Muhammad Ali fought 548 Professional Rounds against 50 different men across a span of 61 fights, 13 countries, four continents and 21 years. 27 of Muhammad’s fights were scheduled for the 15 round Championship distance, so in this blog I will cover the 15 defining rounds of The Greatest’s career.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis are the only fighters in history to win The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year on more than three occasions, Louis picking up the historic award four times, Ali on a surely never to be matched- six occasions.
He is the only 3-time Lineal Heavyweight Champion in history and he won 5 out of 6 fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, who most would consider to be 3 of the top dozen fighters to ever fight in the Heavyweight division, the most historically stacked division of all.
In the 1960′s Muhammad Ali’s in-ring greatness was down to his speed, agility, footwork and athleticism. In these departments Ali was at a level which had never been seen before at Heavyweight, he was a Heavyweight who could move like a Lightweight. His ability to dance and fight up on his toes for entire fights whilst weighing over 200 pounds was something the world had never before witnessed.
His unorthodox, original fighting style was so reflective of the man in his individualism and rejection of norms. He also had unmatched psychological strength, which he showed in the first part of his career with a level of self-belief that led him to beat Sonny Liston after six rounds and declare himself to the world as the Greatest who ever lived, aged just 22 years old.
The best examples of Muhammad Ali’s greatness in the first part of his career came against Cleveland Williams where Ali was perfect, against Sonny Liston where Ali was fighting a champion so dangerous and menacing, he had to be at the top of his game mentally aswell as physically and versus Floyd Patterson, who Ali dominated so emphatically to make look almost second-rate, despite Patterson having a 43-4 record and it being his 12th World Heavyweight title fight.
In the 1970′s Ali’s greatness came from his heart, chin, strategy and in-ring adaptability and intelligence. His psychological strength would play an even greater part in this second half of his career. Ali’s heart would push him through the exhaustion and pain barrier when other men would have said no more, his ability to take a punch to both the head and body showed him to be one of the toughest fighters ever with one of, if not the, best chin ever (quite a turn-up for people who thought his defence was only so good because he was so scared of what would happen if he got hit). His strategies, adaptability and in-ring intelligence showed him to be one of the smartest fighters ever. His psychological strength which came from his powering belief in his God Allah and the causes for which he fought willed him on to triumph on occasions when defeat looked to clasp him in its clutches.
The best examples of Ali’s greatness in the second part of his career came against George Foreman in Zaire (in my opinion the greatest night and fight of Ali- for in this fight he showed everything which made him great) and against Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila.
Ali is not the youngest ever World Heavyweight Champion (Tyson), nor is he the oldest ever (Foreman), his record of 3 time champion has been surpassed (Holyfield), Ali was beaten, Rocky Marciano never lost, Joe Louis reigned longer and made more defences. Yet when I think of the ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ I think of Muhammad Ali. I see him as the true possessor of the Heavyweight crown and everyone since a mere borrower of the title ‘World Heavyweight Champion’. If there could only ever be One True Champion, One King of The Division it would be Ali.
People would dispute that and put forward Ali’s idol Louis. It would be a great fantasy match-up for many reasons, one being it would put Ali in the position of a Holmes or a Spinks when they faced him. Having to try and beat up the man he grew up idolising. If you could remove that mental block by making both men the same age at the same time, well I don’t believe anyone in the history of boxing could beat 64-74 Ali two times out of three and that includes Joe Louis, Mike Tyson or anyone else.
Whereas his status as Greatest of All Time inside the ring is disputed by some who give names such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, outside it Ali’s greatness will remain unmatched. A long book could be written about Ali without even mentioning the fact he was a boxer. His stance against the Vietnam War cost him 3 years of his career at a time when he scarcely looked capable of losing a round let alone a fight. Imagine Lionel Messi after the 2011 Champions League final being banned from football for 3 and a half years for being against a war, it’s unthinkable. But such great injustice was done to Ali and he took it with strength, no self-pity, no hint of regret. If his sacrifice was what his religion taught to be right and if by rejecting Vietnam he was getting millions of Americans who looked up to him to think about whether the war was something they thought was right and wanted to be apart of- then it was worth it.
Ali had an extraordinary love of people. He would sign every autograph, shake every hand, speak to anyone who spoke to him. He wasn’t a presidential candidate, there was nothing to gain from meeting people like this everywhere he went, but for Ali meeting people was reward in itself. He was the most famous person on earth, travelling around with one bodyguard and refusing to leave a place until everyone was satisfied they’d had their own individual fix of The Greatest. His patience for people was limitless as was his time that he would offer to others so willingly. Ali needed the press in the early days, but he certainly didn’t need them after becoming the Champ and one of the most famous men on the earth. But still he chatted with the press more than any other sportsperson, giving them a chance to get to know him and develop a personal relationship with him.
Ali was as generous with his money as he was with his time. It would be impossible to add up all Ali’s charitable contributions as he did not publicise them, all we know is from stories that we’ve heard from his friends. And from what they’ve shared we can gather he was a man who recognised and truly understood the importance of being a high profile person and he valued and made use of his position.
This piece is dedicated to the rounds of Ali’s career which defined Ali the boxer but I couldn’t pass up the chance to briefly mention the man outside the ring. For inside it, he was my favourite boxer ever, outside it, he was my favourite person ever.
Round 1 – vs Sonny Liston II May 25 1965
37 of Muhammad’s 56 Professional wins were inside the distance, of which 2 came in the opening round. Ali rarely threw anything significant in the opening round of fights, preferring to move around the ring, whilst he assessed his opponent’s strength. One time he did though was in his fourth professional fight against Jim Robinson in what was the shortest fight of his career, ‘Sweet Jimmy’ was gone in 94 seconds.
The second and final 1st Round KO of Ali’s career was significantly more memorable and came in the first of the 19 successful World Heavyweight title defences he would make.
After he shook up the world by dethroning Sonny Liston, a rematch was immediately ordered due to the controversial nature of the first fight’s ending. If what the boxing committee’s were after was a more clear cut ending this time out, they most certainly didn’t get it.
The fight was scheduled to take place on November 16th 1964. Finding a venue to take the fight was extremely challenging, controversy was following these two men everywhere and finding a place willing to have them was hard.
The day following the first fight, Cassius Clay announced he was to no longer be known by that name anymore, he was now to be known as Cassius X. Clay was in his words, a slave name, a white name given to his ancestors by their slave-masters. A month later the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, renamed Cassius X as Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meaning “worthy of all praise” and Ali meaning “most high”. Ali was given this new name by the Nation to ensure he remained loyal to them and didn’t leave. Malcolm X had left the Nation disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisy and wanted to take his close friend with him. This ensured that wouldn’t happen.
Before Ali was stripped of his titles altogether in 1967, the WBA stripped him of his title before this rematch meaning that only the WBC and The Ring Titles would be on the line this time. Due to the controversial natures of both fighters the WBA refused to recognise Ali as its Champion and Liston as its number 1 contender, dropping him from their rankings. The WBA also used their power to pressure Boxing state commission’s across the country to not give the fight a license to fight in their state. In the end the state of Massachusetts took the fight to be shown at the Boston Garden and their boxing council was therefore suspended by the WBA.
Liston as he did for their first meeting, would go into the fight as favourite. Ali, though given a better chance as champion than he had been as challenger, was still a bigger underdog with the bookmakers than Floyd Patterson had been in either of his two fights with Sonny.
This was because many of Ali’s doubters still remained, he had not silenced them all by becoming the Champion. Sonny fought injured, he threw the fight, the fight was fixed, he’d took Clay too lightly, he hadn’t trained hard, he’d gone in too angry. The list of reasons for Clay’s triumph were endless.
But this time we’d see the real Liston, he’d be determined to erase the humiliation he’d suffered, he’d be better prepared to deal with Ali’s trash talking and mind games, having had the experience of the first fight and he’d train hard this time.
And at first he did, reportedly Sonny had worked his way back to career best shape for their November date. But then 3 days before the bout Ali was rushed to hospital for an emergency hernia operation. He was operated on for 70 minutes and the bout was pushed back six months.
Liston’s motivation left him and never returned. He began to drink heavily, had yet more problems with the law due to driving offences (upon his arrest bottles of vodka were discovered in his car) and as the fight drew closer he seemed to get worse and worse in sparring to the point he looked totally unrecognisable from the fighter he’d been.
The new fight date was set for May 25th but the pre-fight drama wasn’t yet over as 2 and a half weeks before the fight, Boston was no longer to be the fight destination. The search resumed and Lewinston, Maine was decided on (a mill town with a population of 41,000). This was the smallest town to hold a World Heavyweight title fight for 42 years and is to date the only World Heavyweight title fight to take place in Maine.
In the exactly 15 months between the 1st and 2nd bout, a lot had changed. Ali had changed his own name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, had his name changed by The Nation of Islam to Muhammad Ali, he’d met Sonji Roi, he’d married her (and twenty-nine days after this fight he’d divorce her due to her unwillingness to adhere to the rules of Islam, the religion she’d converted to, to be with Ali), he’d fallen out with his once great friend Malcolm X over the latter’s decision to leave the Nation and convert to Sunni Islam (a switch Ali would later also make), and a few months before the fight Malcolm X was killed, assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam, who put 21 bullets into the 39-year old.
If the build-up before the first meeting had been unpleasant, this time around it was 50 times worse. The arena which held just 4,900 seats was under half-filled. There was tangible fear in the air that night. That the Nation of Islam would assassinate Liston, that the mob or a Malcolm X follower would assassinate Ali. There were even reports of a bomb threat, and security for an event of that time was unlike anything before it.
The belief among the media was that the Nation of Islam was going to attempt to muscle in on boxing and control fighters in the way the mob had done for many years. The Nation of Islam had no interest in boxing beyond Ali. They thought it degrading to black people to fight each other in order to make profit for the white man. But they recognised the importance and value in having the Heavyweight Champion of the World as an outspoken member of their cause, knowing how far afield his words would be reported and therefore what an effective recruiter he could be.
Liston landed just one punch on Ali in the entire fight, he threw several but all but one were a long way short. He stalked forwards but just as in the first fight he couldn’t get close to Ali, who bounced and moved around the ring on his toes. The infamous punch that dropped Liston was the sixth of the fight Ali threw and the fifth he landed. These weren’t flurried taps either, these were hard shots.
The punch that caused the knockdown and subsequent knockout is to this day one of the most debated over and controversial moments in the history of Boxing.
Liston threw a left hand, Ali pulled back to avoid it and in a flash before Liston could bring back his left to protect himself, Ali landed a right bang on Liston’s cheek. Liston fell forwards, landing on his gloves and with his knees still off the canvas he tries to scramble away from Ali who has his fist cocked ready to land another blow, Liston rolls over onto his back and lies completely flat for a few seconds whilst referee Jersey Joe Walcott tries without success to get Ali to go to a neutral corner. Ali is shouting and gesturing at Liston to get up, Ali is eventually moved away from Liston but he is now jumping around the ring wildly. Liston tries to get back to his feet with sudden quick movements but then slowly collapses back to the floor, he eventually gets back on his feet and the referee goes to check on him, he then leaves the fighters to go over to the timekeeper who he could not hear as he did not have a microphone.
The fighters resume for a few seconds before the referee rushes over to separate them, the timekeeper had counted Liston out unbeknownst to the ref, the fighters or anyone else. Ali is declared winner by knockout.
So what the hell happened here? well the mood of the time led people to conclude it was a fix. Liston had took a dive. There were several possible reasons why he would do this, none particularly far-fetched. Maybe the mob had insisted he throw the fight so they could clean up with the bookies by betting on Ali, it wouldn’t exactly be the first time a mob-owned fighter had been instructed to throw a fight, or maybe Liston bet on himself to lose as he owed the mob money and this was a way he could get their money, maybe the Nation of Islam had paid Liston to lose or made a threat against his life should he win the fight.
Why the Nation would doubt Ali’s ability to win the rematch when he’d already beaten Liston is a little unclear, though as they were still new to Boxing and Ali perhaps they were still unaware of how good he was and still believed as the bookmakers did that Liston was the big favourite.
It’s also possible the knockdown was legit. Ali was not a devastating knockout puncher ala a Tyson or a Foreman but he was a big, strong guy who had punching power that deceived opponents who bought into the press’s shtick that he couldn’t hit hard. If you think the same look at fights v Alex Miteff, Bonavena and Richard Dunn and you will see Ali drop guys with single shots.
That said none of those guys were Sonny Liston, a man who’d never been dropped before, who’d gone toe to toe with Big Cat Cleveland Williams the man who throws bombs over 5 rounds across 2 fights and come out victorious on both occasions, walking through Williams’ best shots.
