“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” If those nearly shopworn words of Williams Shakespeare still bear any shade of wisdom, it may be apt to fathom the life and times of Cassius Clay, who would overtime, flamboyantly, metamorphose to Muhammad Ali, as the intriguing saga of an enigma unravels before our very eyes.
While even the finest mortals would require the mystique of death to accord them a semblance of greatness, Ali didn’t require such largesse to be ranked in the realms of the immortals. Here was the one who prophesied and oversaw his greatness and thrived in the fullness of its grandeur.
It all began unscripted: spindly Cassius had ridden to a party in his special bicycle only for it to be stolen. A flurry of emotion then engulfed him as he sank into pangs of thoughts, ruminating over what end of the stick his father will deal him and what he would do to the crook, if he would be privileged to lay hands on him. Soon he will be introduced to a police officer who ran a boxing gym in the same premises. The sheriff, probably thrilled by the potentials of the fury that had welled up in the youngster, saw a propensity that would become inalienable to the sport he would introduce to the enfant terrible.
Cassius stepped into the Columbia Gym and his loquaciousness blended with uncanny oomph, suited what he would be introduced to: “About the only other sport I ever thought about was football, but I didn’t like it because there was no personal publicity in it: you have to wear too much equipment and people can’t see you.”
Young Cassius cherished all the attention he could galvanize and was never on tenterhooks about his prowess. He would promote his fights by scorning his adversaries such that a drove would come to see him eat his words yet to their chagrin, or admiration, he will live up to his ranting. As an amateur, he went winning a slew of medals.
For most youngsters with such impressive feat, an Olympic appearance in Rome in 1960 would mean living the dream and their countenance will radiate in delight. Not Cassius, kid wanted to go pro!
The prodigy proceeded to the Olympics upon the intervention of his coach with a lot of promise, while bearing the physique of the quintessential American guy: athletic, handsome, tall. Those who spent time with him recalled that he was jovial, ran his mouth, enjoyed the competition like an average 18 year old would, yet was imbued with the mentality and work ethic of a champion.
The outcome was immutable. Cassius knocked off five opponents going to the final and met an experienced foe in Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrykowski, yet it was youth and sheer desire that prevailed over antecedents. His agility and quick feet on the ring proved an albatross for the 28 year old adversary and Ali came back home an Olympic champion for the light heavyweight category.
The heroic feat of the youngster had blown fame his way—overnight, as the games were transmitted to millions back home on television for the first time. Despite his stance against racism and segregation that characterized the time, Ali was proud of his medal. He hung it on his neck wherever he went, but not for long.
Cassius got back and signed a $10,000 bonus and $333 salary contract with The Louisville Sponsoring Group. Three years on after winning a bevy of bouts, the most important thing was to be the world champion before the age of 23. His mission was to dethrone the then heavyweight champion, Sony Liston.
Liston, 31, dubbed “The Bear” was a fiery adversary; an ex-con whose upbringing was rooted in poverty, eventually getting involved in armed robbery and doing time in the penitentiary. Liston’s indigent raring and time behind bars bequeathed him with a toughness that emitted hopelessness into the psyche of his opponents. But Cassius couldn’t be impressed; instead he tormented Liston with his unbridled tongue saying that “Liston’s not a champion, I am. He’s got my job. He’s too ugly to be a champion.”
At first, Liston will not take the youngster seriously, but Ali wearied him with his stinging words. Liston will later agree to fight Clay in what was later adjudged to be one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
When Clay emerged as champion against the odds, he announced his reign the world, “I am the greatest; I shocked the world!”
Liston would still come out in the losing end in the rematch that only lasted one round. Cassius didn’t want any excuses and urged his rival to “get up and fight” as he collapsed to the hapless canvas behind.
Cassius stock was on the rise, and after Sony Liston came Floyd Patterson. The former had joined the Black Muslim Separatist Movement as Cassius X before acing Sonny Liston but just before he will fight Patterson, he suddenly declared that Cassius Clay is a slave name and he chose to be addressed as Muhammad Ali on November, 22, 1965.
Ali positioned himself as a Black Muslim evangelist and objected to serving in the military for the Vietnam War. The consequence of his stance was not small—selective service evasion attracted five years imprisonment and a fine of $10,000. Ali was convicted but was soon released on bail as he appealed the decision, never doubting the ability to get a fair result. But he was not allowed to do what he knew how to do—fight. He was also excoriated of his titles. The license seizure of Ali spanned three years in what was the prime of his career.
The suspension of Ali was revoked in September 1970 when a federal court declared that the New York State Athletic Commission’s suspension of his license “constituted arbitrary and unreasonable departure for the commission’s established practice of granting licenses to applicants convicted of crimes or military offenses.”
