Muhammad Ali (1942-2016): Forever the Greatest

04 Jun 2016 | by Courtesy of Daily Mail
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016): Forever the Greatest

The Greatest has been granted his last request.

The most recognisable man on the planet has gone to touch gloves with his maker after the longest, bravest, most anguished struggle of his phenomenal fighting life.

The final bell has tolled for the boxing artist formerly known as Cassius Clay.

As those sonorous chimes reverberated around a saddened world, they signalled the end of his protracted battle with one of the most pernicious diseases to afflict mankind.

Parkinson's took the decision on points. Not at the conclusion of 15 rounds of dazzling fisticuffs but after more than 30 years of grievous attrition.

Muhammad Ali is still the all-time heavyweight champion of the world. Forever will be.

'Float like a butterfly

Sting like a bee

The hands can't hit

What the eyes can't see'

Simplicity was but one part of the complex sum of Ali's genius but in this basic, brilliant rhyme he set down the definitive statement of his unique gift for the art he truly ennobled.

At a stroke of the pen he conveyed his God-given talent with his fists into the minds of kings and commoners alike.

None of us - not Norman Mailer, not even Budd Schulberg, certainly not we humble reporters of his story - have succeeded in putting the mighty Muhammad into words with the lyrical clarity of the man himself.

From the butterfly to the bee. From the Ali Shuffle to the Rope-a-Dope. From the Rumble in the Jungle to the Thrilla in Manila. From Clay to Ali, he found the explicit phrase to match his epic performances. 

Most prizefighters are at their most articulate in the violent language of the most primitive workplace in sport.

The most extraordinary pugilist of all found expression outside as well as inside the ring. Ali spoke in the tongues of poets and, after he found Islam, the prophets.

Nor would he be silenced when the Louisville Lip, as his home town dubbed its ranting young Cassius for his boyish bragging, was reduced to a Parkinson's whisper.

As the sickness lowered the volume and slowed the diction, so the precious words were chosen with more sparing effect.

He also found other ways to communicate. Perhaps most amazingly of all, given the convulsive shaking of his hands, he became an adroit magician.

The disease was well advanced when Ali came to London for one of his several anointings as Sportsman of the Century, on this occasion by the BBC.

He dined at The Savoy in worshipful company. When supper was over, the Lord of the Ring invited a group of autograph-hunters to join our table. My then 11-year-old son was among them.

Muhammad sat him on his knee while he performed his conjuring tricks with playing cards, handkerchiefs and match boxes. As he did so, he whispered: 'What's my name?'

'Mr Ali, sir,' my boy replied.

Muhammad chuckled, almost silently: 'Lucky you said that. Otherwise I'd have to give you a whuppin' like that Mr Terrell.'

The mind, as sharp as ever behind the veil of his medical condition, had taken him back to February 2, 1967.

To the red-neck city of Houston, Texas. To the night when tough Ernie Terrell came to challenge the world champion by refusing to call him by his adopted Islamic name.

'What's my name?' asked Ali as the referee called them from their corners.

'Cassius Clay,' replied Terrell.

'What's my name?' demanded Muhammad, time after time after time, as he rained punch after punch after punch on his insolent opponent but kept withholding the knock-out blow so he could inflict further retribution, round after round.

It was a message hammered out not only to the head and body of one foolishly bigoted, if brave, individual but to white America at large. A message delivered by the Black Muslim champion of civil liberty and freedom of speech.

Ali goads Ernie Terrell
Ali connects with a right on Terrell

Ali goads Ernie Terrell during their fight in Houston. The WBA heavyweight champion was humiliated by Ali over 15 ugly rounds

'They ain't done me no wrong 

So I ain't got no fight

With them Vietcong'

In 1967, with America at war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali declined induction into the United States Army.

The heavyweight champion of the world, the glistening totem of his nation's global power, refused to fight.

That decision required at least as much courage as even the most extreme of his conflicts in the ring. 

There were undercurrents of racism in the ensuing torrents of public outrage. Less than 24 hours after he failed to answer his country's call to enlist, Ali was stripped of the WBA belt and banned from boxing.

