Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time

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Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942 ("The Louisville Lip"). Clay received a Schwinn bicycle from his father as a gift. The red and white shiny bike was then stolen. Upset, Clay vowed that he was going to “whup” the person that took his bike if he ever found him. Overhearing Clay’s anger, Joe Martin, a local police officer advised Clay that he would first need to learn how to fight if he was ever going to be successful in his quest to outdo the thief. The officer offered to train Clay, and after about six months of training, Clay won his debut boxing match in a judging decision. Clay continued his boxing training regime and was known for his unsurpassed zeal, his audacious mouth, and his unmatched work ethic. Martin continued to train Clay as he progressively won a compilation of amateur titles. In 1956, Clay entered the light-heavyweight class Golden Gloves Tournament. In 1959, after fighting his way to the top, Clay won the Golden Gloves Championship, becoming the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title holder in the light-heavyweight division, thus beginning his journey to the 1960 Olympics in Rome ("The Louisville Lip").    

Clay attended the Rome Olympics and because of his bold personality and indomitable spirit, his fellow Olympians named him The Mayor of Olympic Village ("The Louisville Lip"). But the young Clay was not all talk and personality, winning the Olympic Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight Boxing Division demolishing his Polish opponent Zigzy Pietrzykowski. However, The Greatest almost missed his Rome Olympics opportunity, because although he was the greatest, he was afraid to fly on airplanes and carried a parachute onboard in case things went awry. Appearing on the Sports Illustrated cover 40 times within a 50 year period, Clay earned his first compliments from the magazine when they described him as having, “supreme confidence” and “intricate dance steps” in response to his Roman performance ("The Louisville Lip"). Clay became a national hero and was the subject of much adulation and fanfare.

Despite his valiant Olympic Gold Medal gift to his nation, he still experienced racial prejudice when a Kentucky restaurant he visited would not serve him because he was black (Blatty). It must have been a shock to his system to experience such rejection in the face of basking in such international glory. Yet experiences such as this served as the foundation for a number of Clay’s subsequent decisions.

In the 1960s, Clay began his meteoric rise to greatness (Blatty). Clay won his first professional bout in October 1960, against Tunney Husaker. By 1964 he maintained a 19 to 0 record with 15 of those wins by knockout. On February 22nd of that year, Clay won his first heavyweight title from then champion Sonny Liston in a technical knockout. While training for the Liston fight, Clay did not hold back from mocking his competitor, and assuring Liston that he would win by a knockout ("Cassius Clay Defeats Sonny Liston"). Clay’s youth, exuberance, agility and footwork worked against the older and slower Liston. At the end of round six, Liston told the referees that he could not continue the fight. Liston had endured a shoulder injury and had cuts and bruises near his eyes. After the Liston fight, Clay gave himself a title that never went away, calling himself, The Greatest. The day after the Liston fight, Clay decided and announced that he was converting from his former religion to that of Islam (Blatty). Clay had met Malcolm X, who became the young boxer’s mentor, recruiting him into the Nation of Islam. No more than a month later, Clay announced that he was changing his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his slave name, to his Islamic name, Muhammad Ali. Sports announcer, Howard Cosell was one of the few reporters to acknowledge Ali’s name change during the early days.

On March 25th, 1965, a rematch was set for Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston at St. Domenic Hall, in Lewiston, Maine (Eisen). The outcome of that match has been vigorously debated over the years. Many said that the fight was fixed. Others said that Ali caught Liston on the chin sending him crashing to the ground. Rumors abound that Liston was under the unintended control of mobsters who took significant cuts from his earnings. It is said that if he had reported this information, he would have been killed. Another factor that has been rumored is that Nation of Islam assassins were threatening to end his life if he won the title. Malcolm X had recently been killed, supposedly by these types of assassins, so the potential for this to occur was not lost on most. Another version requires that rumor mongers watch the video footage. Experts say that the punch that Ali used on Liston was one taught to him by Angelo Dundee, a punch he used to KO numerous opponents during his career. Liston was said to be off balance and could not resist the power of Ali’s 1, 2, 3 punch, called the “Slip, slide and bang!” (Eisen). Whatever version is true, Liston crumpled to the ground in the first round and Ali kept the heavyweight title (Eisen). 

In 1967, Ali refused to join the Army citing religious objections ("Muhammad Ali Refuses Army’). His heavyweight title was stripped from him when the government accused the boxer of draft-dodging. He was thereafter convicted of evading the draft, a crime that came with a five year prison sentence. Ali also had to pay a $10,000 fine and was also banned from participating in boxing for three years. While awaiting the outcome of his appeal, he sustained a bout with Jerry Quarry, and pulled a KO in round three. In 1971, he fought Joe Frazier in a bout called the Fight of the Century ("Muhammad Ali Refuses Army’). Ali lost that fight, the first loss in his illustrious professional career. Later that year, Ali won his appeal, as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his earlier conviction on draft evasion and recognized him as a conscientious objector (Blatty). The Court decision freed Ali to pursue his heavyweight title again. 

