By: JJ Louis
Edited By: Jennelle Alfred
Last Friday night in Scottsdale, Arizona, the man formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay entered his final fight. A respiratory illness had plagued him. It left him hospitalized, with heavy hearts from all over cheering him on. At first, was a back and forth affair. Yet as the hours went by on June the 3rd 2016, we soon learned the outcome as quick as a right jab. By Saturday morning, it was all over. Muhammad Ali had passed away at 74 years of age.
Career Retrospect: Fights in the Ring
Ali was a pioneer in so many respects; the most praised was gift of gab; being one of the first to walk the walk, and talk the talk in professional sports. He began to hone his craft at the tender age of 12 in 1954, making his amateur debut in that very year. He ended his amateur career with a 100-5 record, becoming a multiple-time Golden Gloves winner (both nationally and in-State in Kentucky), an AAU national title, and further solidifying himself with his run in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In the Olympic games, the then 18 year-old Cassius Clay entered in the fray under the Light-Heavyweight division and outlasted fifteen other men to win the gold medal. He last defeated Polish great Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a battle tested Olympian who had won 11 Polish titles in his own right. Following his Olympic victory, Ali stated: ‘’To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole, and for the USA won the medal of gold. The Greeks said you’re better than the Cassius of old.” In September, his amateur pedigree worked him into a gold medal. In October, his gold medal allowed him to embark on professional boxing, starting a career that would quickly make him the most polarizing figure in the sport.
Clay’s professional boxing career began with a 19-match winning streak between 1960 to 1963, with 15 wins by knockout. By that time he had caught the attention of Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, a feared hitter who was once synonymous with mobsters. Clay came in as an underdog and used a gift that had brought him to the dance. His trash talk. Prior to the fight, Cassius referred to Liston as “the big ugly bear” going on in saying: “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.”
In what was a huge upset, the 22 year-old used his quickness to his advantage and maneuvered past Liston throughout the contest. By the 7th round, he tired the Heavyweight Champion out enough to go on the attack in a TKO defeat. In victory, He yelled out ‘I am the greatest, I’m the greatest that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face.’ This catapulted him to stardom. Some called it arrogance, he maintained it was his confidence. Whether you loved him or hated him, he was going to do it his way. This narrative was true in the ring as it was out of it.
Career Retrospect: Fights in The Media
In 1966, the Vietnam War was a heavy issue that waned on America, and as the draft was still intact, one of the main draftees were none other than the newest member of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali. He was called to serve, both times denying. He maintained that Vietnam was never his enemy, and spoke up against racial prejudice happening in the United States. “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.” Ali said following his alignment with Muslims, where he berated the origin of his birth-name, a name that was traced back to the Republican politician and southern abolitionist during the age of the Civil War. In his fight with Eddie Turrell, Turrell taunted him by calling him “Clay”, yet as Ali knocked him down he yelled “Say my name” in revolt against his birth-name and by virtue against the grain of sorts. His stance on the war landed Ali in prison for Draft evasion, exiling him from fights between 1967-70’. In a shocking turn of events, he was acquitted of the charges in Clay vs the United States in 71’ in a unanimous ruling. This court stated “Ali’s beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them.” He fought against the system, and won.
Career (Continued) Return to the Ring
He came back and returned to prominence that very year in a match dubbed the “fight of the century”: Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali, or in Ali’s thoughts: the Ugliest Champion versus the Prettiest Challenger. The Dumb tool of white Establishment, versus the renegade. A man supported by “white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan” versus the one who fought “for the little man in the ghetto.” Spanning 35 countries; 760 pressers, Ali valiantly fought, yet lost the fight by unanimous decision, the first loss of his career.
He then went back to the drawing board, still maintaining media traction, even going as far as being challenged by Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the most dominant athlete in the sport of Basketball, (only for the contest to be called off by Chamberlain himself). But once he came back to prominence, his main target was Frazier, whom he came to blows with during a televised ABC interview. The rematch in the Congo dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle” in January of 1974 saw Ali redeem himself against the then former Champion Joe Frazier, setting him up as the number one contender against the newly crowned Champion George Foreman. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind. I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” chanting “Ali, Bomaye”. Soon enough, he uncrowned the upstart hard hitter to add to his legend with the famed “rope a dope” routine. His legend was cemented.
From an instance of talking a man down a ledge to his special guest appearance at Wrestlemania, he remained a main attraction throughout his decline, starred by his unfortunate fight with Parkinson’s. Like in the ring, and out, he had fought the disease with every fiber of his being. For 32 years, this battle had been at the helm, but even with it, for his family and for his people, he kept on going.
With endless stories of him fighting the status quo, he influenced many celebrities and athletes across the globe. NBA Legend Charles Barkley has long raved about the influence of Ali as far back as Barkley’s humble beginnings in Alabama, paralleling his youth to “The Great One”. Many others such as current Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony have followed the same footsteps. Even in the business of Professional Wrestling, third generation star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson grew up meeting Ali on multiple occasions, and attributes Ali for his many nicknames, with Ali donning the future star the new “People’s Champion”, following his first World title win in WWF’s Survivor Series Pay Per View of 1998.
There were very few who impacted the entertainment industry as he had done, because of that, we all rushed to a news channel or feed whenever we heard news on Ali as the health of the great deteriorated. And that fateful day, it was no different.
The Final Fight
Muhammad Ali didn’t lose his final fight with life; he won. He beat all the odds and kept on swinging; from his days of adolescence, to his final breath. He lived long enough to influence men, women and children of all ages. His acts are all over the history books, as well as the memories held within each and every one of us. You did not have to be a fan of boxing to admire what he did; you had to be a fan of your own brand, speaking out on what makes you, you; realizing that no matter what society tries to throw your way, maintaining your true self instills greatness. For that, he simply was: “The greatest”.