Saturday, January 16, 2010

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston II

By Randy De La O

What can I or anyone else say about Muhammad Ali that hasn’t already been said countless times in every language, in every country and medium imaginable. Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) was the 1962 gold medalist at Rome. Muhammad Ali, three time Heavyweight Champion of the world, defeating Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Leon Spinks to win the heavyweight titles. Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, a member of The Nation of Islam and a civil rights activist, who was thrust into the turbulent political battlefield of the 1960’s when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military. Muhammad Ali, one half of the greatest rivalry in boxing’s rich history, the other half of course, being “Smoking” Joe Frazier. Their trilogy may be the greatest rivalry in sports, period.

I was just a kid but I knew who Muhammad Ali was early on, he was still Cassius Clay then. My father a former boxer in the U.S. Army was still a fan of the sport so I always picked up bits and pieces of the sport just by listening to him. I knew Ali was big when I saw a photo spoof of him and Sonny Liston on the back of a Mad Magazine. I mean, if you’re in Mad Magazine you have to be somebody, right? I thought so.

I don’t know if my father actually hated Ali but he sure as hell didn’t like him. Not too many did back then. Ali, the master of bombastic verbal assault, could infuriate anyone within earshot. My father was old school and Ali was definitely something new. Ali was not afraid to say what was on his mind, whether it was about himself, boxing or race in America.

In the ring Ali was something else. He was 6’ 4” and averaged around 220 pounds but he moved like a middleweight. His type of speed had never been seen before. If the truth be known, Ali never learned to box correctly, or as his long time trainer Angelo Dundee once said “Ali does everything wrong, he just does it better than anyone else”. The guy fought with his hands down, brought his feet together, pulled back from a hook and rarely slipped a punch, preferring to throw his head back to avoid them. Yet, he kept winning and he kept talking.

At the time, 1962, I really didn’t understand the significance of Ali’s fight with Archie Moore. I didn’t know who Moore was other than another boxer, nor did I know that Moore was an old man when Ali fought him. Looking back, it was not one of Ali’s finest moments, I think he realizes that now. I know he has expressed some deep regret over much of his behavior during his career. He predicted he would stop “Moore in four” and he did.

Ali had a much stiffer test the following year in a tough fight with Henry Cooper, when Coop knocked him down in the fourth round before he was stopped on cuts in the next round. They would fight again a few yews later, this time Ali would stop him in the sixth round, again on cuts.

I don’t think anyone gave Ali a chance against Sonny Liston. Despite his gold medal and a string of victories leading up to his challenge, no one took him serious. This fight would change everything. The fight was stopped in the seventh round when Liston remained on his stool. Ali displayed skills and a maturity in the ring that no one, especially Sonny Liston, expected. Ali stopped Liston in the first round of their rematch.

Ali ran up a string of victories over Floyd Patterson, the always tough Canadian, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Karl Mildenberger, and “The Big cat” Cleveland Williams before fighting Ernie Terrell in February of 1967, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Again Ali showed his penchant for cruelty to an opponent when he punished Terrell over 15 rounds, for refusing to recognize him as Muhammad Ali. For some reason, Terrell refused to recognize him as Ali, instead he referred to him as Cassius Clay. I listened to the fight that night on the radio with my father.

In 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces and was subsequently arrested, tried and found guilty of draft evasion. He was stripped of his title and his boxing license was revoked. Ali did not fight again until 1970 when he defeated “Irish” Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, setting up “The Fight of the Century” with Smoking Joe Frazier, who had become heavyweight champion by beating everyone that mattered in the heavyweight division. Frazier was no mere token champion waiting for Ali to return. He was the real deal, a legitimate champion and he was eager to prove it to Ali, the world and to anyone who doubted him.

Frazier got his chance on March 8, 1971 when he won a hard fought decision against Muhammad Ali at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was the pinnacle of Joe Frazier’s career, his finest moment. The fight is one of the greatest in the heavyweight division and one of my personal favorites.

Ali was far from through though, he would fight Ken Norton twice, splitting a pair of split decisions, the first a loss, in which Ali suffered a broken jaw, the second ended in a controversial win for Ali. He had one more tune-up fight with Rudi Lubbers, winning a 12 round decision, before fighting Joe Frazier for the second time.

Ali vs. Frazier II seemed to lack the excitement of the first fight, neither fighter was undefeated now, and no title was on the line, with Frazier having lost his title to George Foreman and much of his invincibility with it. Still, whenever the two met there was magic in the air, even if it was just in anticipation. Ali got the nod and a shot at George Foreman’s title. The fight which was to take place in Kinshasha, Zaire in Africa was billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle” As with his first fight with Sonny Liston, no one gave Ali a chance. Who could blame them? George Foreman was knocking everyone out and had won the Heavyweight title in a devastating fashion by knocking Frazier down six times before the referee stopped the fight.