Ali won a titanic battle in the Rumble in the Jungle, with his rope-a-dope tactic wearing out the previously undefeated George Foreman

Within two months he had been convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He never served his time.

After three years of appeals he lifted the last, lingering threat of incarceration by announcing what proved to be a temporary retirement from the ring.

Within another 12 months America had relented, if not forgiven. Ali's comeback was already under way by the time the Supreme Court set aside his conviction.

Redemption, adulation, deification even, were to be a lot longer coming for the devilishly handsome black boy who announced that he had cast his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after returning triumphant from the 1960 Games in Rome only to be denied service in a Louisville diner because of his colour.

Thirty-six years later - on that warm and emotional night in a stadium in Atlanta when the world watched with its heart in its mouth and a tear in its eye as he defied Parkinson's to safely ignite the 1996 Olympic flame - they gave him a replica.

So then he let slip a hint that maybe he hadn't thrown his medal away, after all.

A mischievous sense of irony was one of Ali's most constant companions throughout three marriages, America's shifting affections and all those 61 fights for cash earned the hardest way.

It was with him that evening when the Games went to the deepest south of the old slave state of Georgia.

He took it to the White House when George W Bush presented America's most famous conscientious objector with his country's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was at his side when former President Bill Clinton went to Louisville to open the Muhammad Ali Center, a permanent shrine to his majesty, and a building of hope for young black Americans.

From draft dodger to freedom fighter. From the fastest mouth in the Midwest to supreme sporting icon.

From reviled to revered.

Ali lights the Olympic flame ahead of the Games in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996 

From the maternity ward at Louisville General Hospital at 6.35pm on January 17, 1942 to his rocking chair beneath the shady trees of his ranch at Berrien Springs, Michigan, this was the most improbable journey.

One which improved and excited the lives of all those of us fortunate enough to encounter him along the momentous way.

It is a story summoned up from the indomitable spirit, told from the enormous heart and beaten out by the lightning fists of Muhammad Ali.

It is a profoundly human parable for the American way of life. In its gut, it is the chronicle of the No 1 fighting man.

Mere world champion boxers are happy simply to win. Cassius Marcellus Clay took additional, wicked delight in successfully predicting the round in which he would despatch his opponents on a 10-second ride to oblivion.

Archie Moore, the grandaddy of all the light-heavyweights, had pushed the immortal Joe Louis to the brink of defeat on a previous excursion into the heavyweight domain.

Come 1962 in Los Angeles he duly slumped to the canvas in the fourth three-minute stanza, as ordained in verse by the younger, bigger, and above all faster, legend in the making.

Feet of Clay? Not where Cassius was concerned. Old Archie was the first fighter of serious repute to experience at close quarters the dancing feet, blurred hand speed and elastic movement which have been beyond the human range and most fanciful imagination of all the other giants of the prize-ring.

It was not the raw fact of the knock-out that night which alerted the world to the advent of a sublimely different talent.

What caught the eye of the early observers was that the fast-talking kid from Kentucky was even quicker than Moore. Faster, in fact, than many a middleweight.

How rapid? Inevitably, the most stunning analogy was his own: 'Man, I'm so fast that when I switch off the light by the door I'm in bed before the room goes dark.'

A couple more gallops and the young thoroughbred from bluegrass country was ready for London and Henry Cooper.

Clay's crystal ball was still in transparent working order even though, come an expectant Wembley Stadium, there was to be a dramatic slip between tip and lip.

Destiny, of a sort, awaited Cooper, also. The heavyweight champion of the British Empire became only the second of four men to knock The Greatest off his feet.

So focused was Clay on his fifth-round prediction that he wasn't paying full attention in the fourth when Our 'Enry sent him sprawling and semi-conscious against the bottom rope.

Had that trademark left hook not exploded so close to the bell which rescued the heir apparent to boxing's bloody throne, history would have been rewritten.

Angelo Dundee, the resident saviour in the great man's corner, made sure that the prophecy of a new messiah coming to grace the most violent game would be fulfilled.

Wise Angelo called the referee to examine a sudden, surreptitious slit in his man's glove. Clay was given extra time to recover before that fated fifth round. Time to ready himself for the two-fisted assault on the parchment-like skin thinly covering Cooper's eyebrows, a barrage which set the blood flowing in buckets and had the referee intervening, just as Clay had foretold.