But then again that was prime Sonny Liston of five years earlier and it wasn’t the same Liston. The birth certificate Liston used had him born in 1932, though reports into his birth find it more likely he was born in 1930 which would have put him in his 35th year by the time of the Ali rematch.
It’s also unlikely to be the power that dropped Liston, but the speed of the shot which was blink and you’ll miss it fast. Also the fact that it caught him unsuspecting as he didn’t see the punch. He was on the attack and though used to Ali making him miss, he was not used to Ali making him miss and then countering with a great shot.
From there the problem was Ali wouldn’t go to a neutral corner, he was too hyped up and seemingly angry with Liston, the referee therefore couldn’t begin his count and the timekeeper couldn’t be heard without a mic. The timekeeper had counted Liston out before the ref even got a chance to begin counting. It’s possible Liston was knocked out thanks to the lack of control the ref and timekeeper had over this moment, and if he’d been aware of the count he would’ve got up on time.
Everyone will have their own take on the events that unfolded. In my opinion, the knockdown was legit, Ali caught Liston with a fast, hard shot he didn’t see and it knocked him off balance and to the floor. From there everyone assumes Ali was furiously yelling at Liston to get up because he felt he was deliberately throwing the fight. What’s often overlooked is Ali was the greatest showman, an entertainer and he would often act up like this for the crowd, when he wasn’t really as angry as he was making out to be. Here, everyone believes he was truly angry as it suits the narrative of Liston deliberately throwing the fight.
So the knockdown was I believe legit, but was the knockout? I believe Liston could’ve got up inside 10 seconds if he wanted to. His second fall after trying to get to his feet looked comically fake (that said boxers have ofttimes looked rather ridiculous in the act of trying to get to their feet after a knockdown). But would he have got up in time had he been able to hear a count if referee Jersey Joe Walcott been able to get his started? possibly, I doubt it.
I don’t think Liston wanted to be in there with Ali. He thought Ali was a crazy man and that was the only type of man that scared him. He knew he hadn’t trained well and that Ali was much younger and much quicker. I think he wanted to take his pay check and get out of there. Away from Ali, away from the Black Muslims and away from anyone else who may want to kill him or accidentally kill him in a bid to kill Ali.
This was Liston’s last ever fight for the title. After over a year out he returned and won 14 in a row, he was thought to be just one fight away from a fight with the winner of the Joe Frazier-Jimmy Ellis unification bout but in that last fight he was knocked out in the 9th by a former sparring partner. He fought only once more after that and died in mysterious circumstances six months later.
It was a sad but fitting ending to the career of Sonny Liston. And whilst Jack Johnson is acknowledged as the black man who destroyed the myth of white superiority in the ring by beating up any great white hope they put infront of him, whilst Joe Louis is acknowledged as the first black man who was a hero and even an idol to white youngsters, the third great black Heavyweight Champion, Sonny Liston is mostly remembered for his 2 disastrous fights which gave birth to Muhammad Ali.
If the White Media had any idea what the next Heavyweight Champion of the World was to be like, they’d no doubt have been a bit kinder about Sonny. Who as an illiterate and a man of very few words could have been a champion tolerated by the White media if they’d allowed him to tidy his act up and change.
Round 2 – vs Cleveland Williams November 14 1966
Muhammad Ali on the other hand, was certainly not a man of very few words. Nicknamed ‘The Louisville Lip’ Clay was calling out Patterson and Liston just 9 fights into his pro career. He wrote poetry which he shared at every opportunity, he nicknamed his opponents and even declared which round he would knock ‘em out. Amazingly he was very often right. Taking inspiration from the Wrestler Gorgeous George, Clay quickly realised the value of trash talking and self-promotion. An early example of Clay’s ability to sell tickets came in 1963 when he fought fellow contender Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden. It was the first sell-out there for 12 years when Rocky Marciano fought Joe Louis.
He called himself the prettiest, the greatest, said his opponent was a bum, didn’t belong in the same ring as himself, that he would kiss his opponent’s feet in the ring and leave the country for good if he was made to eat his words. And people tuned into see his fights, or they bought tickets for the fight. Ali would win and the act would start out all over again for the next fight. He was a reporter’s dream, he talked and talked and talked.
But then Clay became Ali and started to talk about other things. Things that made the media more uncomfortable. He spoke at length about religion and his leader Elijah Muhammad. And when asked about his religions views on segregation and white people, he didn’t tiptoe around the issue. He tackled the questions head on. Black people had built America through slavery, and now was the time for America to pay black people back by giving them their own land, If America was 10% black people, give them 10% of the land. On segregation he said integration doesn’t work. Slavery, lynchings, castrations, torture of Black people by whites proved integration doesn’t work. On white people he said all his life he had been whitewashed to believe everything and everyone good was white. Jesus, the apostles, angels and Santa Clause to name a few. He also agreed with the Nation’s opinion of the American White man as a blue eyed devil, citing four hundred years of ill treatment from whites to people of darker colours.
As time has moved on, Ali’s views at the time can be quite shocking and disappointing to his fans who were not around at the time, even though Ali certainly did not hold the same views long into his life.
But it was rather hypocritical of the media at the time to criticise Ali’s want for segregation when they already lived in a country with segregated buses, toilets and water fountains. Ali’s wish for segregation is I think understandable given how bad life was for most black people living in America at the time, and with slavery only officially ended 100 years earlier, most living blacks had parents, grandparents or great grandparents who had been slaves in America.
Ali saw great injustice done to blacks by whites, he saw the hatred whites had for blacks and he couldn’t see a way they could live side by side in peace. He saw that Germans were made to feel more welcome and at home in America after 2 World Wars and Japanese after Pearl Harbour than blacks were who’d lived in America their whole lives. It’s easy to understand how he couldn’t envision an America like today at that time. America ofcourse is not free of racism or white privilege but it is still an enormously better place to live for Black People now than it was in the ‘60s. But at the time Ali’s views on this- completely understandable and supported by facts. But the media expected any Black figure of prominence to support MLK’s civil rights movement rather than The Nation of Islam’s views which Malcolm X popularised.
As for the white man being described as the devil, it seemed the media only accepted a race of people being compared to something inhumane when it was them doing it to black people- calling them beasts and monsters etc. They took great offence at being called devils. But again there is four hundred years of evidence to back up why a Black person could feel in his or her right to feel that way about white people. But though easy to do so in that position, you cannot judge a whole race of people from the evil actions of some, even if many, and Ali never hated white people as a whole, or hated anyone because they were white, he hated the actions of many of them towards blacks.
For me the most disappointing and inexcusable viewpoint of Ali in his lifetime were his views on interracial marriage which he opposed. This view seems so out of sync with a man so full of love and care for all people. I am unsure if he held this view for his entire life or if at some point it changed like his other extreme viewpoints, I hope it did though it’s possible it didn’t.
Two years after joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, he dropped an even bigger bombshell which would ensure he was a topic of conversation across every living room in America.
One month before the first Liston fight Ali then Clay took a military qualifying examination, the passing grade was 30%, Ali scored 16. But by 1966 with the war in Vietnam growing, the passing grade for the mental aptitude test was lowered to 15%, making Ali eligible to go to war.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” –Ali to the press the day he was informed his draft status had changed and he was now eligible to join the U.S Army in Vietnam.
Ali’s remarks about having no quarrel with the Vietcong, enraged America like nothing he’d said or done before. He had a bout scheduled for Chicago with WBA Champion Ernie Terrell for the chance to win back the belt he’d been stripped of, but following his remark pressure was put on the state of Illinois to withdraw hosting of the bout. After Ali refused to apologise for his remark, that’s what they did so Ali instead went to Canada to fight their champion.
For over 5 decades, there had been just two World Heavyweight titles fights outside of America, that was until Ali had 3 fights on European Soil, two in England, one in Germany, making for four consecutive Heavyweight title fights outside of America. Ali was known for his love of travelling the world but this was done mostly due to the difficulty of getting him a fight in the States.
Ali’s first fight back on home shores since he hit Floyd Patterson in the face with about one thousand jabs was to be against Cleveland Williams. Before Ali was exiled from Boxing and making his comeback, another 6 Foot 3 Black American Heavyweight was making a comeback of his own. Cleveland ‘Big Cat’ Williams was just shy of 500 days out the ring after he was shot in an altercation with a highway patrolman, the bullet hitting his stomach before lodging in his right hip. Four operations in seven months ensued, with Williams in the end having his right kidney removed. Doctors were unable to extract the bullet so Williams fought with the bullet inside him for the remainder of his career.
Aswell as a kidney and 17 months of his career, Williams also lost 60 pounds in weight due to injury and surgeries and over 10 feet of his small intestine. To add further insult to injury, he also had to spend some time in prison during this time after pleading no contest to charges from that incident.
Despite the long absence through injury, the vastly experienced Big Cat’s first and only attempt at the World Heavyweight crown was his 72nd Bout in the ring, he entered with a record of 65 wins, 5 losses (including 2 in a combined 5 rounds against Sonny Liston) and one draw.
The Ali fight was the Fifth of his comeback, he’d won all four leading up to the fight (including one on points against Sonny “Policeman” Moore, which may have felt bitter sweet) but it was already crystal clear the 33-year old was no longer the fighter he’d been before the shooting.
In his prime, Williams was considered a legitimate contender, his power was no joke (George Foreman, who sparred with him, called him one of the top 3 punchers he’d shared a ring with) but by the time of this fight he was given no more than a punchers chance up against Muhammad Ali, a world class Heavyweight at the very top of his game.
Ali knew he was facing a quite literally, shot fighter and was very aware of the huge gulf between himself and his opponent and in a regular moment of in-ring compassion (though these are acknowledged a lot less than his dragged out beatings of Patterson and Terrell) seemed determined to end the fight quickly rather than prolong Williams’ suffering over many rounds and really hurting him.
In the first round Ali danced and moved, shooting and landing mostly single shots but given the ease with which he was hitting Williams and evading his punches, he even at times stood in close with Williams landing some hard blows, which is unlike Ali for a first round.
In the second round, Ali hit Williams at will like he did with many fighters at this time in his career. But this time he was hitting with such force his opponent couldn’t cope with it. Williams was dropped three times by Ali in the second including twice right at the end of the round. The bout should have ended there, Williams was flat on his back and would never have got up in time but he was ‘saved’ by the bell and referee’s were a lot more willing to just let fights go on in those days.
Ali then dropped Williams again 25 seconds into the 3rd round with the referee for some reason again allowing the fight to go on. Ali continued his assault until after 1 minute and 8 seconds of round 3 the ref finally decided Williams had had enough.
The Cleveland Williams performance is considered one of if not the best of Ali’s career. Aesthetically and artistically it surely is, it was an absolute masterclass in the sweet science, the act of hitting without being hit, inflicting damage without taking any back. Ali himself has called it ‘the night I was at my best’ and you’d struggle to find anyone who disagrees with him on that. Just to complete this Ali performance and make it true vintage Ali, this was also the night he brought out ‘The Ali Shuffle’ for the first time as a pro, it hadn’t been seen since the Olympics.
Round 3 – vs Jerry Quarry October 26 1970
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam when so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.” –Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali’s scheduled induction into the US Army was set for April 28th 1967. Before this date the Champ had three options. He could flee the country, move to Canada like a lot of men who resisted the draft or in fact he could move to any country on earth. He had the wealth to move anywhere and the popularity outside of America to be welcomed as a hero anywhere. Though the boxing organisations would still have stripped him of his titles and prevented him from fighting for them, he would still have been free to continue boxing and earning a good living through his skill.
“The United States is my birth country. People can’t chase me out of my birth country. I believe what I believe. If I have to go jail, I’ll do it, but I’m not leaving my country.” –Muhammad Ali on fleeing America to escape The Draft.
Option 2 he could accept the draft and with negotiation from his management team, he would have gone to Vietnam to fight exhibitions for the troops just like Joe Louis did during WW2. He wouldn’t even have to wear the US Army uniform. With Ali’s wealth and status as one of the most famous men in the country, there’s no doubt he could have avoided seeing and participating in the warfare in the jungles and villages of Vietnam.
“It would be no trouble for me to go into the Armed Services boxing exhibitions in Vietnam or travelling the country at the expense of the Government or living the life not having to get out in the mud and fight and shoot. If it weren’t against my conscience I’d do it. I wouldn’t lose the millions that I gave up and my image with the American public. I wouldn’t jeopardise my life walking the streets of the South and all of America with no bodyguard If I wasn’t sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad tells us, which is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of nonbelievers and this is not a Muslim country.” –Muhammad Ali on refusing the draft.
