“The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see
I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”
----Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In the film version of a teleplay written by Rod Serling, Antony Quinn portrays “a once-promising but now washed-up boxer who faces the end of his career after he is savagely defeated” (1) in the opening scene by an up-and-coming younger man. The film is remarkable not only for the command performance of Antony Quinn as the aging pugilist, but also for the dramatic performances of both Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney as supporting actors. However, it is, perhaps, most memorable in that the opening scene in which Quinn faces the immanent end of his career finds him receiving a savage beating by none other than a young Cassius Clay. The drama unfolding in the opening moments of the film would later be repeated in real life when the young Clay would confront two years later a much older Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The story goes that Clay, at the tender age of 12, had gone to a police station in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to report his bicycle stolen. Telling the officer that he wanted to whup whoever was responsible the policeman suggested he take up boxing. The rest, as they say, is history. For the next decade, Clay would hone his skills.
“Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay's amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. (2)”
By early 1964, young Cassius would find himself in Miami Florida confronting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
It proved to be a difficult journey, for unlike virtually every other sport; the boxer is not accountable to a team, nor a team’s management and ownership. A boxer is, or at least can be, his ‘own man’, a point and a prospect not lost upon the emerging Clay. Borrowing from the legendary wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, young Cassius saw how useful ‘flamboyant self-promotion’ could be.
“A 19-year-old Ali met a 46-year-old George at a Las Vegas radio station. During George's radio interview, the wrestler's promo caught the attention of the future heavyweight champion. If George lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George exclaimed, "I'll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that's not gonna happen because I'm the greatest wrestler in the world!" Ali, who later echoed that very promo when taunting opponent Sonny Liston, recalled, "I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a gooood idea!'" In the locker room afterward, the seasoned wrestler gave the future legend some invaluable advice: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."
Accordingly, the brash young pugilist from Louisville, dubbed the “Louisville Lip” by disparaging sportswriters, found it difficult to get a title match with the champion Liston. Here was a man, and particularly a man of color, who could not be ‘controlled’.
America had had such an experience in the early years of the last century when the sport produced its first Black Champion. Jack Johnson (4) proved not only to be a formidable fighter but a clear threat to the white supremacist doctrines of racial superiority and the Jim-Crow segregation that it produced. Accordingly, a long hunt for a ‘great white hope’ would be undertaken until Johnson, several years later, would finally be vanquished. The legacy of Jack Johnson made it difficult for black athletes to break the color line and when they did one had to be, in the words of the time, “a credit to your race”. Men like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson who would advance the cause of civil rights by crossing the color line and would make it possible for Larry Doby and a host of others in baseball, and Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and a host of others in boxing, to emerge and even become champions as long as they didn’t make any demands. What America, it was held, did not want was an athlete who spoke his mind, especially if he were a black man.
Getting a title fight, under these conditions, proved problematic. So Clay, to create pressure for such a match would take his counsel from “Gorgeous George” and turn spectacle into opportunity. Appearing and confronting Liston at his training facilities, the young Clay would taunt the champion calling him a “big ugly bear” saying that he was “too ugly to be champion” and promising, after defeating him, to donate him to a zoo. Finally, the champion relented and a fight was duly arranged.
The results are, of course, well chronicled. Clay quickly took control of the match easily outmaneuvering the champion. In response it is held by many, including longtime boxing expert and commentator Burt Sugar, that Liston, as he allegedly had done several times before, had liniment put on his gloves in order to blind his opponent. For nearly two rounds, Clay dodged and avoided the champion as he struggled to clear his eyes, fighting nearly blind against one of the most powerful punchers in the history of the game. Finally, his eyes cleared and when they did, the young Cassius went to work on the aging champion until Liston threw in the towel. In what is regarded as one of the greatest upsets in the sport Cassius Clay became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
Within days, Clay announced to the world that he had not only converted to Islam but had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The search now began in earnest for the ever-elusive new “Great White Hope”.
I am not going to recount the history of his fights but instead I want to bring attention to Ali the Athlete and Ali the Icon.
Ali the Athlete
For those seeking a new “Great White Hope” be he white or black, someone who would, in effect, silence the “Louisville Lip”, the wait would prove to be long and, in the end, futile. For here stood on the national stage not only the country’s most notorious braggart, but a man who would later be voted the greatest athlete of the twentieth century.
