Muhammad Ali shattered conventions inside and outside the boxing ring, and he forever changed the relationship between sports stars and fans.
Muhammad Ali at a rally against the Vietnam War, Chicago, 11 May 1967
(AP Photo/Charles Harrity)
This is our second story on Muhammad Ali following the legendary boxer’s death last week. You can read Charles Aldinger’s ringside account of Cassius Clay’s first championship fight, in 1964, here.
News-Decoder is not a sports service, but Muhammad Ali was far more than just a star athlete. The world has known few as famous or globally admired, and he deserves our attention and respect.
“Ali rewrote the rules.”
There may have been sports characters before Muhammad Ali, but there can be little question that he let the genie out of the bottle, introducing a cult of personality that forever changed the relationship between sports stars and their fans.
As a sports-mad teenager growing up in Britain, I recall being fascinated by Cassius Clay, as he then was. My generation had grown up with sporting role models like athlete Roger Bannister and soccer players Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton, men with clean-cut images who let their actions on the field of play do the talking.
Celebrating a race victory at most involved a brief, slightly embarrassed wave to the crowd. Goal celebrations were virtually unknown. You just picked the ball out of the net and headed back to the center line to restart the game.
Then along came a brash, boastful black American boxer who single-handedly re-wrote all the rules of how a sports star should behave. We instinctively felt we should loathe and despise him for his arrogance.
But we found ourselves secretly admiring and then adoring him. Why? Because he had “it,” that hard-to-define quality that marks out the special ones.
Back in the early 1960s it was tougher for sports stars to make an individual mark. There was little sport shown on television, and newspaper reporting focused heavily on description of the action, largely to the exclusion of quotes from the participants.
He commanded our respect.
I devoured everything I could about Clay and then Ali from papers and sports magazines, and listened to radio broadcasts of his fights, often in the small hours of the morning. When I finally saw some black-and-white newsreel of his world title fight with Sonny Liston in 1964, I was blown away.
This was not just the brilliant fighter I had imagined. This was a supreme athlete, a magnificent physical specimen who moved with astonishing grace and ease, who seemed to control everything around him.
Out of the ring, he was equally impressive, awesome even. Unlike other sports stars, he relished and controlled his interviews. They were his vehicle for giving the message he wanted to impart to the world. He was articulate at a level no one could have imagined of a sportsman, especially a boxer. He talked a big game — and he commanded our respect by matching it whenever he stepped into the ring.
He kept us on the hook by endlessly fascinating us. There were the predictions of which round his opponents would fall in, the over-the-top insults, the Ali shuffle, Rope-a-Dope, the little rhymes, the breathless rants. He was the greatest self-publicity machine ever, and few of us in his audience could contemplate pressing the “off” button.
The change of name and religion, the crusade against racial inequality and the refusal to fight in Vietnam magnified his mystique in our eyes. When he returned to the ring after a three-year ban, we desperately wanted him to succeed again. He did not disappoint.
Although he carried on too long and bowed out with a debilitating illness, he left indelible memories. His poignant appearances at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta and 2012 London Olympics are now deeply stamped into the emotional history of sport.
He was that rarest of things, a sportsman who grew to be so much bigger than sport.
“In a class of his own.”
Muhammad Ali shattered as many of the accepted conventions of his time within the ring as he did outside.
No sports writer gave the then Cassius Clay any chance against world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in their 1964 fight. Liston, an immensely powerful man with a criminal past, underworld connections and the largest fists of any heavyweight champion, had knocked out the previous champion, Floyd Patterson, twice within the first round.
Ali’s dazzling speed of hand and foot instantly made the defending champion look like a dinosaur. Liston did not leave his corner for the seventh round, and he lasted only two minutes in the rematch the next year.
In an exceptional era for heavyweights, Ali was in a class of his own. He danced around the ring like a lightweight, he dropped his hands to his hips in defiance of all boxing lore and he relied on his exceptional reflexes to lean back and evade punches without moving his feet.
The Ali who returned after three years in the sporting wilderness was heavier, slower and took as many punches as he gave. In 1974, there were genuine fears he could be killed by the remorseless George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
Instead, Ali showed his acute ring craft by either evading or absorbing Foreman’s punches before knocking out the exhausted champion. He went on to become the only heavyweight to win the title three times.
Comparing athletes across eras is both a fascinating and futile pursuit. Perhaps the one boxer who stands truly alongside Ali is Jack Johnson, the first son of two former slaves, who in 1908 became the first African-American heavyweight champion.
At a time of vicious racism, Johnson, like Ali, lived life on his own terms, before dying in a car crash at the age of 68, driving angrily away from a diner restaurant that had refused to serve him.
“A leader when others had lost our respect.”
For a young white boy like me growing up comfortably in the United States in the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was at first perplexing, then wonderfully liberating. He challenged so many assumptions and put so many people around me ill at ease. Every bit as much as the musicians, poets and authors who were increasingly questioning authority, Ali personified the conflicts of the era.
At first glance, he was a beautiful athlete. We mustn’t forget that. For a heavyweight boxer, he was tall, relatively lean, daring, with tremendous reach and great speed — and boyishly handsome.
I remember when he won the heavyweight title in 1964 by beating Sonny Liston. My Dad and I listened to the fight together. It was a huge upset, made more magnificent by the taunts that Cassius Clay threw at Liston — Clay’s antithesis — before the fight. His lip became his trademark. Most adults around me were outraged by his brazen manner; I loved it. “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He did! He boasted but he lived up to his boasts.
He was an iconoclast, not because he was black — the color barrier had long been broken in most U.S. sports, and certainly in boxing, by then — but because he thumbed his nose at convention and shaped his own reputation. For young Americans like me who were feeling outrage over the Vietnam War starting to bubble up, who were questioning every type of authority around us, Ali led the way.
When he refused the draft, he became our hero. Ali staked out a political position, a hugely controversial one, and risked his career for it. His resistance provoked a lot of criticism from war supporters, but there was a strong undercurrent of support, even after he was sentenced to prison. The Supreme Court — the same court that three years later put the nail in Richard Nixon’s political coffin — eventually overturned his conviction.
Would today’s Court have such courage?
Finally, Cassius Clay’s decision to convert to Islam was another bold move that put many ill at ease but which fascinated those of us who were white rebels in disguise. Ali and basketball star Lew Alcindor — later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — were such uniquely talented athletes, so poised under incredible pressure, that only the most churlish would refuse to tip their hats to them out of respect.
Ali’s career twisted and turned long after I stopped listening to his fights on the radio. By then, he had earned my unqualified respect and that of so many other whites who sooner or later understood that he was much more than a skilled boxer, a leader in an era when many other leaders had lost our respect.
Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Currently a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he has served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
John Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001. He recently wrote about Ali lighting the Olympic flame at Atlanta in 1996.
Founder of News-Decoder, Nelson Graves has taught school and worked as a journalist on three continents. He was a correspondent, bureau chief and regional managing editor at Reuters, holding posts in Washington, Paris, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Milan and Tokyo. He later served as admissions director at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in international relations in Europe, and has worked with schools around the world. He launched News-Decoder in 2015.