Muhammad Ali, born Jan. 17, 1941, celebrates his 71st birthday as a worldwide symbol of peace and goodness, a kind of Mother Teresa figure who’s adored by all. His image has seen an amazing transformation.
In 1967 he was despised by millions when he, the heavyweight champion, defied the law by refusing conscription into the Army. Ali had very few defenders when he was immediately stripped of his title and his license to box.
Ali, a seminal figure in history, was also the greatest heavyweight ever, a big man who moved like a lightweight, snapped out punches like a frog catching flies, and had tremendous courage and guile. Too much. He was never stopped, and thanks to too many shots to the head, suffers from Parkinson’s disease today.
Unfortunately we never got to see much of the prime Ali. He sat out those years fighting the government in court. In the ring we saw the very young Ali, who won the title at age 22 from Sonny Liston, and the one who returned to the ring, relicensed, in December 1970 after a layoff of nearly four years.
Ali, had he taken the step forward and succumbed to conscription, wouldn’t have been a grunt in Vietnam. He’d have boxed in shows for the troops, as Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson did during World War II. He didn’t resist the draft to save his life. It was to make a point. He knew about people like Mitt Romney, who demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam War but sat out his draft years as a deferred Mormon missionary in France.
Ali’s mentor Elijah Muhammad of the National of Islam encouraged Ali’s resistance but didn’t tell him how to make a living when he was deprived of the right to fight. Thanks to his money troubles, marital failures (a string of wives and affairs) and his love of the spotlight, he kept boxing when he was old, slow, and spent, finally hanging up his gloves much too late in 1981. Three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He moves and speaks only with great difficulty.
Ali was one of the first fighters to benefit from pay TV. His biggest bouts were mostly shown on closed circuit black-and-white screens around the U.S., and the tickets weren’t cheap. It was a trend that infuriated lots of fans, and boxing quickly degenerated into a small sport. Eventually technology enabled pay-per-view broadcasts to individual homes, but the financial model endured, and the big pay-to-see fights have very limited audiences to this day, which kills interest in the sport. Last year’s Super Bowl drew more than 111 million U.S. viewers. Few pay-per-view fights top a million buys.
Ali has his faults. He wasn’t a terribly faithful husband. He was the all-time trash-talking king who knew just how to get under an opponent’s skin. He tortured Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell in the ring, taunting and belittling them and knocking them all around the ring without finishing them because they referred to him by his “slave” name of Cassius Clay.
Ali also received some gift decisions in his time. He was knocked senseless by Henry Cooper so his crafty trainer Angelo Dundee, spotting a slight tear in the seam of one of his gloves, widened the hole to give him time to recover. Ali stopped Cooper on cuts in the fifth. Dundee was dishonest enough to cheat but not to lie. He later admitted his ploy.
Ali’s fight career was largely defined by three opponents — Liston, Joltin’ Joe Frazier, and Big George Foreman. When he lost a 15-round decision to champion Frazier in 1971 in Madison Square Garden, even Sinatra had to scramble for a ticket. That was Joe at his peak, when he was not only a quick, powerful puncher, but hard to hit.
Their third contest in 1975 in Manila was one of the most savage prizefights in history. Toward the end both fighters, back in the corner, brought up the possibility of dying in there. Ali got the victory because Eddie Futch refused to send out a blinded Frazier for the 15th round. Afterward, neither man was ever the same.
Ali had said hateful things to Frazier. Joe wasn’t terribly articulate and couldn’t understand how Ali managed to define him as an ape and an ugly Uncle Tom. Over the years Frazier said occasionally that he forgave Ali, but then he’d say something spiteful again. The fact is that Joe never got over what Ali said about him. He gladly took credit for Ali’s disability and spoke of it with pride.
Liston was a beast, feared for his power and given not enough credit for his athletic ability. Ali, who was a 1960 light heavyweight Olympic Gold medalist, was expected by virtually everyone to be trampled in their 1964 fight. It’s one of my favorite fights on tape. You see an intelligent Ali with super-quick hands and feet stick and move like a matador (without sword or cape) and take the fight out of a bull who stayed on his stool when the bell rang to start the seventh round. In their second fight that was no phantom punch. Ali caught him on the temple in the first round. Maybe Liston could have gotten up if he chose, but he was knocked down by a righteous shot.
The Ali who stopped Foreman in 1974 in Kinshasa couldn’t stick and move anymore. He won on sheer will, absorbing body shots for seven rounds and then finishing a worn-out Foreman in the eighth round.
Ali pulled convicted killer Don King up into the spotlight with him, and King responded by cheating him, as he cheated so many fighters.
In 1991 Ali traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War and met with Saddam Hussein, negotiating the release of American “human shields.” By 1996, when he lit the flame at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he was an adored world figure.
Ali’s life has been bound up in the history of America and the world. Once vilified as a demon and later praised as a saint, he was neither and he was both. He remains unique. Happy birthday, champ.
This post originally appeared in a slightly different version at
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