The Greatest of All Time
One small event in life can change everything. What if Cassius Marcellus Clay had never had his bike stolen?
We'll never know because that bicycle was stolen and Clay turned to boxing. The rest would become history. Ali said he was "The Greatest" long before he knew he really was.
In the first three years of his career Muhammad Ali fought some of the best competition at the time, and he'd beaten them all. (Doug Jones, Henry Cooper, and 'The Old Mongoose' Archie Moore.)
After six years he'd shocked the world and become heavyweight champion. He beat the mean, rough, and tough, Sonny Liston.
"If you want to lose your money...bet it on Sonny."
Sonny Liston had beaten them all. He'd twice knocked out Cleveland Williams. He knocked out Zora Folley, and twice he knocked out former champion Floyd Patterson. Nobody gave Ali a chance of beating Liston. Nothing said it more than Ali being a 7-1 underdog. Sonny attacked him early and Ali moved and hit him. Keeping a safe distance from the champion. Something got in Ali's eye. Allegedly Sonny tried to blind him so he could go for the knockout. While Ali couldn't see he tried to knock him out. He failed and knew he couldn't beat the challenger. Sonny didn't answer the bell to open the 6th round.
The rematch brought on more controversy when Sonny Liston allegedly took a dive. Ali caught him with a quick snapping punch. Liston went down and didn't beat the count. Liston had said after the first fight that he didn't answer the bell because his shoulder was hurt, but the second fight he was knocked out. Liston had thought to be unbeatable, and maybe he was because both fights with Ali were full of controversy. History can only tell it one way and Muhammad Ali beat the unbeatable Liston twice.
The New Heavyweight Champion
Muhammad Ali was the champion of the world. In his first defense of the title he beat Floyd Patterson by TKO in the 12th. Ali was accused of toying with Patterson and beating on him for his refusal to acknowledge Ali by his new name. He called him Clay instead of Ali.
Liston had beaten Patterson twice, and now Ali had beaten them both. Two future hall of fame champions had fallen to Muhammad Ali. George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Carl Mildenberger, 'Big Cat' Cleveland Williams, would all find the same fate. Muhammad Ali had beat the best of an era.
In 1967 Ali took on Ernie Terrell in Houston with back to back fights in the Astrodome. He'd just came off a world tour before doing two fights in Houston, Texas.
Terrell would go the distance, but did no better against the Champion than anyone else had done. Ali made another good fighter look bad in there. He dominated Terrell who had called him Clay. Ali didn't want to knock him out. He wanted to punish him.
During the fight he taunted him, "What's my name?" Ali asked him as he'd bloodied and beat Terrell. It was suppose to be Ali's toughest opponent since Liston, but Ali had made easy work out of a fighter who hadn't lost in five years.
Ali would fight the 74-4 Zora Folley. This would be Muhammad Ali's last fight before he was punished for not accepting his induction into the military. He knocked Folley out in the 7th round of the fight. On 4-28-67 Ali was stripped of his titles. Muhammad Ali had a 29-0 record and hadn't really been tested.
The Thoughts of Muhammad Ali in Exile, c. 196
with Thomas Hauser
"I never thought of myself as great when I refused to go into the Army. All I did was stand up for what I believed. There were people who thought the war in Vietnam was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted just as brave as I did. There were people who tried to put me in jail. Some of them were hypocrites, but others did what they thought was proper and I can't condemn them for following their conscience either. people say I made a sacrifice, risking jail and my whole career. but God told Abraham to kill his son and Abraham was willing to do it, so why shouldn't I follow what I believed? Standing up for my religion made me happy; it wasn't a sacrifice. When people got drafted and sent to Vietnam and didn't understand what the killing was about and came home with one leg and couldn't get jobs, that was a sacrifice. But I believed in what i was doing, so no matter what the government did to me, it wasn't a loss.
"Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn't trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn't just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man's son went to college, and the poor man's son went to war. Then, after the rich man's son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted. So what I did was for me, but it was the kind of decision everyone has to make. Freedom means being able to follow your religion, but it also means carrying the responsibility to choose between right and wrong. So when the time came for me to make up my mind about going in the Army, I knew people were dying in Vietnam for nothing and I should live by what I thought was right. I wanted America to be America. And now the whole world knows that, so far as my own beliefs are concerned, I did what was right for me."
There were those who hated Ali after he refused induction. He was a draft dodger. When the country needed him to fight he wouldn't go. This is how most felt despite the fact that polls showed that we shouldn't even be in the war in the first place.
Muhammad Ali knew where it had gotten Joe Louis who went to war, and was later robbed by the IRS. They were going to strip Ali down to nothing, but he was going to learn from all of it and stand his ground in the process. This was his biggest fight yet, but he adapted like he'd always done in the ring. Sometimes you win, even when you lose.
“I Ain't Got No Quarrel With The VietCong...No VietCong Ever Called Me Nigger.” - Muhammad Ali
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. - Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam War.
The Return From Exile
The Comeback: October 26, 1970 - Atlanta, Georgia
Ali vs. Jerry Quarry
Muhammad Ali got a 3rd round TKO victory in his comeback fight. Jerry Quarry (37-4-4) was not the fight the fans wanted to see, but Ali needed a couple of fights before the biggest fight in boxing history. The Fight of the Century was a year away.
Ali's next opponent would be Oscar 'Ringo' Bonavina. He would stop Ringo in his 2nd comeback fight, but it took him 15 rounds before he finally stopped him by TKO. Bonavina made it a tough fight. He looked better than Quarry had looked.
Smokin' Joe Frazier
While Ali was in exile there was another heavyweight cleaning out the division. Joe Frazier was destroying the competition. Muhammad let the fans know that regardless of title belts he was the real champion. He never lost the title in the ring and he let Joe Frazier and everyone else know that. Ali knew the fight was going to be huge, because both were undefeated. Ali chastised Joe in efforts to make the fight even bigger. Frazier didn't understand why a fight that big had to be made any bigger, and he was greatly offended by the things that Ali said about him. Joe had been there for Ali when he was trying to get reinstated in boxing. He could not believe Muhammad would say the things he did about him.
March 8, 1971: Ali vs Frazier I - "The Fight of the Century"
There were those who'd did not like Ali and had not forgiven him for draft dodging. Joe Frazier was no Uncle Tom as Ali has called him, but a lot of white boxing fans wanted to see Joe beat Ali and shut him up.
Both fighters looked good through the first couple of rounds, but anyone watching could see that Ali was not the Ali of old. He was not the fighter he'd been before they stripped him. Later Muhammad would adapt to the fighter he'd become. He was so much better than the competition before that when he lost a little it just brought him a little closer to the field. It didn't help him in that particular fight.
Ali had taken a couple of tune up fights, but he was not ready for Joe Frazier. He hit Ali with shots in that fight that he'd never been hit by before. He could go to the gym and work his ass off, but something was gone that had been there before.
Joe Frazier dropped Ali early in the 15th round with what Bert Sugar describes as a 'left hook from hell'. Like the champion everyone knew he was, Ali got up off the floor. Joe Frazier had beat him by decision.
Things had changed for Ali. He was not the same fighter he'd been. Joe Frazier was the champion. Ali would win his next 10 fights in a row. Frazier would only successfully defend his title two more times. Then he would run into the new big boy on the block.
Big George Foreman
George Foreman was 37-0 (34 KO) against Joe Frazier 29-0 (25 KO)
Joe Frazier was a 7 to 1 favorite, but when the opening bell rang Joe Frazier was knocked three times in the first, and another three times in the 2nd, before the fight was stopped to save Smokin' Joe from anymore punishment. George Foreman had destroyed the only man to beat Muhammad Ali.
