A to Z of the Greatest

The Asian Age.  | T N Raghu

Sports, In Other sports

Muhammad Ali was born in the United States of America and died in the same country but he lived for people all over the world.

Muhammad Ali knocks out Sonny Liston in their second meeting in 1965.

“He belonged to everyone. That means his impact recognises no continent, no language, no colour, no ocean. It belongs to us all, just as Muhammad Ali belongs to us all”
— Maya Angelou, American poet

Muhammad Ali was born in the United States of America and died in the same country but he lived for people all over the world. It’s inconceivable that a more resonant universal hero than Ali can emerge in sports or elsewhere. Ali was a champion for all — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. He exuded genuine warmth. He hated no one. He had time for everyone. He never turned an autograph seeker away. Plenty of ink has been spilled on Ali’s exploits as a boxer. But confining him to the perimeter of the ring would be an injustice to his legacy. Boxing made him a hero. In return, he made boxing sexy. Ali achieved his biggest win outside the ring through his brave opposition to a wasteful war the USA waged in Vietnam. In the end, Ali won and his country lost. All his victories inside the ring paled in comparison to the Vietnam win.

On the first death anniversary of Ali, T.N. Raghu  attempts to capture the great man’s life in 26 alphabets.

Angelo Dundee, the amiable trainer of Italian extraction, was in Ali’s corner for all his professional fights barring one — the showman’s heavyweight debut. He never tried to alter Ali’s natural boxing style and the champion was a big fan of Dundee’s unobtrusive training methods. The trainer’s quick thinking came to the fore when he widened a tear in Ali’s glove to buy a crucial extra minute between the fourth and fifth rounds in a fight against Henry Cooper of Britain in 1963. In the fourth round, Cooper had knocked Ali down with a vicious left-hook and the American recovered on time — thanks to his trainer’s gamesmanship — to emerge victorious in the next. Dundee was alleged to have played a pivotal role in Ali’s great rope-a-dope win over George Foreman in 1974 by loosening the strings but the charge proved to be unfounded in the end.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Boxing, especially the heavyweight class, would never be the same again after Muhammad Ali’s win over Sonny Liston in a championship fight in 1964. No sportsperson transcended his chosen field like Ali. Pele, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt are, no doubt, champions of coruscating brilliance but their impact outside sport was minimal. People who never cared about boxing latched on to every word of Ali. No wonder numerous polls declared Ali the Sportsperson of the Millennium. However, it was surprising that polls were required in the first place to find out the winner!

Cassius Clay was a name Ali hated using after becoming a Muslim. He had a reason — a reason rooted in history. Cassius Marcellus Clay was a great white man who took slavery head on in the 19th century. He even lost a son to the bigotry of pro-slavery mob. A big fan of Clay, Abraham Lincoln sent him to Russia as the U.S. ambassador. Muhammad Ali’s ancestors honoured Clay — whose family owned them — by assuming his name. But Ali wanted respect for his new religion and a black man’s choice in the swinging Sixties.

Muhammad Ali with the Beatles in 1963.

Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown was the jester in the court of King Ali. Bundini’s claim to fame was the immortal line he coined: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Although Bundini had a reputation for being avaricious, he had Ali’s backing because the champion always enjoyed fooling around the ring. Whenever Ali said he was the greatest, Bundini was at hand to second the proclamation.

Ernie Terrell paid the price for his refusal to acknowledge Ali’s new name. Terrell kept addressing Ali by his slave name — Clay. For Ali, his new name and new religion were more important than his critics were willing to believe. He never forgave anyone who kept calling him Clay after he made his conversion to Islam public. Although Ali could have knocked out Terrell easily in a bout in 1967, he kept the fight going until the 15th and the final round to humiliate him. In addition to raining blows on Terrell, Ali kept asking him throughout the bout: “What is my name?”

Frank Sinatra was at the ringside for Ali’s first of three fascinating fights against Joe Frazier. The great singer wasn’t a spectator; he was Life’s official photographer for the bout and his photo would adorn the magazine’s cover. Ali could count on legends from other fields among his legion of fans. Elvis Presley was an admirer of Ali. The pop icon presented the boxer a signature robe emblazoned with the slogan, People’s Choice, before a fight in 1973.

