Muhammad Ali: “I am the greatest!”

Far and away, the eighth round KO of George Foreman in Zaire to win back the title (Oct. 30, 1974) was Muhammad Ali’s finest moment. At the time, the 25 year-old Foreman had a record of 40-0 with 37 knockouts and was considered the hardest puncher ever. After playing his mind games, Ali turned the Congolese people against Foreman and a popular chant from the locals leading up to the Rumble in the Jungle, and during the fight, was “Ali bomaye!” which means “Ali, kill him!”

Next to, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the most memorable quote from Muhammad Ali has to be: “I am the greatest_, the greatest of all time!”

Floyd Patterson’s thoughts on the boast: “He’s always saying he’s the greatest, but he never finishes that statement. If you’re patient and listen to him long enough, you can fill in the blank.”

In March of this year, General Mills honored Ali by placing him on their boxes of Wheaties cereal. Does he deserve the recognition? Sure he does. You’d have to be an ignoramus not to realize how glorious a boxer he was. He deserves every praise for his skills in the ring and the fun character he created. Over his illustrious career, he was like a comic book super hero.

When reaching the twilight of their years, athletes like world leaders attain a certain degree of sanctity. All mistakes are forgotten, while the exploits are exaggerated. Case in point, the inscription on the Wheaties’ cereal box claims Ali, “is the Greatest, an Ambassador of Sportsmanship.”

Whoa, we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We could count on one hand the number of times Ali exhibited that trait. Yes, he is legendary, and the ex-champion’s life will become folkloric, much the same as Davy Crockett. Aside from killing a bear when he was only three, Ali accomplished much. As time passes his exploits will be extolled and likely overblown. It’s up to the boxing historians to keep things real.

Tennis star, James Courier Jr., himself a good sport, once said, “Sportsmanship is when a guy walks off the court and you really can’t tell whether he won or lost. He carries himself with pride either way.”

Dartmouth College’s Athletic Director Harry Sheehy adds: “It is your response to winning and losing that makes you a winner or a loser.”

Good sportsmanship is when you see teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials treating each other with respect. Kids learn good sportsmanship from the adults in their lives. When they see parents behaving in a sportsmanlike manner, they learn the real winner in a sporting match is the one who knows how to behave with dignity. Whether they win or lose.

Everyone knows it’s suicide to poke fun at the revered. Some people are so well liked, they are untouchable. They get a free pass even when being a jerk. This article ignores common sense and instead is dedicated to the guys who ended up playing second fiddle to the great Ali, guys like Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, et cetera.

After shouting, “Get up and fight, sucker!” Muhammad Ali raised his fists in the air to celebrate his second victory over Sonny Liston. This memorable moment was captured by ringside photographer Neil Leifer in what has become one of the most iconic images in sport and chosen as the cover of the Sports Illustrated special issue, “The Century’s Greatest Sports Photos”.

Who can we blame for over-hyping an athlete? The Sports Networks? They’re known for doing whatever’s necessary to keep their ratings high. That’s why they key on the “look at me, aren’t I special” people in a broadcast. Why? Because the gents like David Haye and Money Mayweather do a bang up job of promoting themselves and at the same time put fans in the seats.

Kobe Byrant of the LA Lakers has a huge ego. Could this basketball legend be elected Mayor of Los Angeles? Ever earn the NBA’s Good Sportmanship award? We know that’s not going to happen. Still, everyone comes to see him play.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his slave name) was 18 years-old and fresh off his light-heavyweight gold medal performance at the Rome Olympics when he was refused service by a waitress at a “whites-only” restaurant in his native Louisville, Kentucky. Clay found, that despite his new acclaim, he was not immune to the racism so prevalent at the time. After that incident and a scuffle with some white boys, the disgusted Clay threw his Olympic gold medal in the Ohio River.

Averse to sidestepping controversy, Clay then faced a 30 year-old small town police chief in his first professional fight. The bull dog police chief, Tunney Hunsaker, was a veteran of 25 professional fights. After working over Hunsaker’s eyes for six rounds, they were nearly swollen shut. Hunsaker never made it into the Pro Boxing Hall of Fame, but he was inducted into the Law Enforcement Hall of Fame.

In 1964, Clay announced his name change to Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali after defeating Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title.

On November 22, 1965, Patterson, the former Heavyweight Champ, became Ali’s victim #22. In order to gain support or perhaps ingratiate himself to fellow Blacks, Ali referred to Patterson as “an Uncle Tom” and “the White man’s champ.”

In their match, Ali, who was three inches taller and outweighed Patterson by 15 pounds, stated before the match he wanted Patterson to suffer. Almost every time Ali hit Patterson, he taunted him. The crowd ended up booing Ali and felt he had treated the ex-champ with cruelty and disrespect.

Interviewed after the fight, ex-champ Joe Louis said: “He (Ali) could have knocked Patterson out whenever he wanted, but let’s face it, Clay is selfish and cruel.”

Mimicking a school teacher, Ali used a classroom blackboard as a prop to write down his prognostication,  “(Archie) Moore in four.”

Ali, aka. “The Louisville Lip” had an uncanny knack for hyping his fights. Before each bout, the “Fighting Prophet” named the round in which his opponent would be retired and this publicity stunt worked 12 times.

Earnie Shavers, a top heavyweight of that era, once said, “Ali was something, he knew how to con you in a million different ways.”

Ali not only had the cunning, the hand and foot speed, the impeccable skills, he had the ideal body type with his 80 inch arm reach and 6’3” stature.

