Remembering Muhammad Ali

By Alex S. Avitabile

I was 13 when Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964. I listened to that bout on the radio.

That fight made a great impact on me, especially in light of several previous championship bouts I also listened to on the radio.

I recall the fight where Floyd Patterson regained the heavyweight title from Ingemar Johansson. This established Patterson as my favorite boxer at the time.

My love for Floyd was short-lived once he encountered Sonny Liston in the ring. Sonny was a real rough, tough bruiser of a fighter with devastating punching power. He took the title from Patterson with a knockout in the first round and kept it in a rematch by flooring Floyd three times in the first round, knocking him out the third time.

While those bouts were happening, Clay was establishing himself as a top contender. He attended the Liston-Patterson rematch and proclaimed: “Liston ain’t so great, I will knock him out in eight.”

I took a liking for Clay, but was very fearful for him when he was scheduled to face Liston for the heavyweight title. First, I heard how Liston easily and devastatingly dispatched Patterson, a seasoned fighter, while Clay was only 22, relatively inexperienced and had never faced a championship caliber fighter. Additionally, Clay bragged about his skills and berated and insulted Liston every chance he got and the consensus was (and I shared it) that Clay was adding fuel to the fire that is Liston and Sonny would look to teach Clay a lesson he would never forget.

I was astonished by how Clay beat Liston. In fact, for part of the fight he was practically fighting with his eyes closed. (I am alluding to when Clay’s sight was blurred by some ligament or other substance and he told his trainer Angelo Dundee to take off his gloves and throw in the towel. Who knows how different things would have turned out had Dundee complied, rather than flushing Clay’s eyes with water and pushing him into the ring with instructions to run until his sight improved.) I re-watched the fight on YouTube recently and was struck how in the 6th and final round (before Liston refused to come out for the 7th round) Clay did not float like a butterfly, as was his wont, but rather fought Liston toe to toe, consistently beating Liston to the punch and with a frustrated Liston retreating from the Clay onslaught.

We all were only beginning to see what a remarkable and extraordinary athlete Clay was.

Fast forward to 1974, and it is Deja vu Sonny Liston all over again in the person of George Foreman. Now, in the intervening time, Clay converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, established himself as a true champ by defeating all the top heavyweights of the time, was stripped of his title and of his license to box when he refused induction into the military, was dormant for the 3+ years that would have been his peak development period. He would eventually be reinstated and return to the ring, but he had obviously lost a few steps and was more vulnerable. He would lose to Joe Frazier the first time they would fight in 1971’s “Fight of the Century” (which I listened to on the radio) and would also lose to Ken Norton after Norton broke his jaw.

However, Foreman would whup Frazier for the heavyweight title by knocking Joe from pillar to post for 2 rounds during which Frazier was knocked down a shocking 6 times. I saw this fight live (it was broadcast on network TV) and was absolutely frightened by how so easily Foreman devastated Frazier, a great and one of the toughest champion boxers. Foreman also had no trouble with Norton when they fought, knocking him out easily in the 1st round.

After Ali would beat Frazier the second time they fought and Foreman having manhandled all the other top contenders, Ali was the top contender and the Rumble in the Jungle was set.

Again, I was fearful for Ali’s wellbeing. This time, he was past his prime and facing a beast of an opponent who handily beat Frazier and Norton who had both beaten Ali. And, again, Ali taunted Foreman with all kinds of insults and put-downs, incentivizing Foreman to want to shut Ali up once and for all.

I was shocked with Ali’s victory over Foreman. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant strategy was the rope-a-dope. And upon viewing that fight again, Ali’s hand speed consistently beat Foreman to the punch, whether Ali was leaning on the ropes, or while he ventured away from the ropes. This had to frustrate and wear down Foreman physically and mentally. In the 8th round, when Ali could sense that Foreman was spent and ready to go, you can see Ali’s eyes take on an intense focus as he moved in for the kill and knocked Foreman out. It was a thing of boxing beauty.

To me, Clay/Ali’s performances against Liston and Foreman defined him and established his greatness as a boxer, athlete and man. Exceptionally skilled, extraordinarily smart and uncommonly brave, fearless and confidant. It is no wonder how he transitioned from being vilified in many circles to eventually being revered by virtually all, all over the world.

Notwithstanding all the above, it must be stated that Ali’s disrespect for Joe Frazier was a disgrace and an unforgiveable flaw on Ali’s part. Joe was a great and rightfully proud man and one of the greats of the boxing world, who did nothing to deserve the way Ali treated him. And Ali took way too long to acknowledge this fault and apologize.

And, finally, nonetheless, Ali was the Greatest and we are better for having had him grace us with his presence.

June 10. 2016