Or option 3, he could remain in America, refuse the draft, be stripped of his titles, his boxing license, his passport and face up to five years in jail.
“I refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States because I claim to be exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam” –Muhammad Ali, written statement to the Lieutenant of the US Navy, the day of his induction.
On April 28th he chose Option 3. 26 young men were called for induction that morning, but only 25 would be soldiers by the days end. “Cassius Marcellus Clay” was called but Ali remained motionless. The consequences were at this point made clear to Ali which he acknowledged he understood. When his birth name was called a second time, Ali again did not step forward.
“I am proud of the title ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ which I won on February 25,1964. The holder of it should at all times have the courage of his convictions and carry out those convictions not only in the ring but throughout all phases of his life. It is in light of my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted into the armed services. I have searched my conscience, and find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call. I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand- either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.” –Muhammad Ali in a written statement to the press after refusing induction.
One hour after Ali refused induction, The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license and withdrew recognition of him as Champion. Soon after, the rest all followed suit.
On June 20 1967 Ali was tried for refusing induction into the United States Army and found guilty twenty minutes later, he was sentenced to the maximum allowable- Five years imprisonment. Following Ali’s convictions and sentencing, the judge confiscated Ali’s passport terminating his boxing career.
With boxing no longer an option, Ali did other things to keep himself busy whilst he waited for the outcome of his appeals. He continued to attend Nation of Islam meetings across the country, he began touring college campuses giving speeches on the war and the teachings of the Nation. He also married his second wife Belinda Boyd.
Whilst Ali’s case continued to go through appeals, Government surveillance on him continued and he actually went to prison for the first and only time in his life, sentenced to 10 days for driving without a license. Ali hated prison but was still willing to go for the considerably longer time of 5 years if necessary.
“Jail is a bad place. I was there for about a week and it was terrible. The food is bad and there’s nothing good to do. You look out the window and everyone else seems so free. Things you take for granted like walking down the street or sleeping good you can’t do. A man’s got to be real serious about what he believes to say he’ll do that for five years but I was ready if I had to go.” –Muhammad Ali.
Ali was temporarily suspended from the Nation, after telling Elijah Muhammad he would not return to boxing, he then told a television programme he would if the money was right which Elijah Muhammad saw as betraying religion for the white man’s money, but he was soon allowed back with the discrepancy forgiven.
Ali also tried his hand at theatre, appearing in a musical on Broadway. Praise flew in for his role, with words and phrases such as ‘does himself proud’, ‘innate dignity’, ‘likeable actor with humour and appealing sincerity’ used. Drama critic Richard Cook called it ‘a strangely dignified and impressive appearance. Ali sings distinctively and musically, and is much better at it than many other non-singing leading men who have taken top musical roles.’
Ali never gave up on the dream of regaining the Heavyweight championship he had never lost inside the ring, and behind the scenes people worked frantically to get him a license to fight. He came close to being allowed one in California, Nevada, Montana and Tijuana, Mexico but each time it fell through.
All the while, public opinion towards the Vietnam war was changing. At first it had just been Ali and a load of long haired unwashed white hippies calling it wrong. But as the war continued, the body count continued to rise and the end of war still wasn’t in sight, a lot of people began to see the war and Ali differently. At the very least lots came to understand and respect his decision. No longer a draft dodging unpatriotic coward, he was a principled man who stood up for his beliefs and maybe he’d been right about that Vietnam War after all..
The unlikely destination for Ali’s triumphant return to boxing was Atlanta, Georgia. There was no state athletic commission in Georgia, just a mayor who went along with it for the black votes which were controlled by the black state senator who had cut himself a piece of the promotion. Georgia’s governor and several members in congress tried to get the bout stopped but it was in vain, after a 8 round exhibition went off without any hitches, Muhammad Ali was back.
Muhammad Ali was out the ring for 3 years, 7 months and 4 days. He’d been 25 for a couple months when his licence was taken and he was a few months shy of 29 when he could fight again.
1,314 days in which the greatest boxer in the world wasn’t able to box, the world and history deprived of the chance to see Ali at the peak of his powers. Ali was not like the world champions of today who box maximum 2 times a year, he was extremely active. In 1966 he fought five times as defending champion, the following year he fought a 15 rounder with Terrell then six weeks later he was back in action.
During Ali’s exile, we missed out on at least 10 fights. When the ban came into force Ali was just getting into his prime, just turned 25, the gulf between him and the rest of the field was growing. Ali in his early years had been more prone to showboating at the wrong moment and getting caught and dropped. But since winning the title, those errors had completely gone. His experience was growing, aswell as his strength and his size and fighters just could not tag him clean.
To have a chance in a fight, you have to be able to hit your opponent. Ali as champion before his exile, would not give his opponents that chance, he was simply too fast.
Ali on his return would be a different Ali, not the same fighter. Over 3 and a half years of inactivity meant that Ali’s legs were never the same, he could not bounce and move on them for 15 rounds like before. Though still fast, he was not as elusive, fighters would now get that chance to tag him. Only what they found was that Ali had replaced his ability to avoid punches with an ability to take punches. And in place of unmatched legs that would dance him away from punches for 15 rounds, was a chin and a heart that were also unmatchable.
Ali in his time in exile had transcended the sport, he was more than Boxing, more than Sport. He was a figure who stood for believing in something and standing up for what you think is right no matter the consequences. His popularity which went outside of the usual boxing crowd due to his college tours, religion and anti-war views meant he had more earning power than ever before. And Ali earned more for the comeback fight than he did in any of his previous World title fights.
The opponent for the comeback fight was Jerry Quarry who the year before had been in the Ring Magazine fight of the year when he challenged Joe Frazier for his world title, being stopped after the 7th round on cuts. He was considered the best White Heavyweight in the world, a tough fighter with very good punching power.
“I’m not just fighting one man. I’m fighting a lot of men, showing them here is one man they couldn’t conquer. Lose this one and it won’t just be a loss to me. So many millions throughout the world will feel sad, they’ll feel like they’ve been defeated. If I lose, for the rest of my life I won’t be free. I’ll have to listen to how was I bum and how I joined the wrong movement. I’m fighting for my freedom.” –Muhammad Ali before his comeback fight.
For the first time in his career, Ali was facing a fighter younger than himself, a top bracket fighter who Joe Frazier said would have been World Champion if he didn’t cut so easily. And it was a cut that would decide this fight.
Ali dominated the first round in front of a buoyant mostly black crowd including some of the biggest names in Black America at the time. But in the 2nd round his pace had slowed and Quarry hit him with a big hook to the body. In round 3 Ali was standing and trading with Quarry, no longer on his toes, which gave Quarry a great cause for optimism. But that round was the final round of the fight, Ali had opened a huge cut over Quarry’s eye and the referee ruled it was too bad to continue.
Ali had taken a solid first step to recapturing his crown, but his doctor Ferdie Pacheco observes the changes that occurred in Ali as a fighter pre and post exile: “When Ali was young he was the best physical specimen I’ve ever seen. If God sat down to create the perfect body for a fighter, anatomically and physiologically, he’d have created Ali. Every test I did on him was a fine line of perfect. His blood pressure and pulse were like a snake. His speed and reflexes were unbelievable. His face was rounded, with no sharp edges to cut, and on top of that his skin was rough. In those days I was Ali’s doctor in case something happened but it never did. After the layoff it was a different story. After the layoff his hands went soft. When Ali threw punches in fights he was in pain so before each fight we’d numb his hands with shots. His legs were a more serious problem. The legs are the first thing to go in a fighter. And when Ali went into exile, he lost his legs. Before that he’d been so fast, you couldn’t catch him, he’d never take punches. He’d been knocked down but he’d never been hurt or taken a beating. In the gym he’d work with Luis Rodriguez, the fastest welterweight in the world, and Luis couldn’t hit him. When he lost his legs, he lost his first line of defence.”
What he lost in speed he would gain in experience and in-ring intelligence. Referee Arthur Mercante said of the second coming of Ali: “Ali knew all the tricks. He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching. Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out. Ali was so smart. Most guys are just in there fighting, but Ali had a sense of everything that was happening, almost as though he was sitting at ringside analysing the fight while he fought it.”
Round 4 – vs Henry Cooper I June 18 1963
A 12 year old Cassius Clay’s first introduction to boxing came when his bike was stolen and he was advised by Joe E. Martin, a Police Officer and boxing coach, that he better learn how to fight if he wanted to ‘whup whoever took it’. From there he went on to have an outstanding Amateur career, winning six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles (fitting for a kid nicknamed GG by his mother, due to that being the sound he would always make in his crib) and an AAU National Title before his Amateur Career culminated at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where an 18 year old Clay won Gold for America in the Light Heavyweight Category (”To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole”).
Reports of his complete Amateur record vary from 100-5 to 137-7, there are even claims he had in the region of 175 amateur bouts. Due to less than stellar record keeping at the time, we’ll never know the exact figure, but what we can be sure of is- he won a lot and he lost rarely.
“I’m the double Greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round.” –Cassius Clay.
Ali then Clay first met Angelo Dundee in 1957, when the 15-year old Clay set out to him his plan for future Olympic gold and the World Heavyweight Championship. At the end of 1960 he became Clay’s trainer and was in his corner from his 2nd fight to his last (missing only the Ellis fight when he was in the opponent’s corner). The partnership was one of the greatest in the sport’s history. Dundee is renowned as one of the greatest trainers ever working with 16 World Champions and he knew exactly how to treat Ali never dictating to him as Archie Moore had previously tried which only caused him to rebel.
Ali said of Dundee: “Angelo Dundee was with me from my 2nd pro fight. And no matter what happened after that, he was always my friend. He never interfered with my personal life. There was no bossing, no telling me what to do and not do, in or out the ring. He was there when I needed him, and he always treated me with respect. There just wasn’t any problem ever between us.” Dundee knew what a great fighter he had on his hands when Clay sparred with Ingemar Johansson. Clay was 19 with just four fights under his belt, Johansson was preparing for a third fight with Floyd Patterson looking to become 2-time World Champion.
“When he sparred with Johansson, it was the greatest defensive boxing exhibition I’ve ever seen. Here was a boy who’d had four professional fights, and he made a monkey out of Johansson. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since.” –Gil Rogin, writer for Sports Illustrated.
In his early years after turning professional, the 4th round was a good one for Ali then Clay. His first ever stoppage came in the 4th in his 2nd pro fight against Herb Siler. After being dropped for the first time in his 11th fight against Sonny Banks he came off the canvas to stop his man in the 4th. He stopped his next two opponents also in that round and then did the same against his former trainer Archie Moore. Former World Light Heavyweight Champion Moore was the only man to fight both the great Rocky Marciano and the great Muhammad Ali. He was the second of only 2 men to put The Rock on the floor but by the time he fought Clay he was a month shy of his 46th Birthday and fighting his 218th pro fight. He would fight only once more with the Clay fight being his 23rd and final loss. Clay predicted “Moore must fall in Four” and just like against Banks, his fourth round prediction proved accurate.
Ali fought sixteen times outside the US, the first being against Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium, London. Cooper was Ali’s final preparation fight before he’d fight for the World Title eight months later against Sonny Liston. Cooper was an experienced 33 year old with 27 wins in 36 fights. The Commonwealth Champion was matched against the 21-year old Clay by Clay’s management to give him new experience against a tough opponent.
Clay predicted Cooper would take him 5 rounds to knock out. That prediction didn’t look likely when right at the end of the 4th round he was hit by ‘Enry’s Hammer’ a left hook which landed flush on Clay’s jaw, lifting him off the canvas and down into the ropes where he fell from the middle rope all the way down to the floor. The bell to end the round sounded and he stumbled back to his corner.
Clay had given Cooper a very bad cut after 2 rounds but seemed to be in no rush to try and get the fight stopped, perhaps wanting to make good on his 5th round prediction. In the 3rd and 4th he threw very little instead clowning with his hands down, taunting and dancing. The big punch looked as though it would turn the tide of the fight giving the Englishman a shock upset but the ropes prevented Clay from having a heavy fall and the bell sounded to end the round just after the punch was landed.
Clay’s head was still scrambled when he was sat on his stool so Dundee put some smelling salts under his nose which would have resulted in a DQ had he been caught. He also noticed a small tear in Clay’s gloves so he tugged at the tear trying to buy his fighter more time by needing the gloves replaced. This bought him only an extra six seconds as the gloves were ultimately not replaced but nonetheless Clay was fully recovered for the start of the 5th round.
