Muhammad Ali was the most recognisable person on earth, untouchable as a boxer and treasured as a human being.
When he said in his own immortal words: “I am The Greatest," few would argue.
He wasn’t just the first person to become a three time world heavyweight champion, but a worldwide idol and an inspiration to every man who is courageous enough to step into the ring.
As a boxer, he brought unparalleled speed and elegance to his sport, while his charisma and humour transcended boxing.
When Ali spoke people listened and made them want to be a winner.
We live in an era of sporting debates about who merits accolades, but nobody argued when Muhammad was named Sportsman of the Century by the BBC and Sports Illustrated in 1999. His epic battles against fellow Hall of Fame greats like Joe Frazier and George Foreman will remain etched in history forever.
Like so many boxers be it legends or journeymen, he wrongly came out of retirement and there are many who believed it contributed to his Parkinson’s syndrome.
He had the first of his 61 professional contests in October 1960, a few months after becoming Olympic Champion in Rome.
‘The Greatest’ finally hung up his gloves after losing to Trevor Berwick in the Bahamas, over 21 years later when he was shadow of his former self. Ali hardly landed a blow and after ten unbearable rounds, and at the final bell faithful trainer Angelo Dundee told him: "That's it, no more, it's the end of the ballgame." He ended with a 56-5 record.
Muhammad’s life was headline news wherever he went, and his public embrace of the Nation of Islam after beating Sonny Liston in their first fight is an historical moment. His insistence on being called Muhammad Ali, instead of his birth name Cassius Clay signaled a new era in black pride.
Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army because he wouldn't fight for a country that didn’t give him equal rights. That saw him sentenced to five year in prison and almost ended his career.
"The Fight of the Century" between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on March 8th, 1971
Born in Louisville, Kentucky and named he was named Cassius Marcellus Clay by parents Cassius Sr and Odessa. Unlike so many top boxers his childhood was far from impoverished.
He was a black child of the middle class living at 3302 Grand Avenue, Louisville. I visited the house a few years ago and compared with many areas of the city it is middle class suburbia, still. The tree lined area is impeccably kept, and grass manicured as sharply as Ali’s jab.
With that sort of upbringing he showed little interest in boxing until October 1954 when he rode his new Schwinn bike to the Louisville Service Club’s convention, where children got free ice cream and balloons. While Cassius was inside, his bike was stolen. The tearful 12-year-old swore revenge and vowed to whip the thief if he found him.
He did find a policeman, Joe Martin, who taught boxing in the basement of the club and encouraged him to learn the noble art before he started beating people up. Soon after he picked up $4 expenses for winning his first amateur fight. There are varying figures for his exact amateur career record. It appears there were at least 100 wins and possibly five defeats. It culminated in him being crowned Olympic champion when he pummeled southpaw Pole Zbigniew Pietryskowsky. Clay was so proud he didn’t remove the gold medal for two days.
Ali claimed that in 1964, he threw the medal in the Ohio River after being refused service in a whites only restaurant. However, according to his official biographer Thomas Hauser he was refused service in the diner, but lost the medal years later in Miami. The medal was replaced at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where Ali lit the torch at the opening ceremony.
Global stardom beckoned after the Olympics, and Clay challenged Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in 1964. Few gave him a chance against one of the most terrifying individuals ever, but Clay put on an act at the weigh-in pretending to be foaming at the mouth.
It seemed to scare Liston, who was battered for six rounds and then quit on his stool citing a shoulder injury. Clay was the new world heavyweight champion.
Liston was a fighter owned by racketeers and the crowd cried “fix”. The screams were even louder after the bizarre rematch in the following year when Liston fell in the first after the so-called “phantom punch."
I prefer to believe that he bottled it after looking up at the young great, who was now known as Muhammad Ali, telling him: “Get up you bum, get up and fight.”
The picture of Ali hovering over the ageing bully is possibly the most iconic in sport. Perhaps the only comparable picture to an Englishman is Pele consoling Bobby Moore after the 1970 World Cup quarter-final.
In October 1965, Ali delivered one of his most brutal performances knocking out Floyd Patterson in the 12th round. Ali said he delivered such a punishing defeat because Patterson referred to him as Clay, saying “Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the negro race.”
