Stings Like a Bee

The Six Fights
of Muhammad Ali

Of all the fights that Muhammad Ali, who turns 71 today, fought, there were four on the ring, and two outside it, that will probably be always associated with his greatness. Was he the greatest that there ever was? No, if you count only the four; yes, if you include the other two.
The first was against the establishment, when he lost and regained his right to fight. There were the brutal battles against Joe Frazier, and the spectacular comeback against George Foreman. Now he’s still fighting, and by all accounts winning, against his final foe, Parkinson’s disease.
We put together a little tour to pay homage to this tragic Othelo, who paid with the prime of his career for the right to indulge on his own convictions. Far from a cartoonish view of perfection and virtue, the Louisville, Kentucky, native, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, was as deeply flawed as many of those he mercilessly mocked and beat on the ring.
Which only enhances the moral authority of his erratic persona outside of it, including his seminal conversion to Islam, and adoption of the Muhammad Ali name, at the dawn of his career. With that decision, he instantly set himself apart from the image of the gifted but immature Negro hero, common to black sports stars who preceded him.
At the same time, he embodied the larger struggle of race and religion which has been as current an issue today as it was at the time of the Founding Fathers. Just a few years later, that decision would weigh heavily on his refusal to serve the U.S. armed forces, and caused the lost of his prime boxing years.
Between those two brackets of personal-slash-political decisions, he graced the world with arguably some of the best performances ever by a heavy weight fighter, with his unforgettable fast-dancing style on the canvas, and the equally quick wit of his public appearances. No other boxer before or since was nearly as articulated as Muhammad Ali.

In retrospective, his growing public stature outside the ring during the 1960s obscured his qualities as an athlete. But while they were at full display, it was probably impossible to imagine that his greatest achievements were still to come. Specially because many believed that his career was destined to have only one act.
How wrong the all were. Whereas his first heavy-weight championship top an almost perfect record that had started in 1960 with an Olympics Gold Medal in Rome, the power of his eloquence against the Vietnam War, and the lost of his right to fight, was all that most people remember of him in the period.
Ironically, his second act really started with his first defeat, to Joe Frazier, in 1971. Not the first fight of his comeback, but the one that found him fully invested as the anti-establishment fighter, the champion of the thinking American, the one who had just beat the mighty U.S. government.
Of course, he went on to beat Frazier twice in grueling fights, and many point to the fact that Ali humiliated and outwitted his former friend in his public remarks, even using a racial slur to diminish the journeyman’s importance. Then again, hadn’t been for Ali, few would even remember Frazier today.

But if the three fights between them marked one of the greatest sports rivalry of the century, Ali’s greatest achievement on the ring was to defeat the then ‘unbeatable’ George Foreman, in 1974. While the big man was hitting the canvas in the heart and heat of Africa, Ali was conquering the world. At that moment, at least, he was indeed the greatest that ever was.
The cleverness of his victory, the fact that not even his trusted Angelo Dundee knew about his strategy, one that even got a name, the Rope-a-Dope, was the culmination of years honing his ability of sizing up his adversaries and tailor the best tactics to defeat them. Dundee died last year at 90, just a few weeks after Ali’s 70th birthday.
Against Sonny Liston, he’d already proven that he could beat the big and the bad, but nothing prepared anyone to what happened in Zaire. Foreman, who went on to stage an amazing comeback of his own, and became in the 1990s what many had expected Ali to be, an intelligent and well humored cultural force, was then still on the wrong side of the his own greatness.
Unfortunately, many say, Ali didn’t retire after that fight, as he’d said he would on this 1968 interview. He went on to land yet another record: his third heavy-weight championship. But it was not to last, unlike the punishment that Parkinson’s, his last foe, would inflict on him later, in direct consequence of his stubbornness in keeping on fighting.
For all we know, his wit and intellect is still there. Tragically, though, it’s been 20 years since we last heard that familiar quick jive, full of humorous tirades and well-crafted one-liners, that Ali used to have always at ready. That much the Parkinson’s did manage to land on the big champ: it muted forever that tongue.
But that had been all we thought it had done to him, and when Ali lit the torch of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, we all had yet another moment of transfixing emotion, provided by him. Many years passed, and then came his cringe-inducing appearance at the opening of the new Marlins stadium, last April.
There to throw the first pitch, the greatest was slowly wheeled through the field, shaking uncontrollably and looking visibly not fit for even getting up. It was a heartbreaking image that, for several uncomfortable moments, muted the entire stadium. In a public life marked by so many instants of glory and many others of utter disappointment, that one topped them all.
Thankfully, that’s not the image he’ll be remembered for, in an oversized life that amounted to way more than just a sequence of images. But it is an integral part of his legacy now, just as the man himself has proven to be: always the showman, however graceful as in the beginning of his career, or brutal, as in his current predicament.
To achieve so much as athlete and person, warts and all, full of sophistication and humanity, there can be no other way but to agree with him, when he told Howard Kosell a long time ago: ‘I must be the greatest.’ Happy Birthday Champ, we’re so glad you’ve been around.

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