He had taken from Sugar Ray Robinson the boxing strategy of a much smaller man, defense, movement, and glove speed and by training and sculpting his body brought these skills into the heavyweight arena. Here was a man who stood six foot four inches and fought with the skills and speed never seen at this level. In his youth, he was always moving, always circling left, counter-clockwise, always the left jab, and the fast left jab that would mask the hard right hand coming behind it. His hands were said by many to be the fastest ever seen. In addition, there was power. Critics claim that he didn’t have the punching power of a Liston or a Foreman or, for that matter, a Frazier, but they are wrong. All one has to do is watch the films of his fights with Jerry Quarry or George Chuvalo, or Joe Frazier. One can hear over the crowd the punches being thrown. You don’t hear his opponent’s blows but you can hear Ali’s punches coming in as they land, such was the power behind those hands.
He also had the ability to slip punches, often—unheard of in boxing—of leaning back with his chin just an inch or so out of range as he would fall back on his heals as his opponent attempted to land a blow. In a photo taken of the first Liston match one sees the young fighter leaning back as Liston, arm and glove extended to the maximum falls inches short of Ali’s chin. Liston later claimed that he quit the fight because he had dislocated his shoulder failing to land the blows and hitting only air. This tactic, often fatal to success because to employ it leaves one prey to a follow up blow or combination, Ali was nevertheless able to execute because of his superior abilities to move on his feet as well as counterpunch as he fell backwards; a skill that left many an opponent weary of closing in for the ‘kill’.
Here was no muscle-bound Tyson but a finely sculpted and finely tuned athlete with an extraordinary set of skills as the photo of young Ali standing over the vanquished Liston in the re-match in Maine clearly demonstrates. Delivering a knockout punch thrown with such speed and at such an unorthodox angle as to be nearly unseen, he stands over Liston, his sculpted body with muscles taut, taunting the former champion to get up and fight. Here is classic Ali in his prime.
Moreover, in his prime he was something indeed to behold. Fighting every 60 to 90 days he took the “show on the road”, fighting in England, and Germany, fighting the Canadian and the German as well as the European champions. With each battle, America hoped it had found its “hope”; with each battle, Ali prevailed.
Then called Uncle Sam; he had mired himself in this little squabble called Viet Nam.
“Keep asking me,
No matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam
I sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel
With no Viet Cong.”
“Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger, or raped or killed my mother or father,” said the champion. An unsettling truth blown back into the face of America. Martin Luther King, himself struggling with the morality of our war in Southeast Asia and counseled against taking a stand lest so doing jeopardize the civil rights movement, would later in 1967 turn to Ali “the renegade lyrical poet from the ring, to justify his position: ‘Like Muhammad Ali puts it’”, said King, “’we are all—black, brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression”’ (5)
Citing his defiance as a criminal act, the boxing commissions throughout the U.S. quickly stripped him of his title and revoked his boxing license making it impossible for the Champion to practice his trade despite sanctioning the likes of Liston and others who had criminal records as long as their arms. For over three years, the Champ would struggle both financially and through the legal system in an effort to appeal his conviction, his fines and his pending prison term.
It was during this time that the late-great sportscaster Howard Cosell would come to his aid, inviting the Champion to appear on his weekly television sports show and comment on both his legal struggles and on the boxing scene as the various boxing confederations held a series of contests to decide who would be the next champion. During this process and afterward when others—former Ali sparring partner Jimmy Ellis and later Joe Frazier would emerge as the duly anointed heavyweight champion—Cosell would have Ali appear with him to analyze their skills during which the show’s host would convey a strong suggestion that these men were mere imposters to the throne, that they weren’t real champions because the genuine article was sitting next to him in the studio.
Cosell was the thinking man’s sportsman, bringing to everything he covered an analysis of the strategies employed and an evaluation of the relative level of execution. He also was the first national spokesperson to recognize the legitimacy of Ali’s name change something that, for instance, it took the Los Angeles Times and other national media years to do. In one particular program on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” Cosell, showing his audience how he wanted to demonstrate the intelligence that Ali brought into the ring had the Champion review video footage of the great fighters of the twentieth century. “You say you are the Greatest”, intoned Cosell, “Tell the audience how you would defeat the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and several others”. As the tapes were played Ali calmly explained how he would prepare for each of these men, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they could and would be beaten.
For over three years, during the prime of his physical skills, Ali was barred from the ring. When he returned he was not the same fighter. Gone were some of the speed, and the ability to consistently stay up on his toes and circle his opponent. Other stratagems were in order.