Muhammad Ali with Nelson Mandela.

Gorgeous George  was a wrestler who revelled in taunting his rivals before bouts. George never got tired of calling himself the greatest in his trade and Ali was inspired by the wrestler’s brash style that invariably garnered people’s attention. When Ali met George before his seventh professional fight in 1961, the wrestler impressed upon the young boxer on the need to hype up his bouts. Ali, the poet who predicted the round his opponents would fall, owed his over-the-top gimmicks to George.

Howard Bingham and Howard Cosell were so close to Ali that it would be impossible to write a book about the boxing champion without chapters on the two. Bingham, Ali’s personal photographer, was there for the boxer whenever he needed him. There is a consensus in Ali’s close circles that Bingham was the three-time world champion’s best buddy. Ali said: “Everybody says I love people, so it’s only fair that I have the best friend in the world, and that is Howard Bingham. He never asks for anything.” The chemistry Cosell, a pompous TV presenter, enjoyed with Ali went beyond his professional duties. Nothing delighted Ali more than pulling Cosell’s leg in public.

India has been in desperate need of celebrities in the league of Ali who can speak their mind. Aamir Khan raised a flicker of hope when he spoke up against intolerance under Modiji’s rule but he was soon silenced by the Indian prime minister’s bhakts. There is no apolitical icon on the horizon. The less said the better about Sachin Tendulkar as the cricket legend has made an industry out of being politically correct. He doesn’t have the guts to ruffle a feather leave alone the small matter of poking a giant like the establishment. India is infinitely poorer for the absence of a fearless man like Ali.

Joe Frazier contributed handsomely to the Ali legend through his three gladiatorial fights against the Greatest. Ali and Frazier were never the thickest of friends but their bouts brought out the best in each other. Ali subjected Frazier to humiliating taunts. Frazier never forgave Ali for calling him an Uncle Tom, for the ultimate insult for a black man was to be called a stooge of whites. Ali clearly breached the boundaries of sportsmanship with his below-the-belt attack on Frazier, who carried the scars until his death in 2011.  

King of the World, written by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, is a scholarly account of the impact Ali had on boxing and outside the ring. For the complete account of Ali’s life, do read Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His life and times. There are so many books on Ali that you can spend your life reading them. No one sells like Ali because he was a walking box-office at his peak.

Lonnie Ali, the fourth wife of Ali, was the rock of his life from the time he married her in 1986. Lonnie, who knew Ali from the age of five, ensured that the boxer’s broken finances were mended. Under her protective arm, Ali’s health also improved. Lonnie never lost sight of the big picture and she hit the nail on the head with the following quote: “Muhammad isn’t my property; Muhammad belongs to the world.” 

Magic was a passion for Ali besides boxing. He enthralled children and adults alike with his magic skills. As Islam forbids deceit, he would always reveal the secret of his tricks at the end of the show. Ali’s candour, however, didn’t go down well within the magicians’ community which always closely guarded its secrets.

Nation of Islam’s founder Elijah Muhammad became Ali’s mentor and spiritual guru in the beginning of his professional career. Ali’s devotion to Elijah was total and the boxer wouldn’t do anything against his wishes. Ali appointed Herbert Muhammad, Elijah’s third son, his manager after a contract with a professional group ended in 1966. Only after Elijah’s death in 1975 did Ali realise that the Nation of Islam’s all-whites-are-evil philosophy was wrong.

Olympics opening ceremony at Atlanta in 1996 became poignant when Ali lit the cauldron with his trembling hands. The American establishment only had a visceral hatred for Ali when he was at the peak of his powers as a boxer but it couldn’t love him more 30 years later. The chance Ali got to take centre stage during the opening ceremony only reaffirmed the country’s reconciliation with its most famous son.

Parkinson’s syndrome caused plenty of problems to Ali from slurred speech to impaired motor ability to frozen face. But those close to him aver that never once did he bemoan his fate. He faced the problem head on just like he took on so many fearsome opponents inside a square ring. The countless blows his brain received in a career that lasted a little more than two decades took their toll and Ali accepted Parkinson’s stoically. That his cognitive ability never suffered until the end was a solace to his legion of fans all across the globe.

