Reflections on Muhammad Ali

Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died on June 4, 2016 at the age of 74 from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease. His archrival Joe Frazier died November 7th 2011 at the age of 67 from liver cancer. Their names forever joined by a hyphen -- Ali-Frazier constituted what many consider to be sports’ ultimate rivalry.

As background for those readers not familiar with the state of boxing in America 50 years ago, it was a very major sport, perhaps third in overall popularity and visibility to baseball and football. Major fights received significant television and newspaper coverage. There were “boxing writers” at the big national newspapers. The general public had a solid awareness of who the champions were in the various weight divisions.

This is in stark contrast to the decline of boxing’s popularity today and the meteoric rise in the past decade or two of Ultimate Fighting. Boxing slowly strangled itself to death with the advent of multiple bureaucratic “Governing bodies,” with each different organization recognizing a different boxer as champion in the same division. Sports fans, faced with a bewildering array of indiscernible organizations like the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation, etc., each recognizing different fighters as champions, soon grew weary of the whole thing and today, boxing has been reduced to near-irrelevance in the sporting world.

UFC -- with its faster-paced, less-restrictive rules -- has caught on with a new, younger generation of sports fans, the same fans who are accustomed to the immediate impact and explosive results they enjoyed from video games growing up. To this new generation of followers, “traditional” boxing was too slow, too chess-like in its often-deliberate pace and its intense strategic approach.

But boxing enjoyed tremendous popularity a half a century ago. From the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s, there were arguably more highly-skilled, truly excellent fighters competing for dominance than at any other time in the sport’s history. Champions and contenders alike, there were countless names that transcended the boxing world and made it into the general public’s consciousness: Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Alexis Arguello, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, and dozens more.

In this Golden Age of boxing, two figures stood out above all the others: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay). Ali (as Clay) won the Olympic Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in Rome in 1960, and turned professional shortly thereafter. His amazing skill brought him to the top of the sport at the tender age of 22, when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964 in a huge upset over champion Sonny Liston. Liston was an 8-1 favorite, thought to be nearly invincible, especially following his two first-round knockout wins over former champion Floyd Patterson.

Right after winning the title, Ali did something that set his life on a controversial trajectory from which it would never deviate: Clay announced to the world that he had become a follower of the Nation of Islam religion and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting forever, as he put it, “my slave name.”

The great majority of people in America had never even heard of Islam or the Muslim religion. Many were confused by his actions and put off by his angry denouncements of “white” American culture and society. In the coming years, Ali would add to his controversial image by demeaning his opponents and boastfully predicting the exact round of their demise. Much of that braggadocio was intentional on Ali’s part, designed to hype the publicity (and therefore the ticket sales) of his bouts. Yet he remained a lightning rod for conflicting opinions, as people were equally divided as to whether they loved his outgoing, anti-establishment style, or whether they wanted to see his mouth “shut for good.”

Regardless, Ali was a compelling figure. Tall, handsome, and fast and graceful in the ring, he had a remarkably quick wit, an always-ready smile, and just enough of a constant twinkle in his eye that one never knew exactly how seriously he took himself.

He found the perfect foil in ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose own rise to fame came about primarily because of his coverage of Ali.

One exchange in particular seemed to exemplify the repartee the two enjoyed.

Interviewing Ali before a fight in the late 1960s, Cosell -- who thought of himself as quite the intellectual and linguist -- said to Ali, “Muhammad, you’re being unusually truculent today.”

To which Ali replied, without skipping a beat, “I don’t know what truculent is, but if it’s good, then I’m it!”

Ali’s controversial image reached its zenith in April 1967, when he refused induction into the U.S. Army after being drafted, uttering his forever-famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

That solidified his positive image and standing among the growing numbers of anti-war young Americans, who never understood or agreed with our involvement in a seemingly meaningless foreign war in Vietnam, half a world away.

But just as many Americans -- many older, more ‘conservative’ types, but not exclusively -- felt the opposite. Never having been particularly fond of his arrogant, bragging style and his insulting talk about traditional American culture, they saw Ali’s stance as an indication that while Ali was perfectly happy to benefit from and profit from the opportunities afforded him by the American sports profession, many resented him when he wouldn't give back -- even a little -- to the country in which he’d become rich and famous. History is full of notable American athletes and performers (like James Stewart, Ted Williams, Andy Rooney, Joe Louis, and Pat Tillman, to name just a few) who stepped up when needed and served their country bravely and honorably.