The “Rumble in the Jungle”
His second career is memorable for the trilogy of fights with then heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and his single fight with then champion George Foreman. He challenged Frazier losing the first bout in part, because it was only his third fight since returning to the ring and he clearly wasn’t prepared. Nevertheless, the fight went the distance and Ali lost on points. He fought Frazier a second time after Joe had lost the championship to George Foreman and won that fight on points, evening the score. Both of these battles went the distance, both were bruising Battles. This set the stage for the “Rumble in the Jungle” a battle with then heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire, now the Republic of the Congo.
Foreman was then considered one of the most intimidating and vicious punchers in the history of the game. He won his crown by flooring the formidable Joe Frazier. Many, even in Ali’s own entourage thought that Ali—several years older—and now much slower, would be injured, perhaps seriously if he took on Foreman. Some even feared for his life.
However, Ali, as always, assumed a posture of confidence. Studying a film of Foreman’s fights Ali saw a weakness. George had won almost all of his fights by knockout in the early rounds and he had not gone deep into a fight for a long time. Watching the films, he noticed that as he flogged one of his opponents his arms appeared to get heavy. He would tire and as he did his hands would come down. From this, Ali devised a strategy—dubbed by the pugilist poet—“Rope-a-Dope” in which he would lie against the ropes and let the Champion flail away until he tired and then put him away.
Norman Mailer would describe what he saw at ringside and the genius of the tactic. In the heat of Africa as Foreman would flail away, Ali would lie back against the ropes absorbing the heavy blows in his ribcage. The entire ring would shake as the ropes and posts absorbed the blows. Had Ali taken these blows standing in the center of the ring, Mailer noted, his skeleton would have had to absorb all that energy and it would have crushed him. Nevertheless, noted the novelist, one noticed that much of the energy Foreman was expending was passing through Ali’s body and was taken up by the ropes and posts and passing down into the very floor of the ring itself. Ali had made the ring into one giant shock absorber.
It was a dangerous strategy for in order to succeed Ali not only had to absorb the punishment administered to his body by Foreman but he had to, at all costs, avoid a direct blow to the head for Foreman was allowed in at close range.
Ali would retreat from the center of the ring and lie against the ropes and motion for Foreman to come on and attack him. In a “peek-a-boo” posture in which he would shield his face and head behind his gloves and ‘peeking’ through is upheld hands, Ali would taunt his foe. “You hit like a woman, George” he would taunt, “is that all you got, George?” he would ask. Enraged, Foreman would flail away as Ali’s trainer and manager Angelo Dundee would scream at his man to get off the ropes knowing how dangerous this was.
And, danger was ever present, at each moment, with each blow, as Ali would bob back and forth moving his head to avoid the headshots. Watching film of the fight you can see the peril as Foreman’s forearms, particularly the right one pass by Ali’s moving head all the way to the elbow. A direct hit under such circumstances could be devastating, even fatal.
Finally, as Ali had foreseen, Foreman began to tire, he began to flag, his arms began to drop and Ali saw his opportunity quickly coming off the ropes and delivering several blows in rapid succession dropping the champion to the floor. It was over. An elated Ali then went to the edge of the ring where the press had set up shop and shouted down at the assembled “I told you I am the Greatest”.
Foreman would later say of the fight that as Ali taunted him, yelling “is that all you got, George?” he began to realize that yes this is all I have and his confidence began to ebb away. Ali would attack not only your body but also your mind. It would take George Foreman years to recover, eventually reclaiming his crown in his 40’s and becoming the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship.
The “Thrilla in Manila”
This set the stage for the final bout with Ali’s arch nemesis Joe Frazier; once again, for the heavyweight championship of the world only this time the roles were reversed. Ali was now the champion and Frazier the challenger.
The final bout, the last in his trilogy with “Smokin Joe Frazier” as he was known, proved to be a bruising battle, after which both fighters were never the same. The pre-fight build up to the “Thrilla in Manila”, as ever the poet Ali described it, was as bruising for Frazier as the fight itself. Always, as with every opponent, Ali would cast his adversary as the great white hope, only this time adding insult to injury by dubbing Frazier the “Gorilla” and appearing on camera with a stuffed toy gorilla saying:
“I’ll be a-punchin’ and a-pokin’
Pouring water on your smokin'”
After a bit of clowning, Ali quickly took control of the fight in the early rounds, much as he had against Liston years earlier. However, the middle rounds belonged to Frazier as the two giants of the sport battled in the heat of the tropics.