We marvelled that night that he had been able to get up at all after being hit by 'Enry's 'Ammer'.

We did not realise it then but we had just borne witness to another superhuman facet of this supernatural athlete. His chin. That jaw which might have been hewn from the rock in which America sculpts the images of its Presidents.

That jaw which refused to let him go down even when it was broken by the under-rated Ken Norton.

That chin which was, at one and the same time, his last line of defence but the curse upon his future health. Had he not been able to withstand so much brain-rattling punishment Muhammad Ali might have carried on talking himself into a different sphere of supremacy.

His image might be joining that gallery of Presidents high on Mount Rushmore, the first to be carved in black stone.

If America can install a movie actor in the White House and California elect a bodybuilder as state governor, why not high office for the most charismatic athlete of them all?

As it was, that ability to absorb more sledgehammer blows than would be good for a buffalo took him on to the totally unpredictable night when he won the world heavyweight title for the first of an unprecedented three times.

'You're fat, slow and ugly

A big ugly bear

When you look in the mirror

You give yourself a scare'

There were two acts of sorcery which surpassed all others in the spell-binding repertoire of the boxer who would be a magician.

The first was tricking the big ugly bear called Sonny Liston into believing that the pretty boy who had come to Miami to challenge for his heavyweight title was not just cocksure but certifiably insane.

Beauty scared the Beast. The best boxers are not only courageous but remarkably disciplined.

As such, the only thing that really frightens them is the spectre of a madman raging out of the opposite corner.

Liston was an intimidating brute. He was expected to devour this Kentucky spring chicken. But as a refugee from the ghetto who had been denied even a modicum of education, he lacked the civilised intelligence to cope with Clay's rantings, was bereft of the subtlety to comprehend that it was he who was being driven mad.

It was as if Clay with his repetitive rhymes and screeching rhetoric had looped a chain around his neck, prodded him with a stick and goaded him into the ring as if he were his personal dancing bear.

Except that it was Cassius doing the dancing. Liston did the lumbering until he could stand no longer the humiliation of hitting thin air while being punched stupid himself.

The bear slumped, bewildered, on to his stool at the end of the sixth and stayed huddled there instead of coming out for the seventh. Pandemonium.

'I'm the king,' crowed the upstart who had started that evening as a 7-1 underdog. It was but the first of his coronations.

Exactly 20 years later, on another continent, they filmed the documentary When We Were Kings.

It was about the Rumble in the Jungle. About the expedition to Kinshasa, in Zaire, when Muhammad Ali came back from the mists of time, from all that madness, from joining the civil rights struggle and the ranks of America's Black Muslims to confront another monster.

A monster called George Foreman, who was also expected to eat him alive.

Pele and Ali shared a tender moment at the Brazil legend's final game in New York in 1977

This time the trick was to let King Kong punch himself out. To let Big George bludgeon him to the head and elbows, rib cage and biceps until his arms ached fit to drop, all the time screeching in his ear: 'Is that all you've got?'

He gave this illusion a name: Rope-a-Dope.

Foreman was no mug. His subsequent preaching from a Texas pulpit and the forays into business which have made him a multi-millionaire have come as proof of that.

But the trick worked and when, in the eighth round, he ran out of ideas and steam, Ali knocked him out.

Not for the first time, by sheer genius and savage fortitude, The Greatest had come to the salvation of the hardest game.

Boxing was on the ropes as a major spectator sport when he destroyed Liston in a half-empty hall; was in need of smelling salts when he floored Foreman. Each time, Ali reignited public fascination.

That jungle rumble was the unique promotion which launched former racketeer and ex-convict, Don King, into the boxing firmament.

In later years it became the perceived wisdom that the electrically coiffured King had joined the Black Muslims in helping themselves to Ali's money. Yet Ali has died a wealthy man.

That was thanks in large measure to his devoted third wife Lonnie, who coaxed him out of his initial embarrassment about his illness, and then ensured that her beloved celebrity was fully rewarded for the public reappearances he enjoyed so much.

In part, that was because he kept on fighting and The Don kept the big cheques rolling in.