As a result of his refusing induction, Ali was stripped of recognition as champion by all the athletic commissions around the country and his boxing license was rescinded. He was forced into sports exile, a champion no longer.

By the late 1960s, a new heavyweight boxer was making a name for himself with his explosive, aggressive style and dramatic victories: a young slugger from Philadelphia named Joe Frazier.

Frazier was a simple, uncomplicated person, totally apolitical, the complete opposite of Ali. He didn’t boast. He wasn’t involved in political controversy. He was down-to-earth, friendly (“I’m Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor! What’s your name?”), and hard working. Early in his career he trained at night in the gym after working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse all day. (The Sylvester Stallone scene in the original Rocky movie of him punching a carcass was inspired directly from Frazier’s early experiences.)

Short, stocky, with an ungainly ring gait, here too, he was the complete opposite of Ali’s graceful, almost melodic movements in the ring. But in his own way, he was just as effective and soon ran up an impressive string of victories over the top fighters in the heavyweight division. Frazier was universally recognized as the new heavyweight champion after he stopped Jimmy Ellis after four rounds on February 16th, 1970.

Joe and Muhammad became fairly friendly during Ali’s three-year forced exile from boxing. As Frazier’s success grew, he loaned Ali money to assist him and lobbied hard to the various boxing authorities to reinstate Ali’s boxing license. There was undoubtedly a measure of self-interest in such actions for Frazier (a future bout between the two would be a high-paying extravaganza for them both), but compassion played a major role for Frazier as well. That’s who he was.

As circumstances developed, Ali did resume his boxing career after his involuntary layoff and he quickly established himself as the top challenger for Joe’s title with victories over top contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. That set up the Ali-Frazier title fight at Madison Square Garden. The match took place on March 8th, 1971 and was simply referred to as “The Fight.” It presented these two top boxers, each undefeated, each with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title, in an atmosphere of unprecedented social strife and tension. Ali represented the cool, hip and stylish as well the anti-Vietnam War younger set, while Frazier -- unwittingly, since he was such an uncomplicated, apolitical figure -- was cast as the “establishment’s” champion, the hero of the white, over-30 set.

Regardless of the social/political overtones, The Fight itself was a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event of unmatched drama and skill. Frazier and Ali fought with a brilliance and bravery hardly every seen before. The Fight went the full 15 rounds, a close but decisive Frazier win punctuated by his dramatic knockdown of Ali in the 15th and final round, courtesy of Frazier’s trademark thunderous left hook.

Ali and Frazier would meet in three memorable fights. Their trilogy set the standard for sports rivalries, as Yankees-Red Sox, Celtic-Lakers, and Borg-McEnroe contests have always been referred to as “Ali-Frazier confrontations.”

Yet it’s their third fight (held in Manila, in the Philippines, Oct 1st, 1975) that really defined for the ages who they were as boxers -- and as people.

Ali had always taunted Frazier in the publicity build-up to their previous fights. Frazier, for his part, seemed overwhelmed by the events. A simple man from a poor, humble background in rural South Carolina, Joe never knew exactly how to respond to Ali’s taunting. Play along or ignore him? Am I ‘in’ on the joke or am I the butt of the joke? Is Ali serious when he says these bad things about me or is it all tongue-in-cheek, designed to maximize the publicity?

But this time, Ali went further -- much further. He derided and insulted Frazier to an extent never seen before in sports history. Standing at a podium during a pre-fight press conference, Ali pulled out a small rubber toy gorilla, and announced, “It’s gonna be a thrilla and a chilla and a killa when I get the gorilla in Manila!” while he repeatedly punched the rubber toy, its head wildly bobbing back and forth. “Take that Joe! You so ugly, Joe!”

Frazier was incensed. “Do you know what it’s like to have your young son go to school and have to answer questions about why his father is being called an ugly gorilla? This was a man I helped when no one else would. I spoke up for him. I gave him money when he was broke and desperate. Now he does this?”

There was no monetary incentive behind Ali’s verbal torture of Frazier. Their purses were already guaranteed. “Stoking the fires” by publicly deriding Frazier would not redound to Ali’s financial benefit, so the inescapable conclusion is that Ali’s insulting of Frazier was borne of some personal animosity, perhaps resentment of having to share the spotlight with Joe. This ugly, distasteful incident has been conveniently omitted by the throngs of Ali’s revisionist sycophants.

