On May 25, 1965, Sonny Liston enters a ring with his opponent seeking to regain his title. Liston has been getting himself in trouble since his first defeat by this opponent. He needed this rematch, not only to preserve his boxing career, but to redeem his honor. He’s been a broken man ever since.
Liston comes at his opponent with a left jab, but it proves useless. His opponent swings over with a phantom punch, a strike not even the judges could see, and Liston goes down. He tries to get up, but he can’t. In less than two minutes, Liston is defeated again. What he failed to recognize was that he was not having a rematch with the same man. His first loss was by Cassius Clay. His second unapologetic loss was by Muhammad Ali.
The recent death of Muhammad Ali has been mourned by millions of people. The boxing legend and political activists was symbolized in the 1960s and 70s as beacon of Black excellence. He was an excellent athlete and conscientious objector. He fought opponents in the boxing and in the legal arenas, and in almost all cases he came out victorious.
Ali was an arrogant man, but his mouth was where his fist was. He belittled his opponents, many of which were fellow African-Americans. Some might thought that it was just for show, but Ali had a personal vigor to defeat the white establishment and those looking to keep him down. It started with his name change. Having converted to Islam after joining the Nation of Islam, a radical civil rights group of black Muslims known for being anti-white and supported by Malcom X, he changed his name to the more suited Muhammad Ali. To him Cassius Clay was his “slave name” given by his ancestors’ white owners.
Other boxers would mock Ali by not recognizing his new name. Leading up to his fight with Ernie Terrell, Terrell would mock Ali by repeatedly calling him Clay, and Ali was not going to have his opponent call him by his slave name. Ali wanted to “torture” Terrell in the ring for his disrespect, and he did. In the height of the eight round, Terrell was bloodied, and between his repeated blows, Ali shouted “What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?!”
After his shocking defeat of Liston for the second time, the US government aimed to draft him into the military to fight in Vietnam. Ali was a celebrity, and the Louisville draft board was looking conscript Ali. Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and he was very open towards his refusal to serve in what would be America’s traumatic defeat.
“They never called me a nigger, they never lynched me,” Ali would state about being forced to fight the Vietcong.
Ali refusal to be drafted did cost him for time. His titles were stripped away, and he was forced into exile from his boxing career. Originally, he was to spend years in prison, but he made bail in order to be a free man while he appealed the verdict against him. Ali would eventually win his case, and defeat the systems that conspired against him.
During his exile, Ali was denied a boxing license in all the states, and was even denied a passport. He took his time to speak at universities. He gained sympathy for his opposition towards the Vietnam War, and at those campuses, he advocated black pride and racial justice.
After winning his appeal, Ali began making his comeback. He fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in what was known as the “Fight of the Century.” To his normal activities, Ali ridiculed Frazier leading up to the bout. However, Ali was not match up to his words. In a viscous first fight, the judges unanimously claimed Frazier as the winner of the “Fight of the Century.”
This was not the end. Ali and Frazier’s bitter rivalry would go on until Frazier’s death. The two men could not even be in the same room without needing to swing blows. Ali and Frazier were eventually to fight again back in Madison Square Garden. Frazier no longer had his title, so this was a battle between men. The two fought brutally, and momentum would switch between both fighters. Ali dazzled in his signature speed making sure to dodge that fatal left hook of Frazier. Ali used his complex and unorthodox techniques to tie up Frazier into corners every chance he got. At the end of the fight, the results were reversed, and Ali’s victory was claimed unanimously by the judges.
Ali took his second tenure into boxing all over the world fighting in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In was in Kinshasa of the former African country of Zaire that Ali had his first epic fight with George Foreman. It was in 1974 when this fight took place, almost ten years since Ali’s knockout of Liston. Now in his thirties, Ali was not as fast has be used to be.
Popular in Zaire, Ali’s African fans chanted “Ali, Bomaye!” which meant “Ali, kill him!” Ali’s own American supporters felt that he was not going to win this, and Foreman was not expecting opponent to be as severe as he was. The two fought an epic fight. Foreman recalled hitting Ali with his hardest hit. Ali got close and whispered in his ear “that all you got, George?”
Ali performed all his swift techniques including his infamous “rope-a-dope” move which outside conventional boxing norms. Ali would verbally taunt Foreman making him agitated. Foreman would throw incomplete and ineffective punches that would tire him out. Ali would dodge and evade them his phantom like speed. With a centered combination, Ali put down the exhausted Foreman, and Foreman did not get up. Ali claimed his victory by knockout.
Ali’s later career saw him win continuous fights. He fought Foreman again in a grueling fight in Manila. Winning just barely, Ali could not celebrate that win in his flamboyant fashion.
Ali would fall in and out of retirement from boxing throughout the rest of 1970s. He planned to fully retire and practice his faith, the ring kept calling him to claim further victories. It was not until after 1981 that Ali officially ended his boxing career. His extensive history of so many fights had Ali diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Ali had a similar experience with his faith as did Malcom X. After travelling to Mecca and experiencing the holy pilgrimage, be began to disassociate himself from the Nation of Islam and their radical practices. Devout to his religion, Ali condemned the action of extremist Muslims that performed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He compared them to the old white oppressors.
Ali was a beloved figure by so many. He had friendships with following US presidents between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Ali had diplomatic prowess in his later life convincing Kenya to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980. In 1988, he supported awareness of the famine in Sudan. He has honorary citizenship in Bangladesh. Before the Gulf War in 1990, he negotiated with Saddam Hussein to release American hostages. He was successful. In 2002, he was the UN Messenger of Peace to Afghanistan.
Muhammad Ali is mourned heavily today for his extraordinary life. The sorrow of his death is seen throughout all American Muslims and Muslims all over the world. American Muslims saw him as their hero. African-Americans saw him as their hero. Athletes and even politicians saw him as their hero. Ali was not stated to be “the greatest” by some sports writer or any outside source. He, himself, stated that he was the greatest, and he lived up to that assentation. However, it was not simply his boxing skills or roles as an activist that made him great. It was the fact that the greatest of all time was an African-American Muslim, practically the full embodiment of the American minority. He was a champion in the ring, and champion for people all over the world. Ali will be missed. He “floated like a butterfly, and he stung like a bee.” May peace be with him.