1. Muhammad Ali (1970-1978)
It is almost an impossible task to have any discussion on the matter of heavyweight boxing, without giving some mention to the name, Muhammad Ali. Arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, Ali had a greater impact on the world around him than any athlete to have come before or after. The former three time champion of the world is recognised as the most iconic figure in sports history, due in no small part to the manner in which he returned to boxing after being banned for refusing induction into the United States army.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali won gold in the light heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics in 1960. It was from there that Ali’s war with the white American establishment would begin, as the young Olympic Champion, wearing the gold medal round his neck ,was refused service at a local restaurant, purely on the basis of his being black.
The young Clay turned professional later in 1960, yet it was his tendency to make himself heard, as opposed to his in ring performances, which drew the most attention from fans and the media alike. Labelled the “Louisville Lip” by the media, the young pugilist was seen as little more than a dancer with a big mouth by a large portion of the boxing public. Despite building up a 19 fight undefeated record on his way to challenging for a first world title in 1964, very few people gave the young challenger any hope of dethroning the much feared champion, Sonny Liston.
However, Clay’s speed and movement totally befuddled Liston, and the champion was totally outclassed before quitting on his stool at the end of the sixth round. The bout would mark the last appearance of Cassius Clay, as the new champion would “abandon his slave name” and become Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. In doing so, Ali would announce his membership of the Nation of Islam, while also reigniting his war with the white American establishment.
The 1965 rematch between Ali and Liston ended in controversial circumstances, as the former champion was knocked out in the first round by what has since become known as the “phantom punch.” Ali defended the title a further eight times before being called for service by the US army in 1967. On refusing induction into the army, Ali made it clear that he was highly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and that he saw the United States as an oppressor whom he would not aid in the murder of people he had no qualms with.
Ali was subsequently stripped of the heavyweight championship and had his boxing licence revoked. He would not be seen in a boxing ring for three years, before making his return in 1970 with a routine stoppage victory over Jerry Quarry. Within six months of his return, Ali was again challenging for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1971.
Standing in his way was the man his name would eventually become synonymous with, “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Frazier had won the title in Ali’s absence, and there was much debate as to who was the rightful champion going into the bout, with the challenger never having lost his title in the ring. It was also the first time two undefeated fighters had met for the world heavyweight championship. Ali and Frazier traded insults in the build up to the fight, sewing the seeds for one of boxing’s greatest ever rivalries.
In what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” Frazier floored Ali in the 15th round, on his way to retaining the title by way of a unanimous decision. The pair would meet again in 1974, this time for the right to face George Foreman, the man who had destroyed Frazier, with a stunning two round demolition job, to pick up the title a year prior. Ali won the return with Frazier, in an uninspiring 15 round encounter to set up one of the most famous bouts in boxing history, the aforementioned “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Although there were genuine concerns as to his safety going into the bout, Ali was inspired by his African surroundings and became an instant hero with the African people. Foreman on the other hand was never comfortable in Africa. With his aloof character, he struggled to endear himself with the local people and Foreman entered the ring on fight night to chants of, “Ali bomaye”, or “Ali kill him”.
It had become clear in his previous fights that Ali wasn’t quite the fighter he once was. His legs had started to deceive him and the challenger was fully aware that he would not be able to dance his way to victory against Foreman in the heat of Zaire. It had also become apparent that Ali possessed one of the best chins in the business. As he had been so hard to hit in the early part of his career, there had been long term doubts over Ali’s ability to take a punch. Ali though proved his toughness in the latter part of his career, absorbing the punches of some of the best hitters in the game, perhaps to the detriment of his long term health.
However, very few people could have expected Ali to adopt the tactics he did though against Foreman. Unable to trust his legs, Ali relied on his toughness, leaning against the ropes for the majority of the bout with what has become known as the rope a dope. Ali blocked, avoided or took Foreman’s best shots for eight rounds, before devastating the champion with a combination which sent Big George down and out.
After three routine defences in 1975, Ali agreed to again face old foe, Joe Frazier. With the pair holding a victory apiece over the other, their rivalry reached boiling point in the build up to what was their third bout. The champion’s mockery of Frazier included the branding of Smokin Joe an “uncle Tom,” and the former champion admitted that Ali’s comments caused resentment which he took with him to his grave.
Nevertheless, the pair met in the “Thrilla in Manilla” in October 1975. Both fighters were well past their respective primes at this point, which only added to make the fight one of the best remembered in heavyweight boxing history. After a truly great back and forth battle, Frazier was pulled out of the bout by his corner at the end of the 14th round, with trainer Eddie Futch concerned that his boxer was fighting blind. When Ali rose to his feet to celebrate, the champion collapsed from exhaustion.
Although Ali continued as champion until 1978, his reign never quite saw the same excitement as in Manilla and in Zaire. He was eventually dethroned as champion by 1976 Olympic Gold Medalist, Leon Spinks, before winning the rematch to become the first man to hold the heavyweight title three times. Ali announced his retirement in 1978, and although he would again return in 1980, that comeback is a part of boxing history which is best forgotten.
This series first appeared on http://boxingtruthman.blogspot.co.uk/