Frazier vs Ali 2
Joe Frazier had lost his title to George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali had lost his first fight with Ken Norton. There are those who thought Ali lost both fights against Norton, but Ali was awarded the Split Decision victory in the 2nd Norton fight. Leading up to the fights with Ken Norton Muhammad Ali had defeated some quality fighters. (Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, Jurgen Blin, Mac Foster, George Chuvalo and Jerry Quarry rematches, Patterson 2, and Joe Bugner)
Ali would win the second fight with Joe Frazier. Ali won the early rounds, Frazier took the middle rounds, and Ali closed the fight out winning the later rounds. Ali and Frazier were now even with a win and a loss against each other. Most fight fans saw the two rivals as even to each other.
Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman
-The Rumble in the Jungle-
Ali had beat Joe Frazier in their rematch. Big George had destroyed Joe Frazier and had his title belt. Big George was the champion and nobody believed Ali could do anything about that.
Not Muhammad Ali...he believed he would win and ordered anyone who didn't think so out of his camp. Foreman had destroyed Frazier and Norton, and both guys had troubled and beaten Ali
There was no reason for anyone to believe that Muhammad Ali had a real shot at the heavyweight champion. Ali believed it and he convinced the rest of Zaire that he did too.
George Foreman was a stone cold killer. There wasn't a boxer in the game at that point that would've been favored against George Foreman. Nobody gave Muhammad Ali a chance against Liston who'd mentored Foreman. He defied the odds and beat Liston, but this time the deck was stacked against him even more.
Muhammad Ali had shown signs of slowing down. He avenged the loss to Frazier, and he'd avenged the loss to Ken Norton, but he wasn't the fighter he'd been when he owned the 1960's. He was a shadow of the kid who'd upset Sonny Liston. Nobody even Ali fans thought he could beat George Foreman.
Muhammad Ali would once again shock the world. Nobody gave him a shot and just like he'd done with Liston, he proved them wrong. His trainer Angelo Dundee didn't understand his rope-a-dope strategy, and told him to get off the ropes. George continued from the opening bell until the 8th round knockout to apply pressure. Muhammad took his best shots and was still there when George had nothing left in the tank.
"Is that all you got?" Ali asked
That was all he had. George had punched himself out. When Ali saw the opening he hit Foreman like he'd never been hit. The spent champion fell to the floor and could not beat the count. Muhammad Ali defied the odds and regained his title for a 3rd time. Nobody could ever doubt his being the best. Ali had become the champion again, and the best heavyweight champion ever in the process.
He should have retired following that unbelievable victory over Foreman, but he didn't. He defended his title against Chuck Wepner. This fight is where Sylvester Stallone says he got the idea for the characters Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. Ali beat Wepner by TKO in the 15th round.
Next up was the hard hitting Ron Lyle (30-2-1 25 KO)
Ron Lyle got a late start as a professional boxer. He was 30 years old when he turned pro. Lyle was a strong heavyweight and could box on the inside or the outside. George Foreman said Lyle was the toughest guy he ever fought.
Ron Lyle was out boxing Ali early on. Ali had not been the fighter he was in the 60's, but he adapted and was still among the best. Against Lyle you could see he'd slipped a little more. This was not the fighter he'd been when he'd beat Frazier in the rematch or when he shocked the world, again, when he beat Foreman.
Ali knew he'd lost some early rounds to Lyle. The middle rounds he picked up the pace and cut into Lyle's lead. In the 11th round the referee jumped in and stopped the fight when Ali was pouring it on. Ron Lyle's corner was not happy with the stoppage.
Joe Bugner 2
The Thrilla in Manila - Ali vs. Frazier 3
October 1, 1975
These were not the two fighters that had fought in the 'Fight of the Century'. Ali had won the rematch, but he was far from being the fighter he'd been at that point. Joe Frazier didn't think he was the fighter that had beat Foreman. Joe wasn't what he'd been, but he believed the slip had been farther for Ali. On the other hand Muhammad Ali didn't think Frazier was what he had been and could rack up another victory over him. Neither man was what he had been, and it made for a great fight.
Ali was in control early and his hands looked better against Frazier than they had in his previous two fights. Frazier was bobbing and weaving, but Ali was finding him with thunderous jabs and straights.