He had failed the army’s intelligence test, but with the Vietnam war brewing the standard was lowered and Ali drafted. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," he said at his Miami home, adding: "No Vietcong ever called me n*gger." Ali pleaded to be reclassified as a conscientious objector to military service, and although a judge sided with him, the draft board called him up.
Despite his battle with the establishment Muhammad was unbeatable in the ring, but his career came to a shuddering halt after knocking out Zora Folley in March 1967. In April 1967 he refused to be inducted into the army and was immediately stripped of his title, banned from boxing and indicted.
Two months later a jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before convicting Ali. A judge gave him the maximum penalty, five years in prison and a $10,000 fine although he was freed on appeal.
By 1971, the ill-feeling towards Ali from many Americans was easing. He was boxing again and the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. It might have been his 11th year as a professional, but the stage was becoming set for him to stamp his mark in history with the Frazier trilogy and Foreman classic.
The first Frazier fight at Madison Square in March 1971 was the richest in history at the time, the pair splitting $5 million. Anybody who was anybody was there – Frank Sinatra even got in as a ringside photographer.
Ali was dropped in the 15th round with a punch that would have knocked out a horse, but recovered before losing for the first time professionally. Despite the points defeat, Frazier was in a bad way, hospitalised with the grueling battle putting a lot of miles on his body clock.
Ali then went on a ten fight winning run, before suffering a broken jaw and losing to Ken Norton, although that win was avenged to set up a January 1974 Frazier rematch. Ali gave one of his best ever performances and almost stopped Frazier in the second round but referee Tony Perez saved his bitter rival by stepping in thinking the round had ended.
Ali proceeded to give a boxing master class winning 8-4, 7-4 and 6-5 on the judges’ scorecards earning him the right to challenge Foreman to try and regain the heavyweight title.
His eighth round win over Foreman is the most talked about sporting event in history as he overcame the odds against a younger and stronger man. ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ took place in Zaire and the pair spent the summer of 1974 in Africa acclimatising.
Ali told fans he had a secret plan to beat Foreman and employed ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics - making his fellow American miss with punches, while slipping shots on the ropes. Foreman became exhausted. Ali pinned him on the ropes and pounced landing a right hook over his rival’s jab followed by five punch salvo that sent him crashing.
Battered Foreman got up, but Zack Clayton counted him out and boxing was celebrating Ali’s finest ever ring display. The events before and after the bout are depicted in award winning documentary, When We Were Kings and the movie Ali.
A third meeting between Ali and Frazier took place in October 1975 in Manila and was watched by more than 700 million people worldwide – the biggest ever audience for a fight. ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ was the most dramatic fight in history. Ali proved why he is ‘The Greatest’, almost quitting with heat exhaustion. After 14 rounds both were on the brink of collapse.
Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer feared a fatality and pulled his man out before the bell for the final round could sound. Ali stood up to celebrate, but collapsed with exhaustion. He later admitted that was the closest he had ever been to death, but what a way to close the book on their rivalry.
If Ali had quit after that fight instead of going on a bum a month campaign in Europe and beating men like Norton for a second time, who knows what his health would have been like.
Ali training for his second fight with Leon Spinks in 1978
There was still one more incredible twist from him after he has been humbled by novice Leon Spinks in February 1978, losing his title.
In a rematch, 63,500 fans packed into the New Orleans Superdome. Despite his obvious declining ability, Ali controlled the fight and gave Spinks a lesson in the noble art. As the fight drew to a close, emotion took over because history was at hand. Ali became the first ever three time world heavyweight champion.
Boxing breathed a sigh of relief when Ali announced his retirement shortly after, but it was tragic to see him return in Las Vegas in October 1980. He wanted to become a four-time champion, but was a wretched shadow of his former self when Larry Holmes toyed with him for ten rounds before Ali retired on his stool.
Despite illness, Ali was a tireless campaigner in his latter years and bestowed with many awards being honours from Amnesty International, the United Nations.
He has devoted himself to humanitarian projects around the globe and was never without devoted fourth wife Lonnie at his side.
Muhammad Ali was the most remarkable athlete of any generation.