Muhammad Ali, the greatest professional boxer of his era and quite possibly of all time, passed away at age 74. He had been hospitalized last week with Parkinsons- related respiratory problems that grew so severe he was placed on life support. Alas, this was one fight that he couldn’t overcome in the end.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. Ali’s father was named after the famed abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay, a fact few know today. Growing up in the thick of some of the worst racial segregation this country has ever been mired in certainly shaped the future Muhammad Ali’s brash anti-establishment personality.
It was a racially motivated crime that caused young Clay to step towards the world of boxing. When his bike was stolen, a 12-year old Clay vowed to whoop the person responsible. Joe E. Martin, a Louisville police officer who was also the local youth boxing coach, told Clay he should learn boxing and guided him towards what would become a bright figure on the amateur and professional circuit.
Making his debut as a boxer in 1954, Clay turned out to be a swift study and a gifted boxer, quickly winning six local Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles and the gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Despite his success, Ali still experienced the full brunt of racism in the American South.
After the Olympics, Clay made his professional debut defeating Tunney Hunsaker in six rounds. He worked up an undefeated streak of 19-0, winning 15 of those fights via knockout. Some may not realize it, but Ali had a lifelong connection to professional wrestling. It was during this time period that the trademark bombastic Ali persona came to existence. A longtime wrestling fan, Clay was inspired by the legendary pro wrestler Gorgeous George, widely recognized as wrestling’s first colorful heel. George would taunt his opponents during his matches and add a lot of showmanship to his routine. Clay was an eager study, incorporating both into his boxing career.
On February 25, 1964, Clay was granted a shot at legendary boxer Sonny Liston’s World Heavyweight Championship. It was expected to be an easy victory for Liston as no one believed Clay would win the fight or the title. Clay hung on for seven rounds to score the victory with a TKO.
It was a historic win in many ways. At 22 years of age, Clay was the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in boxing history. It would also be the final time he would use the name Cassius Clay. Shortly after his title win, Clay converted to Islam, shedding his “slave name” and adopting the name Muhammad Ali and aligning himself with the controversial Nation of Islam. It was also here where the unified World Heavyweight Championship would splinter into two separate world titles as the WBA decided to strip Ali of the title because of his religious conversion. The WBC refused to go along, still recognizing Ali as their World champion.
By now, we all know the highlights. Such milestones as the Fight of the Century with Joe Frazier in 1971, the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 and the Thrilla in Manila against Frazier amid record heat conditions in 1975 have taken their rightful place in sports history. So has the milestone of becoming the first man to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times, which no one had even come close to achieving back then. His retirement in 1978 and his failed comebacks afterward are also well known and covered.
There are some important events of Ali’s life that some people may not know about, such as Ali’s dalliance with professional wrestling during and after his boxing career. Ali famously made an appearance during a WWWF (now WWE) TV taping in Philadelphia on June 2, 1976, during which wrestler Gorilla Monsoon grabbed the boxing champ and gave him an airplane spin atop his shoulders. It led to the classic Monsoon line of “he doesn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch”.
This was largely to hype a huge mixed match-up at Budokan Hall in Japan on June 26, 1976 between Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. WWWF promoter Vince McMahon, Sr. was promoting the American closed-circuit presentation in New York’s Shea Stadium. So it made sense for Ali to appear on McMahon’s TV show to hype the fight.
The highly anticipated dream match was a financial success, selling out Budokan and drawing over 32,000 fans in Shea Stadium, but wound up becoming a total nightmare. Ali was still recovering from the brutal Frazier fight in Manila. The styles clashed big time as Ali’s considerable boxing skills didn’t mesh well with Inoki’s attempts at amateur catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Inoki’s kicks were so stiff that Ali wound up suffering from blood clots, deep bruises and hematomas on his legs for months afterward, almost losing one leg in the process. Ali only threw six solid punches throughout the entire 20 minute match.
Fans watching live in Budokan Hall did something no Japanese wrestling fan ever did: they made their disgust well known by showering the ring with boos and garbage.
Despite the match being a total fiasco, Ali and Inoki wound up becoming good friends and both would later have a shared faith in Islam. Ali even flew to Japan to celebrate Inoki’s in-ring retirement in 1998. Ali’s reputation was such that he was immortalized in the classic video game WCW vs. NWO: World Tour as the character “Joe Bruiser”. No official reason was given for the name change, although most suspect it was to avoid having to pay significant royalties for using Ali’s name.
When Vince McMahon launched the inaugural Wrestlemania in March 1985, he decided to bring in all the star power he could. Ali was recruited to be a special guest referee for the much hyped main event of Hulk Hogan & Mr. T against Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. During an out-of-control brawl, Ali restored order by clocking Piper with his trademark right hook.
Ali would make the occasional appearance at a wrestling show. He was originally supposed to be the special guest referee for the Hulk Hogan-Ric Flair steel cage match at WCW Halloween Havoc 1994, but by then, Parkinson's disease and a lifetime of concussions had taken their toll badly on the champ, resulting in him just making an appearance at ringside. Ali was also part of the American delegation taking part in the extremely controversial New Japan/WCW tour of North Korea in April 1995. In his autobiography, Flair mentioned that Ali’s mental fog inconveniently lifted during a testimonial to then-leader Kim Jong-Il, stating “No wonder we hate these mother*****s.”
As illustrious as his great boxing career was and what a superb natural athlete he certainly was, Ali may have made his greatest strides as a bonafide American hero. In 1967, he became the highest profile conscientious objector in American history when he flatly refused to serve in the Vietnam War for moral and religious reasons. He sacrificed three of the prime years of his boxing career to take a brave stand.
While many still vilify Ali to this day about his carefully thought out decision, he wound up paving the way for the anti-war movement. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. who were reluctant to oppose the war and the LBJ administration’s involvement in it now felt the freedom and inspiration to do so.
Ali’s anti-establishment stance won over a generation of youth frustrated over what society had become and inspired them to stand up for what they believe in regardless of the fear of reprisal. In a way, Ali paved the way for today’s pro-Bernie Sanders, anti-establishment political youth movement.
Ali also became an example of the danger of concussions on the human brain. Although many believe that Parkinson’s Disease was solely responsible for Ali’s diminished state in the past three decades, it is now believed that boxing while not fully recovering from brain concussions are what led to Ali’s diminished state, even accelerating the onset of Parkinson’s. Rather than retreat into seclusion, Ali took his battle public, giving the dreaded disease a public face and becoming a figure of hope that the disease wasn’t merely a death sentence.
Ali also became an inspirational figure when it came to religion. Taking exception to their extremist anti-white stance after the death of Elijah Muhammad, Ali left the Nation of Islam in 1975. He converted to the more inclusive Sunni Islamic faith, which embraced a more spiritual teaching of peace and understanding amongst one and all. He took his religious faith very seriously, even becoming an official Ambassador of Peace for the United Nations.
I was initially at a loss over how to end this look back at a life as brilliant as Muhammad Ali’s. When discussing the matter with my friend and fellow contributor Koriander Bullard, she suggested perhaps ending it at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Ali made a special appearance to light the Olympic torch. Despite his health struggles, he valiantly kept going and lit that torch.
I also recalled his final Olympics appearance at the 2012 London games, where he served as the official American flag bearer. His physical condition had deteriorated badly enough that he needed a wheelchair and physical assistance to get up, yet he carried on and proudly bore our nation’s flag.
Thinking back upon those two distinct moments, they serve as the epitome of what Muhammad Ali was as a man. Despite crippling odds against him, time and time again he stood up and carried on to the best of his ability, even at great personal pain. I can’t think of a greater epitaph than that.