He boxed aggressively and busted Cooper’s nasty cut wide open, spreading blood all over his face and the referee had no choice but to stop the bout. Clay promised Cooper a rematch if he was to beat Liston and become World Champion and he did, fighting him again in London this time at Highbury Stadium. Now Ali, he boxed much more carefully this time, not letting Cooper hit him on the inside, keeping his man tied up and staying concentrated throughout the bout which he won in 7.
Round 5 – vs Sonny Liston I February 25 1964
“When the referee was giving us instructions, Liston was giving me that stare. And I won’t lie I was scared. Sonny Liston was one of the greatest fighters of all time. He hit hard and he was fixing to kill me. It frightened me, knowing how hard he hit. But I was there; I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight.” –Muhammad Ali.
He was an Olympic Gold Medallist, with lots of amateur experience and a 19-0 (15KOs) boxing record. But still despite this, Cassius Clay couldn’t fight. That was the view of many Boxing writers. He was better at talking than he was at fighting. He didn’t hit hard. He didn’t fight like any Heavyweight they’d ever seen before. He’d been dropped twice already in his short career by fighters who were way below the calibre of Sonny Liston, he’d won a close and unpopular unanimous decision against Doug Jones. It was unheard of for someone to fight for the World Heavyweight title after just 19 fights and when Liston got his hands on him it would surely be a short and vicious annihilation.
here’s no doubting Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston was one of the scariest men to ever step into the squared circle, he put fear in Clay like no one before or since had been able to do. Sonny was a gangster, a man moulded by violence, it was all he ever knew. “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating” and the beatings were so severe that Sonny’s childhood scars were forever visible. As a young man he would be known to Police as the “Yellow Shirt Bandit” who led a gang of thugs in muggings and armed robberies. The yellow shirt apparently being the only one Liston owned.
Sonny learned to box in the state penitentiary where he would often face 2 or 3 men in the ring at once. Throughout his life he had frequent run-ins with the law, in 1956 Liston broke an officer’s knee, gashed his face and took his gun. Violence also came with Liston’s management team (who controlled his career as soon as he turned pro) in the form of Organised Crime. Liston for a time worked for them as an intimidator/enforcer.
Liston intimidated professional Heavyweights let alone average joes who owed the Mafia money. Sonny would enter the ring with towels inside his dressing gown to serve as extra padding to make him look even bulkier, especially around his enormous shoulders. He made his way to the centre of the ring for the pre-fight instructions with a towel draped over his head for added intimidation and would then proceed to stare into his opponents eyes/soul. From there it was a brave fighter who could meet Sonny’s eyes for more than a couple of seconds and a good actor to convince ‘The Big Bear’ and indeed himself, that he wasn’t scared to death. That is of course assuming his opponent was willing to meet his stare, one man who wasn’t was World Champion Floyd Patterson who kept his eyes down towards Sonny’s midriff.
Great fighters often have one exceptional quality that gives them that edge over the rest of the field, be it speed, one punch KO power, reflexes etc. for Sonny it was his incredibly long reach. Sonny was six feet one inch tall with a 84 inch reach. Today’s WBC Heavyweight Champion Deontay ‘Bronze Bomber’ Wilder is six feet seven inches and his reach is 83 inches which shows how freakishly long Liston’s arms were. And at the end of his arm’s were 15 inch fists, the largest of any Heavyweight Champion.
Those huge fists were used to punishing effect, his left jab was so powerful people speculated whether he was actually left-handed fighting orthodox. Both his fists seemed equally potent and when he was finishing his opponent off he would switch- left hand, right hand, then back again. He landed hard, measured punches with extreme accuracy wasting no energy on wild, hurried punches and soon his opponent was on the floor.
Against Clay, Liston was making just his 2nd title defence, but he would no doubt have been champion years earlier if Cus D’Amato hadn’t steadfastly refused to let him face his fighter, the Champion Floyd Patterson. D’Amato stated this was due to Liston’s mob connections but mostly it was done to protect Floyd. Despite figures as high up as President John F Kennedy wanting to keep the belt away from Liston, eventually Liston was given his shot and he made short work of Patterson first to take the title (this took Sonny 126 seconds) and then to retain it in the rematch (130 seconds). Patterson would later be nicknamed ‘the Rabbit’ by Muhammad Ali and he was certainly a rabbit caught in headlights here.
Liston was never allowed to escape his past, and there is the heartbreaking story of Liston arriving back at Philadelphia Airport as champion with a speech prepared, expecting to be greeted by a throng of supporters. No such welcome was waiting. Sonny found that nothing had changed and he wouldn’t be allowed to change, he would not be free of ‘The Big Bad Negro‘ label that had been cast on him. He was still hated by the media, by the White House, and by the American public (both white and black, the civil rights groups finding his image damaging to their cause). The Champion no one wanted was now even more unpopular than before.
Despite this, there was still a lot of people looking forward to watching him beat up that brash young black kid who wouldn’t shut up about how Great and pretty he was. More concerning for White America was who he now classed as a close friend, Malcolm X, a preacher for the Nation of Islam, known as the Black Muslims. Clay had been instantly receptive to the Nations teachings of self-respect and dignity for the Black Man (meaning no alcohol, drugs or white women) and Black Pride. What made them more unpopular with white people and some black people though was their being in favour of Black and White segregation (which was also supported by the Ku Klux Klan) and their definition of The White American as a Blue-eyed Devil.
Clay’s association with the Nation of Islam was known, but it hadn’t yet been officially announced to the world that he had become a full member (and the Nation were perfectly happy about this, they like many others thought Liston would destroy Clay which would have been humiliating for them).
The always unpopular Sonny Liston fighting Cassius Clay (who once divided opinion with his braggadocious statements but was now held in complete contempt by most due to his alignment with the Black Muslims) meant that this fight was without the typical Good Guy v Bad Guy narrative that typified Heavyweight Title fights of the time. This caused an LA Times writer to observe it would be “the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin—180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.”
The fight was a foregone conclusion. It would be Liston. By Knockout. Early. One of many Muhammad Ali haters in the boxing press wrote of Clay: “Only in this day of mediocrity could he be fighting for the World Heavyweight Championship. Only in this time of soap bubble promotion could anyone take him seriously when he steps into the ring with Sonny Liston.”
Clay was defiant; “If you want to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny.” It seemed that’s what everyone was doing, as Clay was a 7-1 underdog. Doctor Robbins (the Miami boxing commission’s physician) declared Clay “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death and liable to crack up at any moment.” after a wild performance at the weigh-in where a seemingly out of control Clay had his pulse measured at 110 beats per minute.
It’s the 5th Round now, the fight has gone further than anyone expected. Less surprisingly, Clay is in tremendous pain and he is being hit fairly regularly by Liston. This wasn’t the case in the first 4 rounds as Clay danced around the ring, constantly moving, making Liston miss and landing lightning fast combinations of his own. In the 3rd Liston found himself cut for the first time in his career, a Clay combination forced a gash under both of Liston’s eyes, it’s been equivalated to the armour plate on a battleship being pierced.
But just when Clay looked in complete control, disaster struck. Clay had got on his forehead the solution Liston’s corner had applied to their man’s cuts and perspiration carried the substance down into both of Clay’s eyes (or atleast that’s one version of events. Another is that Liston’s handlers deliberately blinded Clay by rubbing illegal medication into Liston’s shoulders, which would then drip into his opponents eyes during a clinch. Two of Liston’s previous opponents Eddie Machen and Zora Folley complained of a burning sensation in their eyes when fighting Liston). And suddenly, just like that. He was in blinding pain, he couldn’t see and he was incredibly confused.
“This is the big one, daddy. Stay away from him, Run!” -Angelo Dundee to his blinded fighter.
In a panic, Clay called on his trainer to cut his gloves off, he’d never experienced this before. His eyes were aflame and he suspected foul play (fuelled by Nation of Islam friends, he’d become increasingly paranoid Liston’s mob management would not allow him to win the fight).
Trainer Dundee kept his fighter’s stinging, unseeing eyes on the prize. This was for the Championship of the World. Clay stepped off his stool for the fifth round. He was now going to fight one of the most fearsome, devastating punches in boxing history without the use of his eyes.
He took more punishment in this round than in the previous four, but despite this and despite Clay barely landing a blow of his own, it still goes down as one of the most legendary rounds of the most legendary career. Without his eyes (he could see only a faint shadow of The Big Bear) Clay circled and moved frantically around the ring, sticking out his long left arm, so he could feel the distance from Liston to stay out of range as best he could, he used that hand aswell to ruffle Liston and break his concentration. And he made it out the round. And now his eyes cleared. Going into the sixth, he had his sight back. And he was angry now.
“Here’s a fighter who’s supposed to be Godzilla, who will reign for maybe a thousand years. Nobody can stand up to him in the ring. Cassius can’t see, and still Liston couldn’t do anything with him. What can I say? Beethoven wrote some of his greatest symphonies when he was deaf. Why couldn’t Cassius Clay fight when he was blind?” –Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s Physician and cornerman.
Round 6 – vs Sonny Liston I February 25 1964
Clay hit Liston at will in the sixth, with blisteringly effective aggression he landed combination punches again and again. The champion was battered, beaten and bettered, unable to inflict any damage of his own. Liston was tired, he hadn’t been passed the 3rd round since 1960 and he’d trained for a short fight. The much younger man Clay was still fresh, still just as fast. As the round concluded, Liston sat on his stool for the final time that night.
“Wait a Minute, Wait a Minute, Sonny Liston is not coming out! Sonny Liston is not coming out! He’s out! The Winner and The New Heavyweight Champion of the world is CASSIUS CLAY” Howard Cosell- on colour commentary.
Clay became the first challenger since Jack Dempsey 45 years earlier to make the Heavyweight Champion quit on his stool. A shoulder injury Liston had brought with him into the fight was cited as the reason. This reason has always been disputed but a team of eight doctors who inspected Liston’s arm at the hospital afterwards aswell as Florida State Attorney Richard Gerstein were all in agreement, Liston’s arm was too badly damaged to continue fighting. He had a torn tendon which had bled down into the mass of the biceps, causing swelling and numbing in the arm.
Liston’s bum shoulder was the last thing on Clay’s mind. 39 days after his 22nd Birthday, he’d become the youngest fighter ever to take the Heavyweight Championship of the World from the Champion (Patterson won it in an Elimination Tournament after Marciano relinquished through retirement). He’d done it against the most fearsome, indestructible Heavyweight there’d ever been and in just his 20th professional outing.
“I am The Greatest! I shook up the World! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned Twenty-Two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world, I talk to God every day. I shook up the World. I’m the King of The World! I’m Pretty! I’m a Bad Man! I shook up the World! I shook up the World! I am The Greatest! I can’t be beat!” –A jubilant Cassius Clay in the ring following his shock triumph over Liston.
This was his final fight as Cassius Clay and marked the birth of Muhammad Ali as this night marked the transition from boy to man. Due to his respect for Liston’s fighting abilities, for the first time he put together a complete performance, knowing he needed to be at his absolute best.
Round 7 – vs Zora Folley March 22 1967
“This guy has a style all on his own. It’s far ahead of any fighter’s today. How could Dempsey, Tunney or any of them keep up? Louis wouldn’t have a chance, he was too slow, Marciano couldn’t get to him and would never get away from Ali’s jab. There’s just no way to train yourself for what he does. The moves, the speed, the punches, and the way he changes style every time you think you got him figured. The right hands Ali hit me with just had no business landing, but they did. They came from nowhere. Many times he was in the wrong position but he hit me anyway. I’ve never seen anyone who could do that. The knockdown punch was so fast that I never saw it. He has lots of snap, and when the punches land they dizzy your head; they fuzz up your mind. He’s smart. The trickiest fighter I’ve seen. He’s had 29 fights and acts like he’s had a hundred. He could write the book on boxing, and anyone that fights him should read it.” –A conquered Zora Folley waxes lyrical on Muhammad Ali, who he describes as the greatest fighter of all time.
After the masterpiece against Williams, even the biggest Ali critics were forced to grudgingly acknowledge his talent but in his very next fight Ali had them all madder than ever again. Just shy of a year after it was originally scheduled to happen, Ali faced Terrell in the infamous ‘What’s My Name?’ fight.
Before the fight Muhammad Ali took great offence to Terrell’s insistence on calling him Clay rather than Ali. Before their bout, Patterson had also called Ali ‘Clay’ and he responded by toying with the former World Champion and prolonging his beating rather than going for the knockout. He did the same thing here with Terrell only this time he shouted “What’s my name? What’s my name Uncle Tom” at him whilst beating him. The performance was Ali’s most maligned ever as critics lamented the way he had looked to humiliate his opponent by ensuring the one-sided fight went the distance rather than cutting short the beating by taking his man out or stepping on the gas so the referee could step in.