Their third fight (the “Thrilla in Manila” name stuck) was perhaps the most brutal, hard-fought boxing match ever. Frazier -- thought to be washed up by most boxing experts and by Ali also -- fought with an intensity rarely, if ever, seen before. Ali, his inherent physical advantages over Frazier notwithstanding (he stood 4 inches taller, outreached him by 9 inches and outweighed him by 10 pounds), was pushed beyond his limit and he dug down deep within himself to produce a superhuman effort of skill, courage, and stamina that may never be eclipsed in a ring again. At the end of the 14th round (with just the 15th and final round to go), Ali came back to his corner and said to his trainer Angelo Dundee, “Cut ‘em off,” indicating that he’d had enough, he couldn’t go on, cut off my gloves. But astonishingly across the ring, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, had already motioned to the referee, Carlos Padilla, that Frazier couldn’t continue. The Thrilla was over and Ali had won. Ali later called that fight, “The closest thing to death.”

The health of both men was profoundly affected by their hard boxing careers. Joe suffered from severely limited mobility and debilitating arthritis. He drank heavily after his fighting days, which many feel contributed to the liver cancer that took his life. Ali’s well-known Parkinson’s was thought to be the direct result of the many hard blows he took over such a long career.

Ali’s post-fight life is popularly thought of as being one of a humanitarian, a “citizen of the world,” his charitable works and his amazingly genuine ability to relate to children defining for many his permanent image and reputation. For many, especially those not old enough to remember first-hand his active boxing and religious conversion days, Ali’s public persona is exemplified by the image of him bravely lighting the Olympic Torch in Atlanta Georgia in 1996, as his hands trembled almost uncontrollably from his Parkinson’s Disease.

In the interests of historical completeness and balance, it has to be remembered that Ali denounced his given name of Cassius Clay as his “slave name,” frequently referred to American culture as being run by “white devils,” and proclaimed his hatred of “white America” on many occasions. He was gratuitously cruel to Joe Frazier -- a man who helped him personally and financially—for no apparent reason at all, other than just to be mean. He was only too eager to enjoy the fruits of success that this country afforded him, yet he was unwilling to give back even a little when called on.

Muhammad Ali was indeed a fascinating and charismatic figure, and perhaps the “Greatest” boxer of all time, as he was only too quick to point out. But he was a multi-dimensional figure, not all of it good by any means. Unthinking admirers -- especially media analysts -- would do well to not take the easy way out, and instead make the effort to look at the full picture.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali died on June 4, 2016 at the age of 74 from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease. His archrival Joe Frazier died November 7th 2011 at the age of 67 from liver cancer. Their names forever joined by a hyphen -- Ali-Frazier constituted what many consider to be sports’ ultimate rivalry.

As background for those readers not familiar with the state of boxing in America 50 years ago, it was a very major sport, perhaps third in overall popularity and visibility to baseball and football. Major fights received significant television and newspaper coverage. There were “boxing writers” at the big national newspapers. The general public had a solid awareness of who the champions were in the various weight divisions.

This is in stark contrast to the decline of boxing’s popularity today and the meteoric rise in the past decade or two of Ultimate Fighting. Boxing slowly strangled itself to death with the advent of multiple bureaucratic “Governing bodies,” with each different organization recognizing a different boxer as champion in the same division. Sports fans, faced with a bewildering array of indiscernible organizations like the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation, etc., each recognizing different fighters as champions, soon grew weary of the whole thing and today, boxing has been reduced to near-irrelevance in the sporting world.

UFC -- with its faster-paced, less-restrictive rules -- has caught on with a new, younger generation of sports fans, the same fans who are accustomed to the immediate impact and explosive results they enjoyed from video games growing up. To this new generation of followers, “traditional” boxing was too slow, too chess-like in its often-deliberate pace and its intense strategic approach.

But boxing enjoyed tremendous popularity a half a century ago. From the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s, there were arguably more highly-skilled, truly excellent fighters competing for dominance than at any other time in the sport’s history. Champions and contenders alike, there were countless names that transcended the boxing world and made it into the general public’s consciousness: Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Alexis Arguello, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, and dozens more.

In this Golden Age of boxing, two figures stood out above all the others: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay). Ali (as Clay) won the Olympic Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in Rome in 1960, and turned professional shortly thereafter. His amazing skill brought him to the top of the sport at the tender age of 22, when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964 in a huge upset over champion Sonny Liston. Liston was an 8-1 favorite, thought to be nearly invincible, especially following his two first-round knockout wins over former champion Floyd Patterson.

Right after winning the title, Ali did something that set his life on a controversial trajectory from which it would never deviate: Clay announced to the world that he had become a follower of the Nation of Islam religion and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting forever, as he put it, “my slave name.”

