilla' in Manila." Ali and Joe Frazier met for the 3rd and final time, (each winning one fight before) in Manila in the Philippines on October 1st, 1975.
I was 11 years old at the time and my father took my brother Michael and I to see the fight on closed circuit TV at the Omni arena in Atlanta. (the same arena where Ali returned from exile in 1970, against Jerry Quarry.)
What ensued was one of the great epic battles in heavyweight history. Ali and Frazier pounded each other relentlessly for 14 rounds. Frazier unleashed a vicious body attack, while Ali pounded Frazier's face almost beyond recognition. After 14 rounds Frazier's corner man Eddie Futch would not allow the badly beaten Frazier to answer the bell for the 15th round.
Neither man was ever quite the same after that.
In 1978, a diminished Ali lost to young former Olympian Leon Spinks, only to beat Spinks later that year in a rematch, to become the only man to win the heavyweight title three times. (1964,1974,1978)
In 1980 Ali was stopped for the only time in his career, when he was unable to answer the bell for the 11th round, after taking an awful beating from then heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
In 1981 Ali fought for the last time, with a decision loss to Trevor Berbick.
In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with the Parkinson's disease, that would rob him and the world of his wonderful voice and sense of humor.
Even while struggling with the disease, Ali remained a source of inspiration to mankind. Who can forget the touching scene of the then frail and shaky Ali, lighting the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996?
To me, the most revealing moment was during an interview around 1977, with Howard Cosell, when Ali related how, as a kid, he had gone to see famous professional wrestler Gorgeous George, when George came to Louisville. Gorgeous George was a "bad guy" in wrestling parlance, who bragged and boasted and strutted around and talked about how good looking he was. Basically, exactly the same act that Ali had for his entire career. And Ali told Cosell, "They hated him but they paid their money to see him."
This is sort of the Rosetta Stone to understanding Ali the public figure. While his boxing talent was undisputed, his over the top public personae was all sort of a lark; always with a half smile and twinkle in his eye. It was all a show to him and he loved every minute of it.
Muhammad Ali really was "The Greatest."