Instead Muhammad Ali gave out as much punishment as he knew Terrell could take and there’s little doubt that if the bout had been scheduled for 30 rounds Ali would have carried his man so he could whup on him until the final bell. Sports writer Jerry Izenberg said of the bout: “If Ali was an evil person, that’s the kind of person he would have been all the time. It was a side to him that was so out of character that to this day I still find it hard to believe it was him. I was there and it was evil. He was trying to hurt Terrell and if you understand boxing you know that means something different to what the uninitiated think it means. Ali went out there to make it painful and humiliating for Terrell. It was a vicious, ugly, horrible fight.”
This time was the peak of Muhammad Ali’s unpopularity, he ofcourse still had many loyal supporters but these were drowned out and dwarfed in number by those who now had him as America’s number 1 hate figure. A draft-dodging coward outside the ring and a bully inside it.
Muhammad Ali was placed under surveillance by the US Government shortly after his “no quarrel with them Vietcong” remark. In August 1966 he had a special hearing in order to put forward his plea to be exempt to the draft as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War on religious grounds.
The hearing officer ruled that Muhammad Ali was of ‘good character, morals and integrity, and sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in War of any form’. He recommended that Ali’s conscientious objector claim be sustained. This recommendation was ignored, his conscientious objector status was rejected.
Coming into the fight with Zora Folley, Ali realised the noose was tightening and this may be the last time he’d be allowed to fight. Again Ali was far too good for his opponent, who was over matched just like everyone was against Muhammad at this time. Ali dropped Foley in the fourth before he finished it in the 7th with a beautiful knockdown which left Folley flat on his face. Folley tried bravely to get back to his face but his legs were not with him and he stumbled around before crashing into the ropes.
And this was the last we would see of prime Muhammad Ali, the fighter most believe to be the Greatest Heavyweight if not boxer of all time. Though Ali would not show his great heart or great chin in the ring until he returned from exile, he did show his great skill. And in his footwork, jab, defence, counters and combinations you had the most skillful and talented fighter of all time.
“Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee! The Hands Can’t Hit What The Eyes Can’t See! Rumble Young Man Rumble AAH!” –Muhammad Ali, often accompanied by Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown.
Ali’s footwork often worked in a circling pattern sequence which he had learned from his idol as a child, Sugar Ray Robinson. This footwork allowed him to cover lots of distance with minimum effort and each step gave him the chance to accelerate, pivot or change direction. Ali had one of, if not the best jab in history, he pushed off the back foot to close the distance and generate power then landed on his lead foot and pushed off it to pivot and dart back out of range.
Muhammad Ali’s defence was even more unorthodox, he called it his lean back style. It relied on his extraordinary reflexes and creative movement. When his opponent attacked Ali would step back, slip the punch and drop his hands even further which encouraged them to get more aggressive. They would then overreach causing their shot to lose power and Ali would then take the weakened shots harmlessly on his shoulders or they would miss all together. Ali was such a good judge of distance he could make an opponent miss with one simple turn of his chin. With one simple movement he could take his head out of range whilst keeping himself in range to counter. Ali used footwork in conjunction with head movement to keep himself out of danger. His defensive footwork pattern was to step back, shift back, angle left, pivot, slip inside whilst changing his head position for each step taken. This often led to his opponents shot flying right past him whilst also putting Ali in a superior position with his opponent more open for Ali’s circling and jabbing. Whilst employing this footwork and movement he would also raise his right hand to block good hook punchers or raise his left hand to block boxers with a good cross. He preferred to parry or deflect his opponents punches rather than make them miss all together as it took more energy out of them.
Ali would also modify his defensive footwork so it enabled him to go on the attack. Stepping back kept his rear hand much closer to his opponent and he would step back then leap into a cross. His effective counter punching came from his opponent beginning to anticipate that Ali would always retreat from their attack. At this point he would stop short of fully retreating. Leaning back and slipping inside he would then wait until he got the perfect distance and throw his counter right. As he moved his head back to avoid the oncoming punch, his hand would come up from below his opponents line of vision. Ali’s glove would arch over their shoulder and snap down on their head. This scored him a stream of knockdowns with his opponents never seeing the punch coming.
Ali modified the footwork he took from Sugar Ray so that it enabled him to throw combinations whilst circling. His favourite was jab, jab, cross in which he used his footwork to generate momentum and increased speed which resulted in a surprising amount of power for a boxer up on his toes.
“He was just so damn fast. When he was young, he moved his legs and hands at the same time. He threw his punches when he was in motion. He’d be out of punching range, and as he moved into range he’d already begun to throw the punch. So if you waited until he got into range to punch back, he beat you every time.” –George Chuvalo, Ali opponent in 1966.
“It’s very hard to hit a moving target, and Ali moved all the time, with such grace, three minutes of every round for fifteen rounds. He never stopped. It was extraordinary.” -Floyd Patterson, Ali opponent in 1965.
“If you put the Muhammad Ali who fought Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley against the Muhammad Ali who fought Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the young Ali would win. When I was older I was more experienced, I was stronger. I had more belief in myself. Except for Liston the men I fought when I was young weren’t near the fighters that Frazier and Foreman were, Williams and Folley were light work. But I had my speed when I was young. I was faster on my legs, and my hands were faster. The young Ali would dance, move, get in and out. He’d beat the older Ali all around the ring. The older Ali wouldn’t quit. Against a young version of me, I’d use the rope-a-dope, make charges and try to knock him out. But I was better when I was young.” –Muhammad Ali on two of the greatest fighters of all time, young Ali before Exile and old Ali after it.
“Ali before the layoff was a better fighter than Ali after. But what a lot of people don’t realise and it’s very sad is we never saw him at his peak. The Ali who fought Williams and Folley was the best he could be at that time, but he was still improving. He hadn’t lost any of his speed, but he was getting bigger and stronger and more experienced in the ring. He was 25 years old when they made him stop, those next 3 years would have been him at his peak. And if he’d continued getting better at the rate he was going, God only knows how great he would have been.” -Trainer Angelo Dundee.
“Ali was an absolute Genius in the ring. He was the fastest fighter who ever lived. Not the fastest Heavyweight- the fastest fighter. People say that Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest fighter who ever lived and at Welterweight he was close to perfection, but when he moved up to Middleweight he was beatable. I took some fight films and measured Ray’s punches through a synchroniser. Sugar Ray threw his jab in eight and a half frames, Ali threw his in six and a half. If you made Sugar Ray Robinson a 200-pound fighter with no loss of speed or coordination, I still think Ali in his prime would have beaten him.” –Jim Jacobs, co-manager and close friend of Mike Tyson, once owned the largest fight film collection in the world.
“I honestly believe that Mike Tyson at his best was the second-greatest Heavyweight of all time, but he wasn’t Muhammad Ali. Mike is quick, but Ali was quicker. Mike has power, but Ali had the greatest chin ever. Mike is prone to frustration, which would be his achilles heel against Ali, because Ali was the greatest fighter in history at playing mind-games with his opponent. If Ali in his prime fought Mike at his best, I see Ali winning a decision; say, eight rounds to four, or nine to three.” –Bill Cayton, co-manager of Mike Tyson.
“Ali had that special belief in himself that allowed him to impose his will on other fighters. This is a guy who took on three of the toughest heavyweights in history- Liston, Frazier and Foreman- and he beat them five out of six. The young Ali would have frustrated Mike. I see Ali coming out, jabbing, moving, talking a lot. If Mike had me in his corner and his head was screwed on right, it would be close. I’d advise Mike to keep his hands high, be elusive, slip, move in, wherever possible work the body. Lots of feints, because Ali was a terrific counter-puncher. Believe it or not, I’d work the jab, even if it was only to Ali’s chest. It would have been an interesting fight, with both guys missing a lot. But even with Mike at his best, I’d give the edge to Ali.” –Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson’s Trainer from 1982-1988.
“Ali at his best beats Tyson at his best. At his core, Ali is a much stronger, more stable person. Probably, the way he’d have fought Mike was to rely on what he did best: jab, score from the outside, stay off the ropes, show a lot of side-to-side movement, neutralise the pressure, make Mike pay when he missed, tie him up when he got inside. After a while, Mike would get anxious and be throwing one punch at a time. Then I think he’d break down mentally, which is the area Ali was strongest. And when that happened, Ali would start putting punches together to punch Mike downhill even more. Finally, when the time was right, without it being too dangerous, Ali would give Mike a reason to fall. I think Ali would knock him out in the ninth or tenth round. But before that, Mike might get so discouraged and beaten mentally that he’d quit the way Liston did.” –Teddy Atlas, trainer who worked with Mike Tyson at the beginning of his career.
“If fighters had a schedule like baseball teams and you could match the greatest Heavyweights of all time at their peak, so Ali was in a league with Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Gene Tunney, you know who the best Heavyweights are, you can put them all on the list. Ali wouldn’t be undefeated; there are guys who would give him trouble on a given night. But I think when the season was over, Ali would be in First Place.” –Mike Katz, Boxing Writer.
Round 8 – vs George Foreman October 30 1974
Muhammad Ali fought just 20 rounds in 1974, in comparison to 48 the year before and 60 the year before that. 20 rounds and 2 fights. There would be no filler fights this year, no fights Ali could coast to points wins in. This time the only fights were against the very best. First Joe Frazier and then George Foreman, Heavyweight Champion of The World.
Muhammad Ali would face George Foreman in Zaire, Africa for the unheard of sum of $5 Million dollars. Don King who was in prison whilst the Fight of The Century was taking place, and reportedly listened to the fight on a radio now had Ali and Foreman signed up to fight for him on the premise each man got 5 Million apiece.
Don King had to shop around to find a country willing to put up such a sum but he found it in Zaire, a country run by President and Dictator Mobutu who was persuaded that hosting the bout in his nation would be high profile exposure for Zaire and would strengthen his regime. Though it was actually Colonel Gaddafi, dictator and leader of Libya who provided the purse money for the athletes and covered other major expenses.
The fight held lots of parallels to Ali’s first fight with Sonny Liston. It was taking place exactly 10 years on. This would be Ali’s 18th fight since his comeback, a similar number to the number of pro fights Ali had had when facing Liston. Ali again was an enormous underdog given no chance against a vicious knockout puncher.
Foreman was 40-0 with a huge 37 knockouts, he was suspected to be maybe the hardest punching boxer, ever. The power he hit the punchbags with was frightening. He also seemed to come from the Sonny Liston school of intimidation. The stare. Words few but full of menace. He was even an old sparring partner of Sonny’s and clearly had picked up a few things as he was considered sneering, elusive and anti-social by the press.
But Foreman surely was not going to befall the same fate as his old mentor. Ali was young back when he beat Liston, fast as lightning, with the stamina to dance and move all night. Liston was an ageing fighter, an old man with question marks over how old, but atleast 32. This time it was Ali who was the 32-year old with his best days clearly behind him fighting Foreman the younger, better man.
Ali going into the Liston fight had won 15 of his 19 previous fights inside the distance. Coming into the Foreman fight he couldn’t punch anymore, his power had gone, his last five fights had gone the distance, and he’d lost one of them. Foreman on the other hand, he’d stopped 24 consecutive opponents. Of those 24 stoppages only 2 had come past the 4th round with 6 in the first round, 11 in the 2nd, 3 in the 3rd and 2 in the 4th.
Two of those incredible 11 2nd round finishes had come against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who had previously beaten Ali. Ali had fought 27 hard rounds against Frazier being dropped once and never knocking his man down, Foreman put Frazier down six times in 5 minutes. Ali had fought 24 hard rounds against Norton having his jaw broken and never knocking him down, Foreman put Norton down three times in 5 minutes. More evidence that Foreman and Ali would be another mismatch in favour of the champion who looked set to reign for a very long time.
But then styles make fights. Foreman could keep the shorter man Frazier from hitting him in a way that Ali couldn’t due to a difference in defensive approach. Whereas Ali relied on his reflexes to keep the shots from landing, Foreman preferred to not let his man throw atall. He blocked the opponent from throwing by pushing their arms and shoulders back so they couldn’t throw the punch. Frazier being under 6 foot and aswell fighting in a crouching style made him ideally suited for Foreman to push down on his shoulders and arms. Foreman would use his long, strong arms to physically shove Frazier back and stop him from getting inside.
Ken Norton was allowed to come forward against Ali, as Ali didn’t have the big punch of a Foreman or a Shavers to back him up. Norton was known to freeze against big punchers, they scared him but against Ali he was always able to be the best version of himself.