In 1974, Ali faced a rematch with Frazier in Madison Square Garden (Blatty). Ali defeated the former title holder in a decision made in round twelve. In a heavily publicized fight called the Rumble in the Jungle, named by the colorful boxing promoter Don King, Ali faced off against 25 year old George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire ("The Rumble in the Jungle"). Foreman came out like a sledgehammer, but the older Ali backed up against the ropes and blocked Foreman’s blows. He waited Foreman out and around the fifth round, Foreman started getting tired. On the eighth round, Ali got off the ropes, a method he referred to as “rope a dope” and began to pound away at his opponent. Ultimately, Foreman’ legs buckled, he hit the mat and the referee counted him out with only two seconds left on the clock for that round. In 1975, Ali fought against Joe Frazier in the Philippines for a third time and final time. In the Heavyweight World Championship called the Thrilla in Manila, held in Araneta Coliseum in Manila's Quezon City, Ali won the bout in a technical knockout (McKirdy). Eddie Futch, Frazier’s boxing trainer, would not allow the boxer, nearly blinded from the fight, to continue on to the fifteenth round.

In 1978, the aging Ali fought relative newcomer Leon Spinks and lost his heavy weight title the result of a 15 round split decision ("Ali defeats Spinks”). The fight was Spinks’ eighth professional fight. In September of the same year, Ali was able to gain the heavyweight title back from Spinks in a unanimous decision after 15 rounds, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, for a record-setting third time. Ali retired from boxing after the Spinks fight, but came back again after two years ("Ali defeats Spinks”). In 1980 he lost his title to Larry Holmes and was defeated by Trevor Berbick in 1981. Ali retired officially and permanently in 1981.

Parkinson’s Disease Diagnosis

Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984 (Blatty). He was only 42 years old at the time. It is possible that his brain injury, like that of many other sports greats, was caused by receiving a rash of profound blows to his head ("Muhammad Ali and His Battle"), although the doctor that diagnosed him, Stanley Fahn, M.D, does not agree ("Muhammad Ali’s Toughest Fight"). Although diagnosed in 1984, Ali started to exhibit symptoms in 1981. Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the central nervous system ("What Is Parkinson's?”). It is a slow moving disease that often  takes time to show all of its symptoms. Parkinson’s is considered a neurodegenerative brain disorder. Symptoms include tremors in the hands, slowness of physical movement, stiffness in the muscles, involuntary movements, and a loss of balance control, often in combination with amnesia, confusion or dementia. Over time, the brain stops making dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate a person’s body movements, physicality and their emotions. The disease is not fatal, but the complications associated with the disease can be extremely grievous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified Parkinson’s disease complications as the fourteenth major cause of death in America ("Muhammad Ali and His Battle").

When Ali’s symptoms were diagnosed, he was already showing signs of tremors, slurred speech and sluggish body movements ("Muhammad Ali and His Battle"). At the time Ali attended President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, he no longer had the ability to speak publically. Muhammad Ali was the most famous Parkinson’s disease patient in the world ("Muhammad Ali’s Toughest Fight").

World Humanitarian

Muhammad Ali fought for people who suffered civil rights injustices, both at home and abroad ("A Voice for Those Without One"). In what the U. S. government and likely most Americans viewed as skewed loyalties, Ali made goodwill missions to Cuba to provide medical supplies those who were suffering during the embargo, he traveled to Afghanistan, to Iraq to help secure the release of United States hostages captured in the first Gulf War, to North Korea, and traveled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison ("A Voice for Those Without One"). 

Beyond the countries he visited, Ali was an inspiration in and out of the ring. He made everyone, both rich and poor believe that they could be more than they were, simply by believing in themselves. Ali said, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was” ("A Voice for Those Without One"). For the many who have no voice, who have no inspiration, who have no belief in themselves or what they can do, Ali gave the everyday guy hope. He made us all feel like we could be more than we are and we could overcome insurmountable odds, too. He showed us that you fight when you are in the ring and you continue to fight when the ring of life puts barriers in your way, and you hands shake and your body no longer moves as it once did. A bathroom attendant explained to a reporter why he would bet on Ali, he said, “Why? Because he gave me my dignity. Because he's Muhammad Ali, that's why” ("A Voice for Those Without One"). Whether a bathroom attendant or a President of the United States, he gave us all dignity.

The Greatest of All Time, who leaves a void that can never be filled, died of respiratory complications on June 3, 2016.

Works Cited

"A Voice for Those Without One." Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali Enterprises, LLC. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://muhammadali.com/legend/>.

"Ali defeats Spinks to win world heavyweight championship." History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ali-defeats-spinks-to-win-world-heavyweight-championship>.

Blatty, David. "Boxing Legend Muhammad Ali Dies at 74." Biography. A&E Television Networks, LLC. 4 June 2016. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.biography.com/news/muhammad-ali-dead-obit>.

"Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston." History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/cassius-clay-defeats-sonny-liston.>.

Eisen, Lou. "Ali vs Liston 2: What Really Happened?" Fight Network. 29 August 2012. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://fightnetwork.com/news/6381406:ali-vs-liston-2-what-really-happened/>.

McKirdy, Euan. "Muhammad Ali's 'Thrilla in Manila': Remembering boxing's greatest-ever bout." CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 4 June 2016. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/04/sport/thrilla-in-manila-remembered/>.

"Muhammad Ali and his battle." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 19 March 2009. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/20/parkinsons-disease-muhammad-ali>.

"Muhammad Ali refuses Army induction." History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/muhammad-ali-refuses-army-induction>.

"Muhammad Ali’s Toughest Fight: Neurology Now Tells the Inside Story." American Academy of Neurology. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/home/PressRelease/385>.

"The Louisville Lip." Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali Enterprises, LLC. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://muhammadali.com/man/>.

"The Rumble in the Jungle." ESPN. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://en.espn.co.uk/onthisday/sport/story/319.html>.

"What Is Parkinson's?" National Parkinson Foundation. n. d. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons/what-is-parkinsons>.