'It will be a killer

And a chiller and a thrilla

When I get the gorilla

In Manila'

Every great fighter needs his trilogy to reserve his seat in the pantheon. Even The Greatest.

So when the world asked why on earth, in 1975 at 33, he was going all the way to the Philippines for a third world war with Joe Frazier, he knew the answer.

In search of the holy grail.

Twice before these two sworn enemies had gone the murderous distance with each other in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Smokin' Joe beat him to the most championship punches in 1971. Ali took revenge with a 12-round non-title decision three years later.

King smelt gold in the Orient. The world-title decider was a symphony of pain and endurance. After 14 rounds of unremitting hand-to-hand combat Frazier's wise and humane trainer Eddie Futch knew that the man he cherished as a surrogate son could see little or nothing through eyes swollen like a gargoyle's.

Before Smokin' Joe could explode in protest, Futch threw in the towel. Frazier forgave him eventually, admitting: 'I thought I was going to die.'

Ali said: 'So did I,' confessing that he was on the precipice of quitting himself.

The world saluted both gladiators. Not until years later, when Ali was asked to join the oft-heated debate as to whether all the punches were responsible for his plight, did he hint at a suspicion that the Parkinson's might have been triggered back then.

'I left something of myself in that ring that night,' he said. 'Something important.'

Yet he fought on, losing and regaining his championship in back-to-back fights with Leon Spinks.

Another retirement was followed by one comeback too far. We watched in dismay as Larry Holmes - Ali's sparring partner before he became a formidable champion in his own right - reluctantly inflicted the most terrible beating of all.

Round after round Holmes begged the referee to stop it. Not until the 11th did that myopic official listen. It was too late. The damage was done.

The brightest light on the sporting planet grew dimmer thereafter. Now that is has been extinguished, the world is a duller place.

'Oxford, that's a big university

Wants me as professor of poetry'

In the 70s a consensus of progressive undergraduates campaigned for Muhammad Ali to succeed W.H. Auden as professor of poetry at Oxford.

The notion intrigued him. Not least because he experienced reading difficulties for much of his life.

The brilliant couplets he started rattling off the top of his head grew into a substantial anthology of verse.

Its sources were his vast reservoir of natural-born intelligence, a kaleidoscopic mind infused with a deep sense of humanity, that famous shaft of arrogance, humour as quick as his trademark shuffle and that intangible gift of the poet for communicating ideas in literary code.

That chair beneath Oxford's dreaming spires was not bestowed in the end, perhaps because his writings had not yet matured to the point where, some years later, he could invert metaphors this extraordinary.

'I can drown a drink of water

I can kill a dead tree

Don't mess with Muhammad Ali'

To read or listen to the man was to gain an insight into his lateral thinking in the prize-ring. The mind was as fast as those hair-trigger reflexes which enabled him to dance with his hands by his side as he swayed micro-seconds and split centimetres away from potentially decapitating punches.

Ali stands at the centre of sport's timeless debate as to who was The Greatest of them all.

There are lobbies of boxing purists who insist upon Joe Louis as the supreme heavyweight or Sugar Ray Robinson as the Einstein of the sweet science.

Where so many modern sportsmen seclude themselves in their ivory towers of false self-importance, an audience with this ebony Adonis awaited all who cared to come calling and invariably lasted for several captivating hours.On the morning Mike Tyson was released from three years in an Indianapolis state penitentiary I went with him to the nearby mosque. Ali was there, waiting to take freedom's breakfast with his fellow Muslim and brother champion.

He counselled Tyson to moderate his rage at the injustices and iniquities of life when it is arrived at via the meanest streets. He explained how he had come to terms with the brake Parkinson's had applied to his racing tongue by accepting it as part of his destiny, as his tool for quieter contemplation of the black man's struggle and the meaning of our existence.

It was one of those days when he was having more difficulty than others steadying his hands. So as they sat at the table talking softly - one in his whisper, the other with his lisp - Tyson fed Ali by gently raising spoonful after spoonful to his lips.

Muhammad smiled his thanks and the whole room lit up.

Like Tyson, whenever Ali travelled to Las Vegas he was in the custom of visiting the final resting place of the tragic beast of a champion he slew to become king of the world.

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