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Muhammad Ali: The One, The Only, The Greatest

Never say never, they teach you in the journalism business. But there are exceptions to every rule, right? So, we will never see the likes of Muhammad...

Never say never, they teach you in the journalism business.

But there are exceptions to every rule, right?

So, we will never see the likes of Muhammad Ali again. Never. Ever. Trust me.

Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion who died on June 3 after a 30-year bout against Parkinson’s Disease, transcended sport. He was one of those rare figures in history recognized around the world just by his adopted surname, Ali. So profound was his impact on sports, political and religious culture that his death sparked a week of tributes, remembrances and retrospectives. The New York Times on June 5 printed eight pages on Ali in SportsSunday. Additional stories followed during the week, including coverage of Ali’s Muslim funeral on Thursday at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., his hometown. There will no doubt be coverage of his public funeral at 2 p.m. Friday at the 22,000-seat KFC Yum Center in Louisville. And The Times is publishing a special section on Saturday “devoted to his exploits in and out of the ring.”

Heads of state die without this kind of posthumous attention. But then Muhammad Ali was all about attention. He learned to box as a kid named Cassius Clay after someone stole his bicycle; he wanted to be able to beat up the thief if he found him. Later, he shadow-boxed his way through the streets of his neighborhood.

Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In 1964 he upset Sonny Liston in Miami Beach for the heavyweight title. As Muhammad Ali, he beat Liston again in 1965 with a “phantom punch” in the first two minutes of their bout in Lewiston, Maine.  The image of a snarling Ali looming over the prone Liston is one of the iconic sports photographs in sports history.

Ali fought 61 professional fights and won 56. He and Joe Frazier battled three times: 1971 in Madison Square Garden, a unanimous decision for Frazier and Ali’s first loss as a pro; 1974 in New York, a unanimous decision for Ali, and in 1975,  “The Thrilla in Manila”, a technical knockout when Frazier failed to answer the bell for the 15th round.

Perhaps the most dramatic of Ali’s fights was “The Rumble in the Jungle“, the 1974 title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, against George Foreman, the heavyweight champion long before he became a popular pitchman. Ali knocked him out in the eighth round.

Ali was the center of attention outside the ring as well as inside the ropes. He pulled no punches in belittling his opponents before, during and after fights. His exclamation “I am the greatest” after he beat Liston the first time instantly set him apart in the world of professional braggadocio. He was, indeed, unique. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The Ali Shuffle. Rope-a-dope. All from Muhammad Ali and nobody else.

Ali’s career coincided with the upheaval of American culture in the 1960s. Civil rights? The story is that he hurled his gold medal into the Ohio River because of discrimination. He dropped his “slave name”,  Cassius Clay for the Muslim Muhammad Ali upon joining the militant Black Nation of Islam.  He bristled when media and opponents insisted on referring to him as Cassius Clay into the early 1970s. He later converted to Sunni Islam.

Anti-war protester? Ali refused induction into the Army in 1967 as the war in Vietnam escalated. He cited teachings of the Qur’an, said he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and wondered why he should “drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”

The government and much of America saw otherwise. He was convicted of draft evasion, fined and sentenced to prison. He was stripped of his heavyweight title. His appeal took more than three years, and his conviction was finally overturned in 1971.

Outspoken? Muhammad Ali had no filter. He said what was on his mind, in many respects a man ahead of his time. He rapped before there was rap. He shouted bombast before shouting consumed talk radio and cable news. He was the Louisville Lip, the mouth that roared. His “interviews” with sportscaster Howard Cosell became the stuff of legend, Cosell’s ego being every bit as big as Ali’s.

As the ‘60s rolled into the ‘70s, Ali’s stance proved right. Vietnam was a disaster. Race remained an issue. Others like baseball player Curt Flood challenged The Establishment. Still others like Lew Alcindor changed their name, and without incident; we have known him for decades as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Ali’s last fight was in 1981. Three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As his health declined over the years, he remained a citizen of the world and became more beloved than ever for his efforts to promote peace and understanding among peoples. He is generally considered the greatest and most recognized athlete of the 20th century. 

I am the greatest. For a while, Muhammad Ali was without question The Greatest. And we will never see the likes of him again. Never. Ever.

Muhammad Ali: The One, The Only, The Greatest
Muhammad Ali: The One, The Only, The Greatest