Everything’s been pretty quiet on the pugilistic front lately as Christmas and New Year’s have faded away and 2011 is slowly making a dent in the calendar. But Jan 17th is a special day on the world of boxing. It’s Muhammad Ali’s birthday and the champ has just turned 69. The years have crawled by, but it doesn’t really seem that long ago when Ali ruled the boxing world and perhaps the rest of the world too for that matter.
It got me wondering if today’s generation really know who Ali is because back then he was a lot more than just the king of the ring. We must go back to October 1954, when something happened that would change boxing history and possibly world history. This is when an energetic 12-year-old boy named Cassius Clay had his bicycle stolen in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. Crying with anger, the youngster told local police officer Joe Martin he was going to "whup" whoever had stolen it. Martin simply replied that he better learn how to fight first. And learn he did.
He poured hours and hours of sweat into learning the sweet science of boxing and was rewarded by winning the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics just six years after meeting Martin. Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after turning pro in 1960, grew up to be the most recognizable person on the planet.
From America to Africa, and the U.S.S.R. to Australia, everybody knew who he was, and with good reason. Ali was blessed with movie-star good looks. He was an entertainer, poet, actor, singer, religious spokesman, diplomat, comedian, and one hell of a boxer, probably the greatest ever.
But he was actually hated by a good portion of the public early in his career, dismissed as a clown, but his charisma eventually turned him into the "peoples" champion. The world soon fell in love with him and the affair still continues today.
Granted, Ali was no angel. He could be sassy and cocky, but usually pulled it off in a charming and playful childlike manner. But he had the skills to back up his words, often predicting the round his foes would fall in. He became a true world champion by taking his show on the road to places such as London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Manila, Kinshasha, the Bahamas, Dublin, Jakarta, Vancouver, and Zurich. He attracted presidents, prime ministers and royalty wherever he went. Children flocked to him in the thousands as they saw him as one of their own.
I first saw Ali fight on Dec. 7, 1970 when I was just a youngster. It was his second fight back after being inactive for three years due to a suspension for refusing induction into the U.S. army. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs," he had said. I jumped into my grandfather's arms and cried with joy. "He won, he won," I screamed, as he knocked out Oscar Bonavena in the 15th and final round. From then on I was under Ali's spell, never missing a fight or a television appearance for the rest of his career.
Ali fought and defeated the greats of his era, including Archie Moore, Sonny Liston (twice), Floyd Patterson (twice), Ken Norton (twice), Joe Frazier (twice), George Chuvalo (twice) and perhaps his greatest feat of all, knocking out big George Foreman in Africa to regain the heavyweight title. Ali was also the smartest boxer I’ve ever seen and could adapt to any opponent in the ring.
He was also tough and took his defeats like a man, never complaining. He once fought the last 10 rounds of a fight against Norton with a broken jaw. In losses to Norton, Frazier, and Leon Spinks, Ali was standing at the final bell. His only stoppage came against champion Larry Holmes in 1980, when his beloved corner man Angelo Dundee stopped the bout. This however, was in the twilight of his career when he was 38 years old.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, Ali acted as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S., visiting foreign leaders around the world. In 1990 he visited Iraq for 10 days and secured the release of 15 American hostages. Saddam Hussein said he could not let the great Muhammad Ali go home empty handed.
Ali's popularity lived on over the years. The film When We Were Kings, a documentary of his war with Foreman, won an Oscar in 1996. That same year, Ali touched millions more around the world as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. In 1999 he was crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and the BBC. Two years later, actor Will Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the fighter in the movie Ali.
It’s impossible to describe Ali in just a few paragraphs. You need to write a book to do him justice and of course many people have. He’s still a champion now as he battles Parkinson's syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in 1984. In true Ali fashion, he seeks no sympathy from the public. His mind is intact and he still possesses the mischievous wit and humor he became famous for.
People say boxing hasn't been the same since Ali left. Frankly, the world hasn't quite been the same without him in the spotlight either.
Happy birthday champ and thanks for all of the memories.