Ali won the title from George Foreman by knocking him out in the eighth round, using his now famed rope a dope tactic to wear down the hard punching Foreman. Foreman never left room for a plan B, in the event he did not knock out Ali early and it cost him his title. Ali again shocked the world. Foreman would shock the world himself when he won the championship from Michael Moorer on November 5, 1994, twenty one years after losing his title to Ali. The heavyweights of that era were exceptional!

Ali KO’ed Jean Pierre Coopman in five and remained undefeated in his next five fights, posting victories over the likes of Jimmy Young (a controversial win), Richard Dunn, a third win over Ken Norton, Alfredo Evangelista and Ernie Shavers before facing the lightly regarded Leon Spinks in defense of his title on February 15, 1978.

This one caught everyone off guard. Spinks, a member of the 1976 Olympic team and a gold medal winner had only seven fights prior to his challenging Ali, none of them against quality opponents, yet, due to circumstances and Ali’s declining physical condition, Spinks won this fight. Ali would regain the title the following September winning a 15 round decision. Ali never won another fight. His next two fights were losses against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, two fights that never should have happened.

The night that Ali lost to Spinks, on February 15, 1978, my wife Jeri and I were busy moving into our house in Whittier, my friends, Ken Robledo, Mike Teran and Sergio Billings came by after the fight to help. When they told me that Ali had lost to Spinks, I was in complete disbelief. We all were. With the exception of the period when Ali was stripped of his title and came back to defeat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title, Ali had been the heavyweight Champion for most of my childhood, my teen years and all my adult years up to that time. It seemed that Ali would be champion forever. It was tough finding out that he was human, just like the rest of us. Well, maybe not exactly like the rest of us, Ali was an extraordinary human being but he was human nonetheless. I still miss those days.

In 1991 I met Ali. He signed his book Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and we had a chance to speak with him. He was decent to my family, hugging my wife and kids and planting a (soft) right hand on my chin. I consider it an extraordinary day in my life and my family has never forgotten it.

There was a time when Muhammad Ali roared like a lion, a king of his domain. Muhammad Ali is quiet now. Silenced by Parkinson’s disease. He talked a lot of smack and he backed up everything he ever said. He ducked no one in his career. Love him or hate him, Ali was unlike any heavyweight champion before him.

4 comments: said...

Great article. I was too young growing up to fully remember Ali as well as I would have liked to. Very interesting to learn some of the history behind the man.

I really enjoy your blog and am very passionate about boxing. Looking forward to being a long time reader!

brian said...

..hopefully someone has a tape of the (then)Cassius Clay-Archie Moore
'Great Debate' preceeding the fight that shouldn't have happened;I think it was the first time I'd seen Ali...:'I'm gonna hit you with my pension punch,old man'..Moore:'I'm gonna hit you with my lip buttoner punch..'

JGY said...

I enjoyed your blog; nice to read about another "boomer" with similar experiences and perceptions as me. Growing up I revered Ali the fighter, human being, and orator who thumbed his nose at white America. I followed and continue to follow his career closely; I've immensely enjoyed watching his old fights, press conferences, weigh-ins, and tirades on YouTube. Consequently, I've learned even more about the man; hence that's how I stumbled across your blog. How marvelous for you to meet him, an experience that I still hope I will have someday.

I admired Ali for making his point in the "what's my name fight." Although I was saddened by his exilement, I respected his courage to stand up to white America, thumb his nose, and say I won't fight your war. I too was caught up the racial implications that were generated from the Ali/ Frazier clashes. Ali did a masterful job of aligning "Smokin Joe" with white America. Thus Ali’s followers back then seemed to be African Americans and liberal whites, not mainstream America. I enjoyed being in the liberal camp.

A few recent developments have had a negative influence on my reverence for Ali. There was a recent HBO documentary about the Thrilla in Manila. It was an angle that I had not really seen before, or had I given it much thought to. In the documentary it' delves into the days leading up to Ali being exiled from boxing. Joe Frazier was a huge Ali supporter. He took numerous steps to speak out against Ali's exilment and to go against white America in support of Ali. He personally loaned Ali money during the lean financial years of his exilement. It was wrong of Ali to market Frazier to white America as an Uncle Tom, and to play the racial card like he did with Frazier. I admired the way Ali stood up to white America; however, I think that it was unconscionable to make his point at fellow brother’s expense. As Frazier pointed out in the documentary, Ali's current state (Parkinson) is something he's responsible for and proud of. It wasn’t until 2001 in a New York Times interview that Ali publicly apologized for his wrong doing towards Frazier.

So, Ali’s human. Maybe he’s not quite person I put on a pedestal for most of my life. I still think he’s “The Greatest.” I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but Ali transcended beyond his sport like no one else in my lifetime. I guess I just have to accept that nobody’s perfect.

JGY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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