Ali had outworked Joe early, but in the middle rounds Frazier found his groove. Ali wasn't connecting like he had been and Frazier was getting to the target. He'd closed the gap and was landing.
Ali had said during the fight, "This is as close as I've ever been to dying."
British sports writer Frank McGhee ringside for the Daily Mirror describes the final rounds:
Both fighters had diminished. That made for a more brutal fight than the first two had been. Ali wasn't sure he could've answered the bell to start the 15th, but when Frazier didn't it left that a mystery. It was a brutal battle in the extreme heat. When the gloves would hit the face there would be an imprint left behind.
I have no doubt when I look back at this fight that they were exhausted and beaten to the point of death. Muhammad Ali was as fast and sharp as he'd been, but Frazier was unable to take advantage. Ali was the better fighter and the gap might have closed, but not that much.
In 1976 Muhammad Ali continued to fight...
Ali vs Jean-Pierre Coopman
The fact that Ali was still fighting was somewhat surprising. The fact that he would still compete for championships was what the shocking part. Ali destroyed Coopman who never appeared to have a shot. Was Muhammad still that good?
Ali vs Jimmy Young
Muhammad Ali would retain his heavyweight title, but he came in the fight much heavier than usual, and he was not the more agile fighter. There were many times that the 17-4-1 Jimmy Young out boxed the great champion. This was not the same Ali that had Coopman. He's slowed down drastically since his last fight. The extra weight no doubt had something to do with the loss of speed, but the Greatest of All Time was just slowing down.
Ali was clearly not the fighter he'd been, but he was still the heavyweight champion of the world. He defeated Jimmy Young. Even though he was no longer what he had been, he was still better than most. Most wondered what would happen when Ali fought a real contender. That didn't happen next. Ali went to Germany to fight Richard Dunn.
Ali was not over weight against Dunn. He came out moving and appeared to be in great shape for the fight. Muhammad Ali destroyed Dunn just as he should have. One fight after not looking real good he bounced back. Fight fans had no idea what to expect from the champion.
The number one contender would get his 3rd shot at the champion.
This was the rubber match. Both fighters had gotten a decision victory over the other. Ali wanted to get a knockout against Ken Norton. I think Ali truly believed he could knock Norton out. He was unable to KO Norton.There were those who thought Norton won the fight, but Muhammad Ali was awarded a UD victory.
- Norton said after the fight: "I won at least nine or ten rounds. I was robbed."
This was in no way the best performance of Ali's career. Years later Ali would say he was awarded the decision over Norton and grateful that the judges gave it to him. He said Norton had a style that was too difficult for him. Norton was a really good fighter, but he was not great and wouldn't have stood a chance with Ali in his prime. I don't think Ali would've had trouble with him in his prime. However, the older version of Ali had trouble with Norton.
This was a fight that Alffredo Evangelista could've only dreamed of getting a shot at the title so early in his career. Muhammad Ali should've taken the inexperienced kid to school, but despite getting the win, Ali did not take him to school or even look very impressive in victory.
ABC only aired the fight because it was Muhammad Ali. He was at the point where any fight could be his last.
Muhammad Ali vs. Earnie Shavers
Ali would say later after his career was over that Earnie Shavers hit harder than any fighter he'd ever been hit by. There was little doubt that Ali was shot. Ferdie Pacheco had just left the entourage because he didn't want to be a part of running Muhammad out there anymore.
Everything they suspected was true. Muhammad Ali was damaged and had slowed down. His style and form kept him in there with a chance to win, but making no mistakes about it Ali was shot as a fighter when he stepped into the ring with Shavers.
Muhammad took a shot in the second round that would've dropped most fighters. It proved he still had an iron chin. Though his skills were limited at this point he could still throw a little and he could still absorb a hard shot. The NY Times had it 7-7-1 draw. I personally don't think that's an accurate score.