In the build-up to Ali v Foreman in Zaire, the fight billed as ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ there was no acknowledgement of Ali’s ability to take a punch, only Foreman’s ability to administer one. It was not conceived as a possibility that Ali would be able to absorb many if any punches from George.
There was one major difference pre-fight between this fight and the Liston fight, before this fight just as before that one, the press knew Ali would lose, knew he would be knocked out, but after following his career for so long, unlike back then they now didn’t want it to happen, they no longer wanted to see him badly hurt which was surely the only outcome.
They weren’t the only ones concerned. Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s long-time manager and son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, gave money to someone in his entourage to give to the referee under the understanding that he would stop the fight if Ali was in danger of being seriously hurt, knowing he’d be too proud to quit. Whether this money ever reached the referee is unknown.
Ali on the other hand, didn’t seem concerned in the slightest, always utterly convinced he would win. He looked at a list of the men who’d been unable to stop the George wrecking machine and dismissed them as nobodies until he reached Vernon Clay. “Clay? he might have been good.”
You think the World was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait ‘till I whup George Foreman’s behind. –Ali with some pre-fight rhyming.
George Foreman had loved Ali as a teenager and when he got into boxing to positively channel his want to fight and bully, he originally wanted to dance like Ali and try to copy that style. His trainer however, had a different style in mind “push him off, hit him hard and knock him out” so that became the George Foreman way, and he did it more effectively than anyone.
Foreman was certain Ali would be another quick knockout, he had no reason in his own mind to think it would be any different to his recent fights and he was perfectly okay with knocking out his former hero. Foreman had at this time not yet found God and was clearly struggling to find the man he wanted to be. At the time he was mean, angry and seemed to enjoy intimidating people.
“Ali boma ye! Ali boma ye!” -The chant Zaireans took up in the build-up to the fight and on fight night itself. It meant ‘Ali, kill him!’
The bout was originally scheduled for September 24 but had to be pushed back as Foreman took an accidental elbow in sparring, slicing open a cut above his right eye. The rescheduled fight would now take place on October 30 at 4 in the morning. October 30th would be Ali’s 55th day in Zaire, he had spent it surrounded by people, mixing with locals, giving impromptu press conferences every day. Foreman however spent much of his time in Zaire, secluded and away from the people.
Like many unusual destinations for sporting events, a murkiness did not lie too far down from the surface. J.J Grimond, The New York Times’ African correspondent at the time, an American living in Zaire tells this story of how President Mobutu dealt with crime in the build-up to the fight, with its swathes of white reporters and watching eyes it would bring on the nation. “It is an amazing structure (Stade du 20 mai, the venue of the fight), do not ignore the design. It is not just a place for receiving people but for processing them, and if necessary, disposing of them. Last spring the crime wave grew so intense, a nightmare for Mobutu if foreigners arriving for the fight should get mugged on masse. So he rounded up 300 of the worst criminals he could find, and locked them in the holding rooms under the stadium. 50 of the 300 were killed. Right there on the stone floor of the stadium. The executions took place at random, no listing them, they just eliminated the nearest 50. The randomness was more desirable. Fear among criminals would this way spread deeper. 250 were let go so they would tell their friends of the massacre. The crime rate is now down. Mobutuism. Africa is shaped like a pistol, say the people here, and Zaire is the trigger. Enjoy the stadium.”
The mood in Ali’s dressing room before the fight could be compared to that of a wake. Silent, glum expressions everywhere you looked. There was fear amongst those present which included Ali’s friends and reporters, in their mind Ali’s walk to the ring would be like walking to the gallows on death row. Ali however saw it differently as the minutes counted down: ”There’s nothing to be scared of. Getting into the ring with Liston beats anything I have had to do again. Except for living with threats against my life after the death of Malcolm X. Real death threats. No I have no fear of tonight.”
In Foreman’s dressing room, Foreman and his team joined hands and prayed. Archie Moore, a former trainer of Ali in the days of Cassius Clay, now a trainer for Foreman prayed Foreman wouldn’t kill Ali: “I really felt that was a possibility.”
30 seconds in Ali lands a clearly hard shot straight into the middle of Foreman’s face which causes the crowd to roar. It must be the hardest punch Foreman has took in years with most men not having the dare to crack Big George like that, let alone so early in the 1st round. The first round was a good one for Ali, he landed some good shots but he’d been concerned at how successful Foreman had been at cutting the ring on him. He’d been pressured back to the ropes a few times and without his guard in position to protect he’d been forced to take some punishment. After 1 round there was another, quite alarming concern for Ali.
“George was following me too close, cutting off the ring. In the first round I used more energy staying away from him than he used chasing me. I was tireder than I should have been with fourteen rounds to go. I knew I couldn’t keep dancing, because by the middle of the fight I’d be really tired and George would get me.” –Ali.
So after one round Ali’s tactics of dancing and moving were out the window. The ring was too slow and he was aware he’d gas out. So from the 2nd round on, he tried a new tactic which he would use in sparring when he got tired. He leant on the ropes and Foreman, thinking he had his man right where he wanted him began throwing lots of leather. From the very beginning this struck everyone as a very bad tactic from Ali. Joe Frazier on commentary said Ali must get off the ropes or Foreman will walk him down and Ali’s own trainer Angelo Dundee had never discussed or considered this a viable option to win the fight, he screamed at his fighter to get off the ropes. But Ali continued his strategy.
By entering the 3rd round it became Foreman’s longest fight for exactly 3 years. Ali continued to land many, fast clean punches. Foreman’s defence was none existent, he didn’t use head movement and Ali was bouncing fast combinations off his head, either countering or beating George to the punch. Foreman on the other hand was having little success. Ali was leaning way back into the ropes, giving himself room to pull his head back far enough so Foreman’s hooks would fly infront of his face.
“That all you got George? They told me you could punch. Show me something, sucker! you ain’t got nothing.” –Ali to Foreman throughout the fight.
As Ali continued to talk to George anytime they were in close, taunting him Foreman started to get frustrated throwing big, wild punches that missed Ali comfortably. The first four rounds all went to Ali as Foreman already seemed to be visibly tiring. Ali would taunt Foreman whenever he missed as he continued to lean back on the ropes, covering up using his big, strong arms to block shots and protect his body and face. After 2 and half minutes on the ropes, throwing very little, Ali suddenly got onto the attack, punching hard at the tired Foreman, landing with ease. Ali was completely controlling the destiny of the fight.
Muhammad Ali’s speed was easily outlasting Foreman’s strength. Foreman’s punches were slow and Ali took them with ease as he continued to talk to Foreman. In the last minute of Round 8 Ali was backed up in a corner, very much on the defensive, Foreman was concentrating on headhunting and Ali’s gloves were up protecting his face. Foreman’s pawing, blocking motion was stopping Ali from throwing any punches at this point and there was a lot of pushing and holding. Then suddenly with 20 seconds of the round remaining Ali absolutely exploded into a life, cannoning a combination off Foreman’s face, Foreman came forward again only to be caught by a hard shot and then another, then circling round, the sudden use of movement confused Foreman and Ali then landed a 5-punch combination. Whilst Ali punches he dances away, circling as he throws keeping Foreman off balance. A powerful whipping hook that Ali threw from behind his back is the most effective punch of the lot and at this point Foreman is done. Ali finishes the job with a cross and Foreman is sent towards the canvas for the first time.
Foreman his arms flailing wildly seems to fall in slow motion as if gravity itself cannot quite comprehend what is happening and can’t yet accept it. Ali stands poised ready to land another blow, but knowing he doesn’t have to. He waits for the inevitable crash as Foreman hits the deck. The roar is deafening, Foreman looks stunned, bemused as if he himself didn’t believe he could ever find himself in this situation. He lies flat on his back with his head raised listening to the count. On 7 he makes his attempt to get up but the count beats him and after 2,619 days without the title he never lost in the ring, Muhammad Ali is the Heavyweight Champion of the World, again.
“Muhammad Ali has done it! Muhammad Ali has done it! The Great Man has done it! This is the most joyous scenes ever seen in the history of boxing! This is an incredible scene. The place is going wild! Muhammad Ali has won! Muhammad Ali has won! By a knockdown! By a knockdown! The thing they said was impossible is done!” –David Frost on commentary.
It was surely the greatest night for Muhammad Ali and his supporters and the finest fight and win of his career. The way in which he controlled the night from the outset confirmed his place as one of the greatest boxing tacticians of all time with his plan executed to perfection.
From the off he hit Foreman with right hand crosses, a punch Foreman hadn’t bargained for as noone in sparring dared try to land it on him, due to it being considered a somewhat disrespectful punch to land, owing to the amount of time it takes to travel the opponent can clearly see it coming. But due to Muhammad Ali’s great speed Foreman still couldn’t stop it from landing.
Then Muhammad Ali immediately sensed the danger of fatigue and set a trap for Foreman. The rope-a-dope as it would become known. What made this Foreman loss so remarkable is he lost in a way that should have guaranteed him a win, by getting to continuously hit Ali. Ali’s footwork, his dancing and movement, that was supposed to be the problem. Instead Ali danced and moved less than he ever had before, stayed against the ropes and let Foreman pound on him. Ali took a few shots that hurt, how could he not facing one of the greatest punchers of all time, but he was able to block, deflect or turn away from most of them. The ones that hit, Ali braced for, he had a sense for the shots that would really hurt, this was easier against Foreman who threw extremely wide shots. So Ali would brace for them and take them, or otherwise he would go with the punches, moving back into the ropes and letting the ropes absorb the force.
Aswell Muhammad Ali never forgot about offence, he took every opportunity to throw straights at Foreman and this was highly effective, puffing Foreman’s eyes. And his taunting was also not without effect, it kept George angry and kept him coming forward without stopping to think whether this tactic was proving effective or not and whether he should look to try something else. The fight being held in Africa too, just added to the sense of magic and wonder at what Ali had been able to do. And made it really the definitive, perfect night in the career of the Greatest of All time and now 2-time Champion Muhammad Ali.
For Foreman, the night was ofcourse a complete and utter disaster. And it would leave scars that did not leave for a long time. Foreman’s self-belief and confidence had taken a huge hit, Muhammad Ali had convinced him he couldn’t punch. Foreman went into a state of crazy delusion, claiming he was drugged or poisoned, refusing to accept reality- that he’d been beaten mentally and physically, out-thought and outfought by the older man.
In April 1975 Foreman announced his comeback from the Rumble In The Jungle in the most surreal of ways. He was going to fight 5 men in one night, one after the other, in 3-round bouts. Ali was present doing commentary. The night ended up being in a way even more embarrassing for George than that night in Zaire. Certainly more bizarre anyway.
The night began with Foreman throwing a fold-up chair at Muhammad Ali before he’d even got into the ring, Ali had already bugged him and he was just getting started. His first opponent was Alonzo Johnson, a fighter with just one fight in the last 10 years. Foreman knocked him out in the 2nd but was shocked to find this didn’t make the crowd chant for him. They began to chant “Ali! Ali!” whilst Ali as I’m sure you can imagine conducted his orchestra, chanting along.
Next up was Jerry Judge a fighter with a 15-3-1 record. Foreman dropped him in the 2nd and the kid was counted out. Then in one of many bizarre moments that night, a few seconds after Foreman and Judge were going through the usual post fight routine of hugging they were suddenly pushing each other and then throwing punches at each other. They fell back into the ropes and then Judge lifted Foreman off his feet and threw him to the floor. With both men on the floor, the respective corners came into the ring to break it up and then began to push each other. The crowd booed Foreman and debris was thrown into the ring. Foreman raised his arms as if this was what he hoped to achieve, but his face said different. Up went the ‘Ali!’ chants again.
The third opponent was Terry Daniels, a fighter who’d won 28 of his first 33 fights up to fighting Frazier for the World title. After losing to Frazier in the 4th he then lost 13 of 19 fights going into this fight with Foreman. The referee stopped the bout in the 2nd at Foreman’s insistence as he felt Daniels was taking too much punishment. Daniels disagreed and wanted to fight on. His handlers poured into the ring angry with the stoppage and Daniels stood with his hands on his hips. As Foreman turned round to see Daniels stood infront of him, for the 2nd time Foreman continued fighting with his opponent after he’d won and again hell broke lose. With both entourages in the ring, this time punches were thrown between them with one of Foreman’s guys landing a punch on one of Daniels’. Foreman took exception to this, angrily pushing his own corner man across the ring, his cousin.