The great majority of people in America had never even heard of Islam or the Muslim religion. Many were confused by his actions and put off by his angry denouncements of “white” American culture and society. In the coming years, Ali would add to his controversial image by demeaning his opponents and boastfully predicting the exact round of their demise. Much of that braggadocio was intentional on Ali’s part, designed to hype the publicity (and therefore the ticket sales) of his bouts. Yet he remained a lightning rod for conflicting opinions, as people were equally divided as to whether they loved his outgoing, anti-establishment style, or whether they wanted to see his mouth “shut for good.”

Regardless, Ali was a compelling figure. Tall, handsome, and fast and graceful in the ring, he had a remarkably quick wit, an always-ready smile, and just enough of a constant twinkle in his eye that one never knew exactly how seriously he took himself.

He found the perfect foil in ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose own rise to fame came about primarily because of his coverage of Ali.

One exchange in particular seemed to exemplify the repartee the two enjoyed.

Interviewing Ali before a fight in the late 1960s, Cosell -- who thought of himself as quite the intellectual and linguist -- said to Ali, “Muhammad, you’re being unusually truculent today.”

To which Ali replied, without skipping a beat, “I don’t know what truculent is, but if it’s good, then I’m it!”

Ali’s controversial image reached its zenith in April 1967, when he refused induction into the U.S. Army after being drafted, uttering his forever-famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

That solidified his positive image and standing among the growing numbers of anti-war young Americans, who never understood or agreed with our involvement in a seemingly meaningless foreign war in Vietnam, half a world away.

But just as many Americans -- many older, more ‘conservative’ types, but not exclusively -- felt the opposite. Never having been particularly fond of his arrogant, bragging style and his insulting talk about traditional American culture, they saw Ali’s stance as an indication that while Ali was perfectly happy to benefit from and profit from the opportunities afforded him by the American sports profession, many resented him when he wouldn't give back -- even a little -- to the country in which he’d become rich and famous. History is full of notable American athletes and performers (like James Stewart, Ted Williams, Andy Rooney, Joe Louis, and Pat Tillman, to name just a few) who stepped up when needed and served their country bravely and honorably.

As a result of his refusing induction, Ali was stripped of recognition as champion by all the athletic commissions around the country and his boxing license was rescinded. He was forced into sports exile, a champion no longer.

By the late 1960s, a new heavyweight boxer was making a name for himself with his explosive, aggressive style and dramatic victories: a young slugger from Philadelphia named Joe Frazier.

Frazier was a simple, uncomplicated person, totally apolitical, the complete opposite of Ali. He didn’t boast. He wasn’t involved in political controversy. He was down-to-earth, friendly (“I’m Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor! What’s your name?”), and hard working. Early in his career he trained at night in the gym after working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse all day. (The Sylvester Stallone scene in the original Rocky movie of him punching a carcass was inspired directly from Frazier’s early experiences.)

Short, stocky, with an ungainly ring gait, here too, he was the complete opposite of Ali’s graceful, almost melodic movements in the ring. But in his own way, he was just as effective and soon ran up an impressive string of victories over the top fighters in the heavyweight division. Frazier was universally recognized as the new heavyweight champion after he stopped Jimmy Ellis after four rounds on February 16th, 1970.

Joe and Muhammad became fairly friendly during Ali’s three-year forced exile from boxing. As Frazier’s success grew, he loaned Ali money to assist him and lobbied hard to the various boxing authorities to reinstate Ali’s boxing license. There was undoubtedly a measure of self-interest in such actions for Frazier (a future bout between the two would be a high-paying extravaganza for them both), but compassion played a major role for Frazier as well. That’s who he was.

As circumstances developed, Ali did resume his boxing career after his involuntary layoff and he quickly established himself as the top challenger for Joe’s title with victories over top contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. That set up the Ali-Frazier title fight at Madison Square Garden. The match took place on March 8th, 1971 and was simply referred to as “The Fight.” It presented these two top boxers, each undefeated, each with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title, in an atmosphere of unprecedented social strife and tension. Ali represented the cool, hip and stylish as well the anti-Vietnam War younger set, while Frazier -- unwittingly, since he was such an uncomplicated, apolitical figure -- was cast as the “establishment’s” champion, the hero of the white, over-30 set.

Regardless of the social/political overtones, The Fight itself was a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event of unmatched drama and skill. Frazier and Ali fought with a brilliance and bravery hardly every seen before. The Fight went the full 15 rounds, a close but decisive Frazier win punctuated by his dramatic knockdown of Ali in the 15th and final round, courtesy of Frazier’s trademark thunderous left hook.

