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article imageOp-Ed: Muhammad Ali - the Greatest at 70

By Alexander Baron     Jan 17, 2012 in Sports
Louisville - Muhammad Ali is rightly regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, but his biggest and most honourable fight took place outside the ring.
Just over two months ago, Joe Frazier went to that great boxing ring in the sky. Most people would have expected his great rival Muhammad Ali to have made that trip first; Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome in 1984; those of us who followed boxing at the time perceived his deterioration well before that. For a man suffering from this condition though and for a man of his age, he remains in surprisingly good health. Don't be too surprised if like Chuck Berry he is still making public appearances at 85, or like the Duke of Edinburgh is still out and about at 95.
What can be said about Ali that has not been said already a thousand times and more eloquently? He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, America's Deep South. Unlike Mike Tyson, Ali grew up in relative comfort; his father was a signwriter, and like most blacks in the Deep South the family were Baptists. Ali took up boxing at the age of 12 when someone stole his bicycle. He was advised to redirect his anger to a local gymnasium, where he shone. Luckily for the culprit, the bicycle thief was never brought to book, but the young Cassius Clay had his time filled with picking up 6 Golden Gloves titles and racking up a hundred wins with only a handful of losses in a sparkling amateur career. He was obviously Olympic material, picking up the light-heavyweight title in Rome, 1960. The transition to professional was as fluent as it was natural, and soon he was fighting for the world heavyweight championship for the first time.
From the very beginning of his professional career, Ali - as he was soon to become known - was enmeshed in controversy; his defeat of the feared Sonny Liston and his knockout of Liston in the rematch caused much wagging of tongues. In the first fight, Liston retired on his stool, and in the second he was said to have gone down from a phantom punch in the first round.
People who make claims of this nature understand little about boxing and even less about psychology. Liston had the same aura about him as Mike Tyson. When Tyson fought the unbeaten Michael Spinks, the older man froze like a frightened chicken and was slaughtered like one in 91 seconds. When 35-1 underdog Buster Douglas took on Tyson, he did the business in style surviving a knock down on the way, but does anyone claim Tyson threw that fight?
If Cassius Clay had been some unrated punk from Hicksville, USA when he took on the feared heavyweight champion of the world and retired him on his stool, there might have been cause for controversy, but not with his pedigree. As for the phantom punch thrown by Ali, then the defending champion - view this five minute clip and judge for yourself. Certainly it was not the mightiest punch ever thrown, but it's the one you don't see coming that is most dangerous, and clearly Liston didn't see it coming. Most heavyweights can knock out or at least stun an opponent with a short chopping punch. Look through the knockout clips on YouTube and you will find plenty more shorter than this.
In the early days of his career, Cassius Clay drew big crowds by mouthing off; people would turn up to see his lip buttoned. In reality, this was not conceit but showmanship. He was inspired by a wrestler, Gorgeous George, who helped turn grappling into showbiz.
Whether or not he would have “whupped” that bicycle thief as he vowed, The Greatest never struck another man outside the ring, and he certainly never hit a woman - Floyd Mayweather take note. It was this principle of non-violence that led to his career being sidetracked for the best part of four years at the height of his powers.
When he was drafted for the Vietnam War, he could have done what Elvis Presley did when he was called up for service. There is no doubt that he would have served as a coach, boxed exhibition bouts for the troops, and such, and returned home a hero. Instead, the recent convert to Islam said he would not go to foreign lands and spill innocent blood. This and his allegiance to the Black Muslims alienated Ali from especially black leaders and establishment figures, but once he'd made his decision, he stuck to his guns. He picked up a lot of admirers among the student and hippie crowd, and spoke on campuses across the land. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight and after 10 years of the phony War on Terror we can look back and ask, how come he was so right and the establishment was so wrong?
Ali was known to make anti-white pronouncements on occasion, but they were always tongue in cheek, and his actual views on race - “bluebirds fly with bluebirds” - made self-styled liberals cringe, as can be seen in this classic interview in which he routs talk show host Michael Parkinson.
Away from both boxing and politics, Ali was always a soft touch, and it is well known if not so well documented that he was surrounded by hangers-on who drained much of his wealth. Details of some of his acknowledged charity work can be found here.
It is also clear that while his medical condition may have affected his body, his mind is as sharp as ever. Six years ago he sold 80% of the marketing rights in his name for a cool $50 million.
Today, on his 70th birthday, fans have been queuing up to pay tribute to him, including Bill Clinton on this morning's BBC Breakfast news programme. Here is a special video tribute put together by a British tabloid.
The Greatest at a book signing in Central London  June 1992; in the foreground is Mark Taha.
The Greatest at a book signing in Central London, June 1992; in the foreground is Mark Taha.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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