The fourth opponent was Charley Polite, a fighter with a 13-30-3 record. Polite mimicked kissing Foreman as the fighters received instructions. Foreman who’d once stared down Joe Frazier with an eery calm now just 2 years later was being mocked and shown a total lack of respect by a guy with 13 wins from 46 bouts. It was about to get worse. Polite lasted the 3 rounds with Foreman and the worst thing was he survived using Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics. He lay on the ropes whilst Ali in his commentator/cheerleader role shouted instructions to Polite. Instructions Polite followed. Ali would shout “Lay on the ropes! Lay on the ropes! Yeaaa!” during the bout and give a loud, enthusiastic “Wooo!” whenever Polite rallied with some shots.
The final opponent was Boone Kirkman, a man Foreman beat in 2 rounds in 1970. Kirkman also lasted the 3 rounds, but finally, this time when Foreman and his opponent embraced at the end, they didn’t start fighting again after. Foreman then looked to trash talk with Ali, only to find Muhammad Ali had already left the arena, having to go catch a flight.
The night had been a total humiliation for Foreman, who behaved more bizarrely as the night went on. He was jumping around, dancing, throwing silly amateurish punches, walking around in between fights, staring out into the crowd, shaking his head, looking totally baffled as to how it had all come to this in such a short space of time.
I have chose to highlight this night as well as the Rumble In The Jungle, one because it was a highly amusing spectacle (though not for Foreman fans), highly bizarre and never to be repeated. Also because it shows Muhammad Ali didn’t just beat Foreman for one night in Zaire, he continued to beat him mentally day after day, night after night for a long time.
Foreman was the perfect Ali opponent. Ali took the big, bad monster. A man who couldn’t be beat or hurt and he took all that strength and fear and turned it round on Foreman until he was made to look very foolish.
If the Muhammad Ali defeat did serious damage to Foreman’s psyche it was nothing to the damage done in his next defeat against Jimmy Young in 1977. After losing a decision Foreman suffered exhaustion and heatstroke in the dressing room and left boxing aged 28. He found God and as a born-again Christian became a Reverend. 10 years later aged 38 he returned to boxing and after losing 2 title fights on points against Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison. On the third attempt, he won back the belt he lost exactly 20 years prior to Ali in Zaire aged 45 and he would reign as world champion until he was nearly 49.
Foreman became a new man after finding God and always spoke very fondly of Muhammad Ali. He considered Ali to be his best friend and was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.
Round 9 – vs Joe Frazier II January 28 1974
1974 began with Ali v Frazier II, the fight in between The Fight of The Century and Thrilla in Manilla. This was billed as Super Fight II and was the only 12-round fight between the pair and the only non world heavyweight title fight, with both men coming in on equal footing- as former World Champions and contenders needing a win to earn a shot at George Foreman.
Between The Fight of The Century and Super Fight II was nearly 3 years in which Ali fought 13 times, which puts in perspective people’s fume over Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder fighting twice each and having a 14 month gap before their rematch presuming all goes ahead.
“I think that Ali is probably clowning, but there is no question in my mind that Joe Frazier is not clowning. They threw off their respective earpieces, microphones, Joe Frazier’s watch came off, there was a wrestling bout on the floor and we’re really very sorry this happened.” -A gleeful Howard Cosell on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as a brawl breaks out between Ali and Frazier.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier sitting next to each other analysing their first fight shortly before their second meeting in the ring. What could possibly go wrong?
It was clear here that still 3 years on there was still no shortage of ill will between the pair. The tension was palpable in the studio as the two men and Cosell looked over their first fight. Ali acknowledged he had clowned too much in the first fight and promised he wouldn’t do so this time. He kept to his word and never clowned beyond one wink to the ringside reporters, but he appeared never to talk to Joe during this fight, it seemed in fact that the only one who did any taunting was Joe.
On ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Ali did look at times to get under Joe’s skin (as Joe also did back to him) but he also had praise for him and again made clear with Joe present that the negative stuff he said about Joe was done to promote and sell the fight and that he didn’t really mean it. This seemed always to go in one ear and out the other with Joe who never accepted this explanation from Ali.
When it came time to analyse the 10th round, as Frazier landed a shot he referenced Ali going to the hospital after the fight. This got Ali’s back up. “I went to the hospital for 10 minutes you went for a month now be quiet.” Ali quite rightly points out the irony of Frazier’s remark and then calls Frazier ignorant for it. This word deeply offends Frazier who stands up and over Muhammad Ali repeating “Why you think I’m ignorant?” Ali still seated tells Frazier to “sit down Joe! Sit down quick Joe”. At this point Ali’s brother Rahman and another gentleman come over to the scene in order to protect the seated man and restrain Joe. Frazier then addresses Ali’s brother asking if “he’s in this too?” which causes Ali to get to his feet and quickly grab Joe around his back and shoulders pulling him to the floor. Ali seems quite clearly to still be playing around demonstrated in the comical way he grabbed him and the way he exclaimed “Quick Joe!”.
A brawl did however escalate on the floor, with Joe deadly serious, with the two men needing to be separated with in the end around a dozen men coming onto the set to try and split the pair up and then keep them apart. Frazier exited the studio not to return but not before he and Ali engaged in one final verbal spar before the programme was able to cut to commercial.
Ali: Monday Night Boy!
Frazier: Yeah, you be there!
Ali: Monday Night!
Frazier: You be on time.
With the Wrestling match over it was time for the Boxing. Ali had Frazier hurt in the 2nd round wobbling his legs but a bizarre moment where the referee separated the fighters (as Ali moved in on a Frazier who’d been pressured back across the ring against the ropes) thinking he’d heard the bell long before it was due to ring enabled Frazier to completely recover before Ali could go for the kill.
At the halfway point of the fight all 3 judges (2 judges, 1 ref) had Frazier winning just one of the opening six rounds. Ali was this time not taking any punishment from Frazier on the ropes, and he was engaging Frazier in a clinch time and again with Frazier either unable (due to the way Ali held his arms) or unwilling (trying to conserve energy for the later rounds) to fight out of the clinch by banging to the body. Frazier had been able to escape Ali’s clinch near every time in the first fight, being able to out manoeuvre him meant Frazier could continue his attacks up close and personal.
But instead this time Frazier waited for the referee to separate the fighters. Ali in the years since the first fight had been refining his grappling and had worked out a way to stifle Frazier in this position. Frazier was not hurting Ali as he had in the first fight with Ali dancing and moving rather than staying infront of Frazier as he had done for too much of the first fight. When Frazier did land, the shots didn’t seem to be nearly as impactful as in their first fight.
In the 6th round Frazier had begun to get frustrated and impatient. He neglected defence which allowed Ali to take full advantage hitting him at will and continuing to make an increasingly wild Frazier miss. In the 7th and 8th the tide seemed to be changing. Frazier had more success in landing on Ali who had slowed right down. Frazier had begun to time Ali much more successfully, in both landing and avoiding punches. Ali had begun to look sluggish again, throwing shots without much speed or force. Frazier seemed at this stage poised to take command of the fight and dominate its second half as Ali had the first. He had begun talking to and taunting Ali for his lack of power and more concerning for Ali was Frazier was now breaking out of a tired looking Ali’s holds. Right on the bell to end the 8th Frazier landed a huge overhand right which knocked Ali back.
Coming into the 9th round one judge had it 4-3 Ali with one even, the other had it dead even at four rounds apiece and the referee also had it 4-3 Ali with one even. Frazier had won the last two rounds on all three scorecards. Frazier was talking to Ali before the 9th round commenced (this was in the days fighters would stand long before their minute in the corner was up), laughing and mocking him seemingly convinced he had his man right where he wanted him and in truth all the momentum was with him.
Frazier was ecstatic looking, dancing, waving Ali forward, he could hardly wait for the bell to ring. Referee Perez pretty much had to push Frazier back to prevent him from getting to Ali before the bell. Ali on the other hand had to be concerned, 3 years of hard work to get back at Frazier was in danger of being wasted as victory and a meeting with Foreman for the title looked to be slipping out of reach.
The 9th round was key for Muhammad Ali’s victory in this fight as he was able to stop Frazier coming back from a big deficit on the scorecards to lead on one and tie it up on the other two. Instead Ali won a round on all 3 scorecards for the first time since the Second Round. Ali no longer just allowed Frazier to push him back against the ropes, instead he pushed back, forcing Frazier back into the middle of the ring. Ali planted his feet and began boxing with Frazier, no longer willing to back off or dance away. Ali threw a 15-punch combo, hitting Frazier with a torrent of punches.
Ali sensed the urgent need to change as the gameplan was no longer working, and he accepted the need to take risks and he did, willingly going toe to toe against Frazier. This aggressive approach from Ali resulted in him taking some punches back, but he gave out far more and had wrestled (quite literally, by moving Frazier back into centre ring whenever he got close to the ropes) back momentum in the fight.
In the final 2 rounds Frazier searched desperately for the knockout, at times abandoning defence all together as he looked in vain to land the knockout blow. But it wasn’t to be for Frazier, as Ali moved, punched and held his way to the final bell.
In the same way Ali had cancelled out Norton’s split decision win by winning the rematch via split decision, he had now cancelled out Frazier’s unanimous decision win with a unanimous decision of his own taking this fight: 7-4-1, 7-5 and 6-5-1 on the cards.
It was certainly the weakest fight of the trilogy by far, but that is judging a good fight against two of the best fights of all time. Frazier still had some success, landing good hard shots and clearly winning some rounds but Ali appeared now to have a much better tactical understanding of how to beat him and the damage Frazier was able to inflict was certainly a lot more limited.
Round 10 – vs Larry Holmes October 2 1980
60s Ali was the fastest, most skillful, most beautiful fighter. 70s Ali was the most resilient, most intelligent, and still the most beautiful fighter. But 80s Ali just should just never have been in a boxing ring and the reasons why he was can be looked at now.
Ali had said that black people needed to see one of their own get out on top. Sugar Ray Robinson lost his last fight via unanimous decision being dropped by a man who’d only ever knocked one fighter down before, Joe Louis was brutally beaten up in 8 rounds by Rocky Marciano.
Muhammad Ali seemed to have a chance to avoid that fate when he retired in 1979, a year after becoming the first 3-time World Heavyweight Champion in history, and oldest World Heavyweight Champion ever after winning back the belt he lost to Leon Spinks in a split decision by unanimous decision aged 36. He retired The Champ but two years later and a couple of months short of his 39th Birthday he was back trying to win the World Heavyweight title for an unprecedented 4th time against The Eastern Assassin, 35-0 Larry Holmes.
People have differing opinions on when the ideal time was to retire for Ali’s health. Some say as far back as after The Rumble In the Jungle, for other’s The Thrilla In Manila was the final straw, or after the third Norton fight or the Shavers fight. But what everyone can unanimously agree on is: The Spinks rematch should have been the curtain coming down on the most glorious of careers. But it wasn’t.
Ali had spoken for years about retirement, how the next fight would be his last but when it came time to step away he always seemed to want more. But then, it seemed as though Ali would finally be able to stay away from fighting when he retired after beating Spinks, he could retire as Champion, the only 3-time champion and aswell having avenged all 3 of his losses.
From a sporting sense there was absolutely no more to gain from fighting on. From a monetary sense there was- a comeback would earn Ali millions ofcourse and much of the money Ali had gained fighting had gone. Ali was always interested in how much money he could make from a fight, but then once he’d made it he wasn’t exactly a stickler with it and hustlers and hangers-on (and they weren’t exactly in short supply) easily sniffed out his naivety and took whatever they could.
There was also so much about boxing Ali loved. The adoring crowds, the competition. As Angelo Dundee puts it ‘It was in his blood-win or lose he loved boxing.” Boxing had made Ali the most famous man on Earth, it was the only thing that gave him a platform and stage big enough for what he required. This was emphasised by nearly 2 billion viewers tuning in for his comeback fight with Holmes. Ali loved fame, loved people and maybe feared without the boxing his fanfare would lessen as people moved on to new current athletes.
Larry Holmes didn’t begin boxing until he was 19 years old, he turned pro in 1973 and was soon sparring with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, holding his own. By the time he was meeting Ali in a proper fight, he was established as the number one fighter in the world after beating Ken Norton in a close, high quality 15-rounder.
To get a license to fight Ali had a neurological evaluation to ensure he was healthy to fight as a slur in his speech had started to become noticeably apparent. Ali had tingling in his hands when he woke up in the morning and a hole in the membrane that could be enlarged with concussive blows to the head. The clinic’s evaluation was forwarded to the Nevada State Athletic Commission and Ali was granted a license with no follow up on the report.