Ali later said that as the fight wore on it was the closest he would ever come to death itself. It is not generally understood but an athlete can expend an awful lot under such circumstances. A major league pitcher can lose five to ten pounds during a game a prizefighter can expend much more than that. In fact, under severe circumstances such as these a fighter can lose so much by way of sweating out electrolytes and other substances as to risk internal organ failure.
Nevertheless, the two fought it out. In the middle of the thirteenth round, as Ali is now in the center of the ring, winning by most accounts on points but narrowly, he circles Frazier. Always moving left, his back to the camera, Frazier’s face directly in front suddenly Ali delivers a hard right to Frazier’s jaw. It happens so fast that the ringside announcer’s don’t notice it until after the round is over and one of them comments that Frazier has lost his mouthpiece, that piece of plastic that fighters put in their mouth to protect their teeth and jaw. If you watch closely, you can see the blow land flush on Frazier’s jaw, as the white piece of plastic is jettisoned. So hard is Frazier hit that the mouthpiece doesn’t fall out unto the floor but rather sails out of his mouth parallel to the floor with such force that it lands nine rows back into the crowd. And Frazier simply looks back at Ali, and doesn’t go down. The round winds down, and both fighters collapse in their respective corners. When the bell is about to be sounded to begin round fourteen, Frazier’s manager throws in the towel. The fight is over; Ali is declared the winner by technical knockout. Frazier sits crushed on his stool, Ali collapses on the floor. Later that evening Frazier would be taken back to his lodgings to begin a long recuperation; Ali would be taken to the hospital.
Neither would ever be the same. Ali would later lose then regain his crown for an unprecedented third time against Leon Spinks but in Manila, he left his best in the ring.
He was an anomaly in his sport. A heavyweight who fought with the speed and grace of a middleweight; a fighter that could counterpunch while back on his heels and deliver telling punches while backpedaling; a boxer who talked while fighting, always dangerous since one risks, by so doing, a broken jaw, (as when Ken Norton caught Ali with a right hand while he was mid sentence breaking his jaw in the second round. Ali finished the fight.); a poetic pugilist who spoke his mind.
Ali the Icon
Many today that were not yet born when Ali emerged upon the national consciousness do not understand that as was the case with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali was greeted with near universal derision.
“Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt. And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating. When in the history of boxing [asks Henry Louise Gates] have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language? A.J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in the Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “Vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.” Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of Islam and name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius”. (6)
What irritated the press was that it was always Ali who stamped his own imprimatur on the event. Describing a blow he would deliver to Liston in a pre-fight build up he would quip:
“Now Liston disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic.
But our radar stations have picked him up
He’s somewhere over the Atlantic.”
Ever the showman, it was Ali, never the press that defined the event and, in the end, that defined Ali.
Nevertheless, he was more, much more than mere sport and spectacle, mere showmanship. Ali fused sport, spectacle, and showmanship into cause and purpose and meaning. Clowning before the camera he would appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show or with Howard Cosell and would stop mid sentence and ask “Ain’t I pretty?” and motion for the camera, Gorgeous George style, to zoom in for a close up. “Prettiest face in the human race” he would tell his audience. Often, and almost universally in the early days, the audience response would be one of nervous laughter at his braggadocio. Partly because the audience was unaccustomed to such talk; partly because when he said he was “the greatest” or that he had “the prettiest face in the human race”, the audience sensed that perhaps it was true.
Out of this came black pride. Blacks stopped referring to themselves as Negroes, stopped using hair straightener and stopped bleaching their skin. “Black is beautiful” was born and a new sense of ethnic pride, a result of the emergent civil rights movement and more than spurred on by the image of Ali. For in his form one sees not simply a black man, but the facial features of an Asian, an African, a Latino, perhaps Caucasian as well. One sees in the features a certain femininity, especially in the young Ali, as well as a strong masculine form. If one were to condense the best features of the human species down into one person it would be Ali in his prime.
And so Ali not only gave doggerel poetic meaning and gave grace and beauty to an ugly sport but in the process became a citizen of the world, an Icon, the most recognizable face on the planet.
We will not again see his likeness.
(5). Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet” New York Times op-ed June 9,
2016. page A-21