An old Ali could still box better than Shavers. The real challenge was not getting dropped by such a powerful puncher. Earnie had incredible power, but he would not catch Ali and he would not out box the great champion. Muhammad would get the UD victory over another Hall of Fame fighter.
For the first time in his career Ali was silent. He was not trash-talking the 6-0-1 Leon Spinks. Nobody knew who he was and there was no reason for Ali to talk down to or try to intimidate such an inferior opponent. Ali went into silence and this didn't help promote a fight that needed all the help it could get.
Like the other unknowns that Muhammad Ali fought, Spinks trained like hell for the fight with the great champion. Those close to Leon say training wasn't something Spinks wanted to do. For the Ali fight his trainers didn't have to convince him to workout. Leon knew this was his big shot. He wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
Ali on the other hand was taking on another unknown opponent like, Coopman, Dunn, and Evangalista had all been. Ali had not only been on the decline, but he'd been completely shot during his fights with these guys. Some Ali fans wondered why it had to come to this, but like those around him would say, Ali was still winning and defending his titles. He still wanted to fight.
Angelo Dundee once said that the fighter would know when it was time to quit. It's safe to say the Muhammad didn't know when that time was. Nobody around him was telling him it's over, and one can only assume he didn't notice there were physical changes in himself. He was shaking and his speech was not clear anymore. This was a busted and broken Muhammad Ali.
Ali vs Spinks 2
Leon Spinks had taken Ali's title. Muhammad said, he was borrowing the titles and that he'd be taking them back. Ali also said that upon retaining his titles he would retire. Sadly that would not be the case, but Ali would train and come into the rematch in the best shape he could get his worn out body into.
This debilitated Ali actually thought Spinks was a great fighter. He didn't understand that average heavyweights were hanging around with him. Had the real number one contender Ken Norton got a fourth fight he'd have more than likely beat Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali would once again become champion. At this point it would be for a record third time. Leon's final boxing record of (26-17-3) would prove he was not the great champion that Ali had proclaimed him to be. This was a shot version of Muhammad Ali. He should not have still been boxing.
It was said after the fight that it was fixed. I absolutely do not believe the was a fix. Ali struggled to reclaim the title against a guy who never should have won it to begin with. Muhammad Ali said almost a year following the fight that he would not defend the titles and would retire from boxing. Knowing what was to come I think we all wish he would've stayed retired at this point.
In 1980 Muhammad Ali would return to the boxing ring. That's right...they allowed this man with the slurring of his speech to go back into the boxing ring. He'd sparred Larry Holmes when the youngster was coming up. Larry was a big strong heavyweight, but I'm sure Ali had bested him in the sparring sessions. That had been years earlier and now Larry Holmes was the new face of the heavyweight division.
Ali wanted to shock the world again and become a four time champion. He also admits that he took the fight because it was there. To beat Larry Holmes would've been shocking to say the least. Considering everyone had watch the decline of Muhammad Ali he was given little chance to win. He'd struggled with Coopman, Young, Dunn, Evangalista, and Leon Spinks. None of those were close to the caliber fighter he'd face in Holmes.
Ken Norton had been awarded the belt in 1978 when Spinks gave Ali a rematch instead of fighting him. Norton's first defense of the title was to Larry Holmes. He lost the belt that he'd never officially won in the ring. Holmes was the champion and was at his best when he met Ali in 1980. Muhammad Ali was not anywhere close to his best. Right the opposite. Ali failed test conducted by the boxing commission and was ordered to undergo further testing.
Muhammad Ali would come into the fight at the lightest weight he'd been at since George Foreman. Although he was talking slower...he was still talking trash to Holmes. Larry responded to the taunting. He didn't want to engage in that kind of banter with a man who'd become legendary. He knew he was going to destroy Muhammad Ali, and he knew it wasn't the best Ali, despite the fact that Ali did appear to be in good physical shape. Larry was the best heavyweight in 1980 and he believed he would have beat any version of Muhammad Ali.
