Boxing lost a prominent champion, but the world also lost a well-loved human being with the passing of former three-time heavyweight king Muhammad Ali.
Ali, who battled Parkinson’s disease for over three decades, heaved his last breath after 74 summers. Everybody mourned for the champion whose popularity defied geographical boundaries. Long before the Internet was introduced, it was Ali who connected boxing with the rest of the world. He was a one-man promotional outfit, fighting from Zaire to Manila. As he loved to say, “I am the Elvis Presley of boxing.”
Inside the ring, Ali battered foes with his lightning-fast fists, but outside he touched the lives of people. Whether he was saving a man contemplating suicide or entertaining kids with his magic tricks, Ali’s presence left an enduring impact.
What made Ali special was the way he took pride in being different. On the occasions when he could have just followed standard procedure, he stuck to his guns.
When he was just starting to box, Ali’s style was a nightmare for trainers. A young Ali admired Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Johnson, but what he copied were their mistakes in the ring; dropping his guard while pulling away from foes and assaulting the body with his chin up in the air. But Ali stuck to this “wrong” style because he believed he was faster than the plodding heavyweights.
Instead of fighting according to the book, Ali authored his own. When he faced monster puncher and heavy favorite George Foreman in 1974 for the heavyweight title, Ali defied experts by staying along the ropes instead of relying on his footwork. Foreman punched at will against a seemingly trapped Ali, but “The Greatest” improvised with a rope-a-dope tactic that resulted in Big George’s blows harmlessly bouncing off his shoulders and arms. By the fifth round, Foreman’s legs were heavy and slow. In the eighth round, a thunderbolt right hand from Ali sent a worn-out Foreman crashing to the canvas. Ali fainted upon realizing that he had slain the monster, but upon getting back on his feet he walked to the ring apron and looked down on reporters: “What did I tell you? I did it!” he exclaimed. “I said I’d do it, but did you listen?”
In the golden era of the heavyweight division (1960s and 1970s), Ali’s star shone the brightest. He enjoyed three reigns as world champ, but the first one (from 1964 until 1967) was clearly the best. To this day, many consider Ali’s 1966 knockout of Cleveland Williams as his most flawless performance. Sadly, Ali was robbed of his prime years when he was stripped of the crown and sent into exile for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army which was then embroiled in a war in Vietnam. Ali’s explanation was simple: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those VietCong! No VietCong ever called me a nigger! Every day they (American soldiers) die in Vietnam for nothing. I might as well die here for something.” Ali lost his livelihood and was inactive from 1968 until late 1970, but he took pride in sticking to what he believed in.
Ali, make no mistake, was from being perfect. He was a womanizer and ridiculed foes by giving them unflattering nicknames (he called Floyd Patterson “Uncle Tom Negro,” “The Rabbit,” and Joe Frazier “Gorilla”). But after he left boxing, he blossomed into a statesman and icon.
In his 2013 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey, Ali wrote that he wanted to be remembered this way: “I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
We will never forget, Ali. The Greatest and the Prettiest of all time.
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