In 1967, Ali found himself in trouble on several fronts. The courts declared him guilty of draft evasion, fined him $10,000, sentenced him to five years in prison, and then had the boxing commission strip him of both his title and boxing license. Embroiled in this financial mess and fighting the conviction, Joe Frazier came through with some financial help. He also lobbied hard to have Ali’s license reinstated.

Influenced by Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the young and rather cocky Cassius Marcellus Clay began to change dramatically and become even more opinionated.

Frazier’s aid was forgotten when the two signed a contract to fight on March 8, 1971. Even after the venues had been sold out and well after the fighters had received their guarantees, the demeaning, hurtful comments continued.

In early 1971, Joe Frazier and his young family posed for a family portrait inside their home in New Jersey.

The incendiary remarks provoked the crazies to call the Frazier household with death threats or they’d receive a call saying their house was going to be blown up. Understandably, Frazier felt betrayed.

At the Press Conference for his first fight with Frazier, Ali predicted a KO by the sixth round and made the following promise, “If Joe Frazier were to beat me. I’m going to get down on my knees and crawl over to his corner, look up at him and say, ‘You are the greatest! You are the Champion of the World!’”

During that epic battle several verbal exchanges took place. In an attempt to psyche Frazier out, Ali boasted, “You know, you are in the ring with the God.”

Frazier replied, “If you’re God, you are in the wrong place tonight.”

At the close of round six, Frazier made reference to Ali’s earlier boast, “I ain’t going nowhere.”

Here we see Joe Frazier (R) after he landed the big left hook that floored Muhammad Ali (L) in Round #15 of their first meeting, March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.

After Ali’s humiliating defeat, he left the ring sheepishly without following through on his promise to crawl across the ring. People say that fight and those remarks gave Sylvester Stallone the inspiration to write the screen play for the movie which turned out to be Rocky.

Over a career that lasted 21 years, his KO ratio was 60.66% despite the fact he fought only one boxer with a losing record. In 61 fights, 37 opponents failed to go the distance.

Lest we forget, over the last six years of his career, he was only a shell of his former self and when facing the likes of Trevor Berbick (12 years his junior), Leon Spinks (11 years younger), Larry Holmes (7 years, 10 months younger), he spent the majority of the time either running, circling or holding.

Talk about having a distinctive motorcar, Muhammad Ali had this one of a kind Rolls Royce made to order. It’s now on display at the $60 plus million dollar Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

His personal life became a whirlwind of fast women, the birthing of offspring, fancy cars, the business of being a conscientious objector and the change in religions; all distractions to derail his efforts from becoming the greatest. The more he wallowed in his own celebrity, the more lackadaisical he became in his training.

Weight gain is a strong indicator of a boxer’s decline. In Ali’s case, at the weigh-ins he went from 188 pounds all the way up to 236. That meant, he allowed himself to drift upwards to 250-265 pounds between each fight. As a fully mature heavyweight, his ideal fighting weight was between 208 and 212 pounds.

With the weight gain, his strategy in the ring had to change. He started dropping his hands to rest them. He held more, introduced the “rope a dope” and like any crafty veteran began to steal rounds with late flurries.

When discussing the greatest of all time, where does Ali rank? Keep in mind the sport has been around for over 150 years. The first “World Championship” took place at Farnsborough, England on April 17, 1860 between the British Champion Tom Sayers and the American champ John C. Heenan.

To be fair, we have to consider, not only a person’s transcendence over fighters of his day, but over the fighters from all 16 weight divisions over the 150+ years.

Sugar Ray Robinson (C) and Joe Louis (R) served admirably in the Armed Forces. Muhammad Ali chose to go in an entirely different direction.

Joe Louis (68-3) held the heavyweight title for longer than anybody (11 years, 8 months, 7 days) and made more successful defenses (25).

Henry Armstrong (151-21-9 with 101 KOs) is the only boxer to hold world titles in three different weight classes simultaneously

Sugar Ray Robinson (175-19-6-2 with 109 KOs) lost just once in his first 123 fights to Jake LaMotta, a defeat he avenged five times in their classic rivalry. Only stoppage defeat came when he challenged Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight crown, and then was leading on points until overcome by heat so extreme it forced the replacement of the referee. 

San Diego’s own Archie Moore (183-24-10-1) would be in the running. He fought 168 times and was 39 years old before finally getting a shot at the title. He took full advantage and outpointedJoey Maxim to take the crown. His 131 knockouts is the most by any boxer.

Featherweight Willie Pep won his first 63 bouts, then went 72-0-1 before losing again.

Julio Cesar Chavez had a career that lasted 25 years and his record during that time, 108-6-2 (87 KOs). He won his first 88 fights.

Benny Leonard won the world lightweight championship in May 1917, and retired as champion in January 1925, making him the longest-reigning lightweight champion.

A 1974 World Boxing reader poll ranked Ali as the 5th greatest heavyweight in history. In 1975 historian Nat Loubet ranked him ninth. In 1976, John Durant, author of The Heavyweight Champions, ranked him as the fourth greatest. After much research, we discover it’s impossible to name the Greatest Boxer of all time.

Muhammad Ali and three of his seven daughters attend the ceremony where he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It appears Mohammad Ali (L) has an open invite to the White House. Both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have honored the boxing legend with some sort of medal.

Sitting next to Major League Baseball’s all time Home Run Leader, Hank Aaron, was quite an honor.

With Lonnie Ali and her husband attending almost 200 banquets a year, it must be a rare occasion when they eat at home.

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