Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali Part one
The most ignorant and uninterested individuals, when asked what they knew about boxing, would probably tell you they knew squat other than they fight in rings and that they knew of one particular Boxer; Muhammad Ali. The most famous and probably most political boxers, his story is one of legend, with both glory and tragedy making up a glorious career
His fights were notorious, his punches infamous, and his skill unrivalled. His many quotes and speeches reek of an inflated ego yet one must remember, ‘it ain’t bragging if you can back it up’, and my god could this man back up everything he said. Smack talk was not a new concept during his lifetime but he could tease and wind up with the best of them. Let’s take a look at the career of one Cassius Clay, who could fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Cassius was dealt a harsh blow living in the segregated south where racism and prejudice against blacks wasn’t just common, it was how society operated. He began boxing at the tender age of 12 when a policeman told him after his bike was stolen, that he should learn to fight before challenging them. This same officer of the law worked at a local youth boxing gym and taught him how to fight. Joe Martin, the officer, could be called his first trainer and helped win his first fight in 1954.
His amateur career showed signs of a legend in the making with over 100 fights, yet only 5 losses. During this time, he won a gold medal in the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome against Polish boxer Zbigniew Pietrzkowski and won six times in the Kentucky Golden Glove tournament.
Professional Career record 1960 to 1971
Switching over to professional boxing, he made his debut in 1960 against Tunney Hunsaker. He then went on to 19 fights with 19 wins and 15 by default knockout. What’s more, some of these boxers at the time were incredibly famous and powerful, yet the fact that a black man at the time was moving up the ranks very fast did show Clay’s ability to transcend racist and discriminatory practices that were present in the sport at the time.
His second professional fight in December 1960 against Herb Siler began the birth of his career as a man whose punch would knock people unconscious. In a 4 round fight, out a maximum of an 8, Herb Siler was knocked out by Clay. A promising start to a career that would continue to flourish as time went on.
He became Heavyweight champion of the world when he punched the lights out of Sonny Liston in 1964. Whilst this is by no means a modest achievement, one must also remember several things about Clay’s contender, Liston. He had ties to the mob; his personality was violent and very intimidating. His criminal past had scared many other so called contenders and he showed just how powerful he was by knocking out many of his opponents. Clay’s trash talks however, showed early signs of his narcissistic personality when he taunted Liston by calling him ‘a big ugly bear’. A funny quote from Clay before the fight talks about he would ‘donate him to the zoo’ after the fight.
Not one to be talked to like an invalid or be insulted by some over confident newcomer, Liston rushed Clay like a train. Clay however evaded many of Liston’s jabs and punches. Clay replied to Liston’s wild and undisciplined punches with sharp jabs and even caused a cut around his left eye. For the next few rounds, both men took a beating and Clay complained about his eyes burning, a frequent complaint by other opponents of Liston.
However, by the sixth round, Clay made Liston ‘his bitch’ and pummelled him. When Liston refused the call for the 7th round, Clay was made winner by Total knockout. Clay was the youngest boxer to win the Heavyweight title at just 22. Tyson later beat the record when he won at age 20 but this was in 1986. You can watch the entire match here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OezriPEepZs. A rematch in Lewiston between Liston and Clay ended in just two minutes with Clay, now Ali after his conversion to Islam, being dubbed the winner with his phantom punch.
Ali then fought Floyd Patterson with a 12 round TKO. Patterson had fought poorly, blaming it on a strained sacroiliac as he gave exposed and easily hittable punches, including a kangaroo punch.
After this, Ali came under criticism when he refused to join the army after he drafted to fight in Vietnam. Ali left the US for a little while to fight in countries which either had not military interest in Vietnam, or had worth contenders.
Ali fought, Canadian George Chuvalo with a 15 round match that left Ali the winner,
Ali’s fight with English Heavyweight Boxer Brian London ended after only 3 rounds with a TKO. London Famously said that when asked about a rematch, ‘only if he ties a 56 pound weight to his legs’. You can watch the match here-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGYz7HsiQaY
Ali then fought West German Karl Mildenberger with a 12 round TKO. Mildenberger took a beating from Ali. He left the fight with a cut in his left eye, and was completely closed by the eight rounds. He was knocked down in the fifth, eighth and tenth round. Ali claimed that Mildenberger was one of his most difficult fights ever, more so than Joe Frazier, mainly because Mildenberger was southpaw, rather than orthodox, a first for the Heavyweight champion of the world. In fact the referee was so concerned for the health and wellbeing of Mildenberger that he ended the bout at 1:28 -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8jcQbAimkU
Ali’s fight against declining boxer Cleveland Williams which drew a record breaking 35, 460 audience and ended with a 3 round TKO. Many would call this one of Ali’s greatest fights.