Quotes tumbled of Ali’s mouth as rapidly as lightning punches came out of his fists. When reporters persistently questioned his decision to embrace Islam in 1964, Ali said: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” Ali had a rapt audience even when he boasted about his own greatness. Sample these: “I’m so mean I make medicine sick” and “It’s difficult to be humble when you are as great as I am.” Who could have escaped derision except Ali after mouthing the following outrageous announcement:  “I have wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightnin’, thrown thunder in jail.”

Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 sealed Ali’s immortality as he knocked out the fearsome George Foreman in the seventh round of a fight few expected him to win. Not only was Foreman seven years younger, he also possessed a sledgehammer punch. In the memorable fight conducted in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), in early morning to suit American TV audience, Ali absorbed Foreman’s thunderous blows in the first few rounds by leaning on the rope. After tiring his opponent out, Ali moved in for the kill in the eighth round. More than Ali’s punching prowess, it was his ability to take punishment that stood out against Foreman.

Sonny Liston was an opponent no boxer relished facing. The combination of devastating punches and menacing demeanour made him a nightmare. Liston, who had been convicted for an armed robbery, invoked fear in anyone who dared to stand across him inside a ring. Ali, an upstart, had no chance in hell to beat the defending champion at Miami on February 25 in 1964. But the Louisville Lip’s awesome speed and dancing feet rattled Liston who refused to get up from his stool for the seventh round. A new champion was born and he let the whole world know about it with his rather loud mouth.

Trevor Berbick brought the curtain down on an illustrious career by handing out a crushing 10-round defeat to Muhammad Ali in 1981. The fight should never have happened as Ali was way past his sell-by date but the lure of money and delusions of grandeur compelled him to engage in the farce. Finally, Ali accepted that father time caught up with him.

USA poured scorn on Ali when he burst on the scene because the country always loved the deferential underdog. Ali’s hero was Jack Johnson and not Joe Louis, both heavyweight champions. Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, lived by his own rules as he cavorted with white women much to the annoyance of America. Louis, on the other hand, went the extra mile to endear himself to the white America. Ali, like Johnson, lived life on his own terms. The boxer never hesitated to stand up for his political and religious principles. But Ali and the US would bury the hatchet as years passed by. Ali’s abiding love for every human being and the genuineness of his protests helped him win America over.

Vietnam War made Ali a hero all across the world. Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the war as a conscientious objector cost him three-and-a-half years when he was in his prime. A five-year jail sentence also loomed but Ali never gave up his religious beliefs that forbade war. Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam for a war that helped no one enraged America that always wore patriotism on its sleeve. Ali’s immortal uttering “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”, on the other hand, became the rallying cry of anti-war protestors. No sportsperson had ever done more to oppose an unjust war than the motor mouth from Louisville, Kentucky. A Supreme Court ruling in 1971 vindicated Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War by overturning his conviction.

Womanising was a blot on Ali in his youth. He was a serial philanderer. When it came to women, Ali pulled no punches as he sired two daughters out of wedlock. He didn’t hesitate to cheat his second wife, Belinda Ali, by starting a relationship with Veronica Porche, a stunningly beautiful woman. Inside the ring, too, he had a few weaknesses such as an open guard, not attacking the body of his opponents and susceptible to a left-hook.  

X became the surname of the Nation of Islam’s famous member — Malcolm. When Malcolm X, the charismatic minister of the strident sect of Islam, spoke, people listened because he was so eloquent and persuasive. Malcolm X treated Ali like his younger brother but the relationship soured after he fell out with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, apparently at the behest of Elijah. Ali would later repent turning his back on the charismatic Malcolm X.

You aren’t as dumb as you look” is one of the stock jokes of Ali, who had quite a few up his sleeve. When Ali used it during a meeting with the Beatles in 1963, John Lennon retorted: “No, but you are.”

Zbigniew Pietrzykowski was Ali’s opponent in the light heavyweight final of the 1960 Olympics. Although the Polish southpaw started strongly, Ali quickly adjusted his style to win the gold medal that paved the way for an eventful journey.