Ali returned, ready to put the past behind him and forge on. The toll of not fighting for such a long time would always have consequences especially when the ex-champ’s ambition would be to reclaim the world title at the snap of the finger. Not so fast. Ali had lost the lethal speed that made him indomitable on the ring. He had also gained 10 to 15 pounds and added a few inches along his biceps. He would face Joe Frazier who had become the world heavyweight champion and undefeated like Ali in was dubbed, “Fight of The Century.” It is worthy to note that Ali had a way of fusing his ideologies and his stance as the liberator of the blacks into his fights. He declared that “my mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people. I’ll win this fight because I have a cause. Fraizer has no cause.”
Come March 8, 1971, in a fight that guaranteed $2.5 million for each fighter, it was Ali who was struggling to get up in the final 15 rounds. He had registered the first loss of his career.
His quest to getting back to the top was not always going to be a roll over. He had many other fights, building his invincibility but also suffered his second loss to Ken Norton, a heavy weight fighter who had never combated a world-class heavy weight fighter in his life. Ali would get his revenge in a rematch before actually doing same to Joe Fraizer—even though the latter was a unanimous decision.
If there was one fight that would restore Ali’s supremacy, nay greatness, it was his squaring up with the then heavyweight champion, George Foreman in the “Rumble in The Jungle” fight in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman was an Olympic hero from the 1968 Olympic, winning a gold medal in the heavy weight category. He was younger and was the favorite to defend the title considering that he knocked out the fighters Ali had to win on unanimous decisions. Yet Ali showed his genius and consolidated his place in the annals of boxing greats when he overturned the odds with his “rope a dope” tactics before an 80,000 mammoth crowd .He would defend his title ten times in the space of three years and would go on to fight his loathed foe, Joe Fraizer in the “Thrilla in Mannila” that lasted 14 rounds. Ali later confessed that “it was the closest thing to death.”
After the Manilla, the end was not too far away; though Ali defended his championship six times, he eventually lost to the emerging Leon Spinks. In 1978, seven months afterward, Ali defeated Spinks in a rematch to claim the heavyweight title, becoming the first man to do so for the third time. He announced that time that he was going to quit. But for a bloke who is never afraid to take up any opponent, life outside the ring was always going to be insipid, and so he rescinded his decision two years later.
The quest to trudge on at the ripe age of 38, proved that even the finest of us, while still encumbered with flesh and blood, are at best, vulnerable— and the very thing that made them great could also plot their plummet. As the fighter in the champ prevailed over his reasoning, he took a position that was antithetical to the notion that it is always good to bow when ovation was loudest. If one is to believe the near myth that Ali’s Parkinson’s disease syndrome that would later suffice in his life was exacerbated by the punches he absorbed throughout his career, estimated to be around 29,000, it was the bashing in the latter years that should get more portion of the blame .Ali was spent— and his best days were behind him. If the comeback against his former sparring partner and protégé Larry Holmes was his nemesis, his final fight against a 27 year old Trevor Berbick, just a month to his 40th birthday, mimicked the proverbial camel that broke the horses back.
Ali bemoaned afterwards that “Father time caught up with me. I’m finished. I know it’s the end. No excuses this time, but at least I didn’t go down. No pictures of me falling through the ropes.” That was an unhappy ending to a glittering career with a professional record of 56 wins, 5 losses, 37 knockouts.
Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 and surreptitiously, the debilitating effect of it will set in. For a fighter who not only tamed challengers with his menacing fist, but was as vicious in his verbal jabs, watching him become barely audible and finally mute was heart-wrenching.
Ali would later beam light on the hitherto obscure ailment by not only attracting attention to it through his fame, he fought on for over the remainder three decades of his life, creating the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center while soaring his reputation as a philanthropist around the world.
When the United States would host the Olympics in 1996— thus recreating the stage where Muhammad Ali was once announced to the world, the world saw him defy the tumultuous ailment that shook him ravenously as he ignited the flames for the ancient games.
In the height of the segregation meted out to men of color in the mid-sixties when Ali became the rock of Gibraltar against prejudice, it was said that he discarded his medal into the bottomless abyss of the Ohio River. Whether the would-be artifact will someday be retrieved or be found in the belly of a forlorn aquatic inhabitant, remains an incubus for future divers, but his elusive medal was replaced by the Olympic committee in the homecoming Atlanta 1996 fiesta.
In the history of the world, only a few people were photographed like Muhammad Ali. Yet even in that enviable ilk, he stands out. Love him or hate him, he proclaimed and lived his greatness, and when disease came, it could not dent the story of the lad who took the world by storm… and lived the dream; the prettiest, the fanciest, the greatest!
O.P. Philips is a freelance writer and an entrepreneur. He the author of The “OBAMA” in You! and runs the What Football Teaches Blog.