Yet Ali’s next fight would be called on his ugliest against Ernie Terrell. Despite winning after 15 rounds with a TKO, there was a great deal of rivalry between the two men. Terrell kept calling Ali ‘Clay’, his slave name, which angered Ali profusely. What’s more, Terrell had a 3 inch range on Ali as well as putting to shame every boxer who came before him, having never suffered a single defeat in 5 years. The fight was brutal and Terrell’s eye had been poked by Ali which could have ended due to Ali’s poor behaviour. You can watch the fight on YouTube. The film is divided into 6 parts
Ali’s fight against Zora Folley fared a lot better with a knockout in the seventh round. Folley became very predictable during the match, something Ali picked up very quickly. He kept moving to his right and continued to use a right counter. Ali used his own right hand and used it as a counter counter move against Folley. Whilst the match could be said to have been Ali’s from the get go Folley put an incredibly good fight. Ali was very shy and conservative in the first two rounds and Folley was considered the dominating fighter. He got more jabs and hits on the Champion more so than any other boxer before him. He also kept pushing him against the ropes and bounced Ali off of them many times during the first two rounds. In the fourth round, Ali got a left hook and right punch to Folley’s head. Folley was red both metaphorically and literally as his rage was only matched by the colour of his now blood stained skin. Ali’s manager eventually became fed up and told him to ‘stop playin’ with the poor man. Ali had had his fun and now finished off the now exhausted, beaten and uncoordinated Folley with two right punches. You can watch the entire match here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMc7JtpOkSk
This was his last fight for 3 1/2 years. His refusal to join the army resulted in a suspended boxing license, $10000 fine, losing his Heavyweight Championship title and five year prison sentence, though he never spent any of his time in jail due to a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court. Garnering support and sympathy, as well as changing public attitude towards the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive, Ali returned to boxing in in late 1970. His license was reinstated in several cities including Atlanta, and the state of New York.
His first bout in over 3 years was against Jerry Quarry. He won after only 3 rounds, showing how time had done little to his ability despite no professional fight in 3 years. A rather dreary and dull dance with Argentinian boxer Oscar Bonavena that lasted 15 rounds showed to the world a rather unprofessional and relatively brutal play by Ali. Ali knocked Bonavena down three times in the 15th round. He didn’t even go to a neutral corner when Ali was down which gave him more opportunity to sucker punch him. Bonavena left bruised and bloodied.
What came next was probably one of the most controversial and shocking fights of Ali’s career. Of the 5 losses he had during his professional career, Joe Frazier was his first. Joe Frazier at the time was heavyweight champion yet technically, he had only achieved the title because Ali had lost it when the Department of Justice had taken it away. It was a race to the top and Frazier became the winner of the title when boxing authorities recognised his ability and skill after his fights against Mathis and Ellis. Ali’s claim was very sympathetic and morally, many agreed it was Ali’s.
The money paid to both men was massive, 2.5 million dollars which today would be around $14.5 million. The bout was called fight of the century and with good reason. What’s more, Ali’s opposition to both Vietnam and the political activism he played in civil rights brought a new side to the fight which rested on more than just the enjoyment of boxing. Frazier was adored by conservatives and pro Vietnam advocates. Support didn’t just come to down to who was your favourite player but what your political affiliation was. Liberals and left wingers support Ali whilst WASPs and conservative groups were more in favour of Frazier.
Ali had the first three rounds under wraps with jabs and hits that put lumps all across Frazier’s body and face. However Frazier bit back hard with a brutal hook that damaged Ali’s neck in the closing seconds of round 3. Frazier then went on the offensive and dominated the next few rounds. Ali was no longer defending himself as a choice, but by fear and inability to fight against Frazier. Ali was against the ropes and suffered multiple hits to the body. Exhausted and broken, but undeterred, Ali continued on despite his poor condition by round 6. For the next few rounds, the fight was even with Ali and Frazier’s performance equally impressive until round 11. Ali was against the ropes and was bounced off the ropes and nearly onto the floor by a brick like hook from Frazier. Frazier controlled and dominated from then on out. When the 15th round came, Frazier had a lead on all three judges. Ali was on his back for the third time when a left hook from Frazier took him by surprise. His jaw swollen and visibly disfigured, Ali remained standing but it wasn’t enough. Joe Frazier won with a unanimous decision which left Ali with his first professional loss.
You can watch the fight here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctKAGKVpCUU
Life outside the ring
In 1964, after a refused attempt to join the Nation of Islam, Clay was accepted into the Ranks. He changed his Name to Muhammad Ali. He claimed that the change of name was because his original, Cassius Clay, was his ‘slave name’. Ali made no secret of his alliance with the Nation of Islam as time went on and would continue to preach the organisation teachings wherever he went. In some regards, his views could be considered racist with him claiming that inter-racial marriage between intelligent black men and women with white people was wrong. He even claimed that white people were the devil. The irony of this was that his colleagues were mostly white despite such public disdain for them. He became a Sunni Muslim in 1975.
The wrongs that were done to him
Like many young men from 1965 onwards, Clay was drafted into the US military to fight against the Viet cong. He refused and in 1967, the Department of Justice pursued a vicious case against him. Many sports commentators called him a coward and whilst he remained strong and many supporters backed him, he was stripped of his world Heavyweight championship title. Whilst it’s easy for us to look back and call his critics evil and racist, it’s a lot more complicated. The Soviet Union was considered the Third Reich of its day according to the Western powers and the entire territory it held from East Berlin to Vladivostok and everywhere in between was considered Mordor. However Clay was not prepared to fight a country which had shown him nothing but racial hatred. He famously cried ‘No Viet Cong called me nigger’.
Part two coming soon….