Larry Holmes had beaten Ken Norton who was thought to be the next great champion to follow Muhammad Ali. He'd twice defeated the hard hitting Earnie Shavers. Holmes felt he had to go through Ali. The challenge was made and had to be accepted. It was the passing of the torch. Larry knew he couldn't win though, if he beat Ali they'd just say he beat up an old Muhammad Ali. In retrospect he beat an Ali that shouldn't have even been in a boxing ring.
The Last Hurrah
Muhammad Ali was completely dominated by Larry Holmes. If Ali thought Spinks was a great fighter, then he must have thought Larry Holmes was the best fighter that ever lived. Holmes took it easy once he figured out how far gone the champ really was. Ali might have looked like he could fight, but Holmes could see he was no challenge, and just peppered him with scoring blows. Ali stood in the pocket and threw shots with him early, but it was obvious that there was a mismatch in talent.
Larry Holmes dominated the great champion. There were times late in the fight when Holmes asked, "are you going to stop this fight?" The Greatest of All Time was battered and beaten. By the 12th round his corner led by Angelo Dundee had seen enough. The finally stopped the massacre of a great but defeated champion. Ali had given all he had to give. He was not going to regain the title, shock the world, or defeat Larry Holmes. If anything his corner let him take too much of a beating before they stopped it in the 10th.
The End of Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali's final fights
After the loss to Larry Holmes, Muhammad Ali vowed to comeback and fight again. He blamed the loss on medication he was taking for a thyroid problem. His thyroid was fine. Ali was punch drunk and the early stages of hypertension were setting in. He was shaking and mumbling telling everyone he'd fight again. Those closest to him should have told him he was done, but nobody did.
Ali had defied the odds before. Those situations were much different from the circumstances he found himself in. The fighter is always the last one to know it's over, it was over, and Ali didn't know that it was. The beating he'd taken from Larry had been excused away. He could beat a lesser opponent. He wanted to return to the ring. He didn't want to end it on the sad note he'd experienced in the Holmes fight.
Muhammad Ali vs Trevor Berbick
Most boxing fans didn't want to see Muhammad Ali enter the ring again. The last time was an embarrassing effort against the heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Several different venues had refused to host the fight. Muhammad Ali had always been able to fill the seats, but this fight would take place without drawing real interest. It would be held in Nassau, and titled 'The Drama in Bahama'.
It was a fight Ali should have never been involved in. The fans were nervous about his return to the ring. Even those who never really liked Ali didn't want to see what could potentially happen to the once great champion. He hadn't knocked anyone out in over five years and it was questionable whether or not he could even hold his own. Ali looked pretty good early on, but up and coming Berbick was too much.
Ali lost a ten round UD to a fighter that would one day become champion. The scores were 99-94, 97-94, and 96-94. Father Time had caught up with Ali, and he said so after the fight. He knew in his heart that it was over.
I don't think Berbick could have handled Ali if he'd fought him four or five years earlier. He was an easier opponent than Holmes had been, but Ali was still too far gone to hold his own with a lesser fighter.
- Muhammad Ali: "I think I'm too old. I was slow. I was weak. Nothing but Father Time. The things I wanted to do, I couldn't do. I was doing my best. I did good for a 39-year-old. I think I'm finished. I know it's the end. I'm not crazy. After Holmes, I had excuses. I was too light. Didn't breathe right. No excuses this time. I'm happy. I'm still pretty. I could have a black eye. Broken teeth. Split lips. I think I came out all right for an old man."
The Legendary Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali ended his career with a record of 56-5. If he'd not lost valuable years in the prime of his career we can't even imagine how things might have been. The Ali we got upon his return was nothing like the Ali from the 1960's. He didn't have the speed and for the first time we got to see that he had an iron chin. Ali adapted to the competition of the 1970's and would best them all. Even when his skills were depleted in the late 70's into the early 80's, and he shouldn't have been in the ring, he adapted to the competition and competed with them.
They said he couldn't beat Sonny Liston...and he shocked the world.
They said he couldn't beat George Foreman...again he shocked the world.
Muhammad Ali proved that nothing is impossible.