Ali and Frazier would meet in three memorable fights. Their trilogy set the standard for sports rivalries, as Yankees-Red Sox, Celtic-Lakers, and Borg-McEnroe contests have always been referred to as “Ali-Frazier confrontations.”

Yet it’s their third fight (held in Manila, in the Philippines, Oct 1st, 1975) that really defined for the ages who they were as boxers -- and as people.

Ali had always taunted Frazier in the publicity build-up to their previous fights. Frazier, for his part, seemed overwhelmed by the events. A simple man from a poor, humble background in rural South Carolina, Joe never knew exactly how to respond to Ali’s taunting. Play along or ignore him? Am I ‘in’ on the joke or am I the butt of the joke? Is Ali serious when he says these bad things about me or is it all tongue-in-cheek, designed to maximize the publicity?

But this time, Ali went further -- much further. He derided and insulted Frazier to an extent never seen before in sports history. Standing at a podium during a pre-fight press conference, Ali pulled out a small rubber toy gorilla, and announced, “It’s gonna be a thrilla and a chilla and a killa when I get the gorilla in Manila!” while he repeatedly punched the rubber toy, its head wildly bobbing back and forth. “Take that Joe! You so ugly, Joe!”

Frazier was incensed. “Do you know what it’s like to have your young son go to school and have to answer questions about why his father is being called an ugly gorilla? This was a man I helped when no one else would. I spoke up for him. I gave him money when he was broke and desperate. Now he does this?”

There was no monetary incentive behind Ali’s verbal torture of Frazier. Their purses were already guaranteed. “Stoking the fires” by publicly deriding Frazier would not redound to Ali’s financial benefit, so the inescapable conclusion is that Ali’s insulting of Frazier was borne of some personal animosity, perhaps resentment of having to share the spotlight with Joe. This ugly, distasteful incident has been conveniently omitted by the throngs of Ali’s revisionist sycophants.

Their third fight (the “Thrilla in Manila” name stuck) was perhaps the most brutal, hard-fought boxing match ever. Frazier -- thought to be washed up by most boxing experts and by Ali also -- fought with an intensity rarely, if ever, seen before. Ali, his inherent physical advantages over Frazier notwithstanding (he stood 4 inches taller, outreached him by 9 inches and outweighed him by 10 pounds), was pushed beyond his limit and he dug down deep within himself to produce a superhuman effort of skill, courage, and stamina that may never be eclipsed in a ring again. At the end of the 14th round (with just the 15th and final round to go), Ali came back to his corner and said to his trainer Angelo Dundee, “Cut ‘em off,” indicating that he’d had enough, he couldn’t go on, cut off my gloves. But astonishingly across the ring, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, had already motioned to the referee, Carlos Padilla, that Frazier couldn’t continue. The Thrilla was over and Ali had won. Ali later called that fight, “The closest thing to death.”

The health of both men was profoundly affected by their hard boxing careers. Joe suffered from severely limited mobility and debilitating arthritis. He drank heavily after his fighting days, which many feel contributed to the liver cancer that took his life. Ali’s well-known Parkinson’s was thought to be the direct result of the many hard blows he took over such a long career.

Ali’s post-fight life is popularly thought of as being one of a humanitarian, a “citizen of the world,” his charitable works and his amazingly genuine ability to relate to children defining for many his permanent image and reputation. For many, especially those not old enough to remember first-hand his active boxing and religious conversion days, Ali’s public persona is exemplified by the image of him bravely lighting the Olympic Torch in Atlanta Georgia in 1996, as his hands trembled almost uncontrollably from his Parkinson’s Disease.

In the interests of historical completeness and balance, it has to be remembered that Ali denounced his given name of Cassius Clay as his “slave name,” frequently referred to American culture as being run by “white devils,” and proclaimed his hatred of “white America” on many occasions. He was gratuitously cruel to Joe Frazier -- a man who helped him personally and financially—for no apparent reason at all, other than just to be mean. He was only too eager to enjoy the fruits of success that this country afforded him, yet he was unwilling to give back even a little when called on.

Muhammad Ali was indeed a fascinating and charismatic figure, and perhaps the “Greatest” boxer of all time, as he was only too quick to point out. But he was a multi-dimensional figure, not all of it good by any means. Unthinking admirers -- especially media analysts -- would do well to not take the easy way out, and instead make the effort to look at the full picture.