During his two years out the ring Ali’s weight had gone up to 255 pounds, for this fight he weighed in at 217, his lightest since The Rumble In The Jungle. But it was an illusion. Ali had been improperly prescribed medication for a supposed hypothyroid condition. The drug sped up his metabolism and messed with his body’s self cooling mechanisms. Ali lost a lot of weight and felt fatigued and sluggish.
Ali was prescribed the drug Thyrolar and he took 3 a day believing the pills would be like vitamins. Thyrolar is a potentially lethal drug and noone taking it should engage in a professional fight. Ali was weak, fatigued and short of breath from round one on, he had strength only to lift his arms to protect himself, too fatigued to fight back. His body wasn’t able to cool itself properly and his temperature rose. This led to heat stroke with an intermediate period of slight stupor and maybe delirium.
The fight lasted 10 rounds, of which Holmes won every one on all three judges cards. It was the only time Ali lost a fight without hearing the final bell. Herbert Muhammad gave the signal to end the fight and Dundee pulled his fighter out. But why had the fight taken place in the first place?
Anyone around Muhammad Ali at the time could clearly have seen he wasn’t fit to fight anyone, let alone the Best Heavyweight on the planet at the time. Bernie Yuman, Ali’s friend and promotional manager explains: “Ali had a serenity about him before his fights, he’d be incredibly peaceful and serene. But this was different. He wasn’t peaceful, he was slow. He wasn’t serene, he was drugged out. He was a sick man.”
Not only were the drugs side effects potentially life threatening when paired with a boxing match, Dr. Charles Williams (who had previously been Elijah Muhammad’s doctor) diagnosis had also been speculative and incorrect.
Ferdie Pacheco, who had left Ali’s camp after his fight with Earnie Shavers in 1977 was no longer onhand to protect him from Dr. Williams’ questionable ability. Luckily he was in Zaire in 1974, as he tells it: “In Zaire, he announced Ali had hypoglycemia (which you couldn’t diagnose without a battery of tests which weren’t available in Africa). The one thing you cannot in any way, shape or form do is give someone with hypoglycemia more sugar because whatever additional sugar you put in, you’ll get that much more sugar proportionally. And if you put enough sugar in, the patient will go into an insulin coma. His cure for Ali was to for him to eat peach cobbler and ice cream right before the fight. So what I said was ‘he can’t eat peach cobbler right before the fight because he could get punched in the stomach. Let’s make a sort of orange syrup and give it Ali between rounds.. And that bottle is still out in the jungle somewhere between N’Sele and Kinshasa.”
“All the people involved in this fight should’ve been arrested. This fight was an abomination, a crime. Ali is lucky he lived through the Holmes fight. Ali was a walking time bomb that night. He could have had anything from a heart attack to a stroke to all kinds of bleeding in the head. That fight was a horrible end for a great champion and years later I’m still pissed off about it.” –Ferdie Pacheco on Ali-Holmes.
Even without the effects of thyrolar, Ali was also fighting with early onset Parkinsons syndrome. His speech had deteriorated rapidly over the last few years with his words slowing and slurring. He blatantly should not have been fighting Larry Holmes but the reason he did becomes clearer with these two words: Don King.
Holmes was King’s fighter and a fight against Ali for his comeback fight meant money for Don. A win over Ali also cemented Holmes place as the The Man in the division, giving King a stranglehold over the Heavyweight Division. With King’s own money on the line this time rather than someone else’s it was essential for Don that the fight would take place and that Holmes should win.
“They sacrificed Ali. That’s all it was, a human sacrifice for money and power. And it was more than a matter of Ali getting beaten up. One of the great symbols of our time was tarnished. So many people- blacks, whites, Muslims, Americans, Africans, Asians- believed in Ali. And he was destroyed because of people who didn’t care one bit about the things he’d stood for his entire life.” –John Schulian, Writer.
Holmes went into the fight knowing the same thing Ali knew all those years prior when he fought Cleveland Williams- he was fighting a man who had nothing left. Holmes cried after the fight in his dressing room and visited Ali’s hotel room telling him: “You’re still the greatest, I love you.”
“I want people to know I’m proud I learned my craft from Ali. I’m prouder of sparring with him when he was young than I am of beating him when he was old.” –Larry Holmes
Holmes would rule the division until 1985, racking up a 48-0 record before fighting Michael Spinks. He’d already beaten his brother Leon in 3 rounds but he lost a unanimous decision then a split decision rematch to Michael and was therefore unable to match Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record.
The day after the Ali-Holmes fight, Ali was called by Cus D’Amato who had watched the fight the night before with a 14-year old Mike Tyson. Cus introduced Mike to Ali as a ‘young black kid who is going to Heavyweight Champion of the world someday’. And he would be, just 5 years later. Over the phone Tyson vowed he would pay Holmes back for him when he grows up. He kept this promise knocking Holmes out in the 4th round in 1988.
Incredibly, the Holmes fight wouldn’t be Ali’s last. That would come over a year later and a month shy of his 40th Birthday. The Nevada State Athletic Commission had begun hearings to determine whether Ali should be able to fight again due to his health. So Ali voluntarily relinquished his license to fight in Nevada and pledged not to seek a new one. This left him the rest of the world to fight in.
The fight took place in an unfinished arena in Nassau, The Bahamas against Trevor Berbick. Less than 7,500 people attended the fight, many at a heavily discounted $5, down from $50. The last stand of Muhammad Ali was also only available in 3 million American homes on closed circuit television.
The boxing began late as people arriving to see the fight found they could not get in because the key to the main gate had been misplaced. When the key was found, it was discovered that there were no boxing gloves at the venue. There was also no bell to signal the end of a round; ultimately a hastily procured cowbell had to be used for this purpose. Because of the paucity of paying spectators Berbick refused to fight unless he was paid upfront. The fight started more than two hours behind schedule.
Ali, Berbick and Tommy Hearns (who was on the undercard) had their own dressing rooms atleast. The rest of the fighters were assigned to a sweltering locker room in which they shadowboxed side by side. So Muhammad Ali fought for the final time in gloves that had already been boxed in 5 times that night by other men.
Against Berbick, a fighter much more limited than Holmes, Ali made the first 7 rounds competitive and was in the fight until he became exhausted at the end, comfortably losing the final rounds. But Ali did atleast go out on his feet rather than in his corner. He lost by unanimous decision for the first time since The Fight Of The Century a decade earlier.
Round 11 – vs Leon Spinks I February 15 1978
The Thrilla In Manila had taken much of what Ali had left as a fighter, and what little he did have left after was taken in a extremely tough 15 rounder versus his old foe Ken Norton. But still, in those six successful post-Manila title defences, Ali whilst maybe being a mere shadow of what he was still- beat Chuck Wepner in a fight that inspired Sylvester Stallone to start writing a script for Rocky (Wepner knocked Ali down in the 9th round prompting him to go to his corner and tell his manager “Al, start the car. We’re going to the bank. We are millionaires.” To which Wepner’s manager replied, “You better turn around. He’s getting up and he looks pissed off.”), knocked down British fighter Richard Dunn 5 times with Taekwondo Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee serving as his head coach (the punch Ali used to end the fight was called the ‘Acupunch’ and was taught to Rhee by Bruce Lee. Not a bad way to score the final knockout win of your career.), fought the ridiculously overmatched “Lion of Flanders”, the Heavyweight Champion of Belgium who drank plenty of champagne in his dressing room *before* the fight and won a 15-round unanimous decision against Earnie Shavers a man who coming into the fight had scored 52 of his 54 wins by knockout. Only Ali.
With George Foreman having fought his last fight for 10 years, Earnie Shavers was the hardest puncher in the division and is still one of the most revered punchers ever. He proved why in the 2nd round with a devastating overhand right which hurt Ali. “Next to Joe Frazier,” he would say “that was the hardest I ever got hit.” But Ali not for the first time used cunning successfully against a fighter. Shavers said “He wobbled, then he wobbled some more. He was so good at conning, I didn’t realise he was playing possum with me. I didn’t realise how bad off he was, when I watched the tape I saw it but at the time I was fooled.”
On this night Ali again showed unmatchable courage and built up a good lead on the cards but Shavers who usually gassed at the end of fights was pacing himself for a long fight and came on strong in the 13th. Sportswriter Pat Putnam said this about the final rounds of the fight: “The thirteenth round was Shaver’s best round to that point. The fourteenth was even better. Rocked by hard right hands, Ali survived but the legs that had carried him through 56 professional fights were beginning to fail. At the end of the fourteenth round, the champion had to dip into his reserve of strength just to get back to his corner. Wearily he slumped on his stool, his eyes glazed with fatigue. When the bell for the fifteenth round rang, Ali could barely stand…That fight with Shavers and particularly the last round sums up for me what Ali was about, even though he was long past his prime. Shavers could have taken him out. He had him hurt early but he suckered Earnie. He faked being more hurt than he was and conned him out of going for the kill. He fought through fourteen rounds. And people talk about Manila, they talk about Foreman, they talk about Liston. But to me the fifteenth round against Shavers was as magnificent as any round Ali ever fought. He was exhausted. I don’t know where he found the strength and stamina to go on, because when he went back to his corner after fourteen, there was nothing left in his body. But he came out for the last round and fought three minutes as good as any three minutes I’ve ever seen. Late in the round he even had Shavers in trouble. Only the ropes kept Shavers from going down.”
President of Madison Square Garden Boxing inc. Teddy Brenner implored Ali to retire after that fight, fearing he would end up punch drunk from the way he let his opponents hit him in order to tire them out. In a rare display of morality from a high ranking boxing official he said that “as long as I’m president, MSG will never make Ali an offer to fight again (bare in mind Ali had just filled MSG for his fight with Shavers). Ali is 35 with nothing more to prove. The trick in boxing is to get out at the right time and the fifteenth round last night was the right time for Ali.” Brenner would remain president until he was fired in 1978 after he refused to do business with Don King. Another fine decision.
Ali’s doctor and physician of 15 years Ferdie Pacheco also decided enough was enough: “the New York State Athletic Commission gave me a report that showed Ali’s kidneys were falling apart. I wrote to Angelo Dundee, Herbert Muhammad (his manager), his wife and Ali himself. I got nothing back in response. That’s when I decided enough is enough.“
So Ali fought on in Vegas, where they had no such concerns. Knowing better than to give No.1 Contender Ken Norton a fourth fight, his opponent was Leon Spinks, a 1976 Olympic gold medallist in the Light Heavyweight category. This would be the fourth Olympic gold medallist Ali would face but the first to fight in the same weight category as him (Patterson fought in the Middleweight category, Frazier and Foreman at Heavyweight). But more revealing was the years in which they competed- Patterson back in 1952 and Ali, who won his gold in 1960 came along as the much younger man and pushed Patterson towards irrelevancy. But now he was fighting a young, fresh man who’d won gold 16 years after himself. A new and different era.
Spinks was only 24 years old and with only six professional wins on his resume, aswell as one defeat. He’d been watched by Ali and he and his team were happy- this guy wasn’t any good and would be an easy fight. A 55-2 Champion against a 6-0-1 challenger, it promised to be mismatch of the decade.
Ali was struggling to motivate himself for this fight and as often the case when fighting an opponent he didn’t rate, he trained very little. His opponent was struggling in the build-up for another reason. As his manager Butch Lewis puts it: “the biggest problem was psyching him up to be aggressive. All the time I gotta remind him ‘it’s not personal, you can love Ali but you gotta hit him to win the fight.” Spinks trained hard and was kept focused and disciplined by his team. They believed he could pull of an upset aslong as he gave everything to achieve his once in a lifetime shot to become the World Heavyweight Champion.
Spinks had only fought 33 professional rounds in his life when he stepped into face Muhammad Ali. He looked like a light heavyweight, weighing under 200 pounds. But he was young, fresh and hungry and that was enough.
The 11th round was key in this fight as it was actually the first time Spinks had ever gone past the 10th round in his life, being that it was his first 15 round fight. Ali’s best moment came in the 10th when he rallied and wobbled Spinks but he was unable to keep up the charge. Ali was by this point a master of going the Championship distance and expected this to be around the time Spinks would tire for Ali to take over the fight. But Spinks didn’t tire. Instead Ali did. The fight came to an exciting conclusion when both men went hell for leather in the final round. 2 judges gave the fight to Spinks and for the first and only time ever Ali had his title taken from him in the ring losing a split decision to the 10-1 underdog.
“Of all the fights I lost in boxing, losing to Spinks hurt the most. That’s because it was my own fault. Leon did the best he could but it was embarrassing that someone with so little fighting skills could beat me. I didn’t train right, the last 3 rounds, when I tried to come on, I wasn’t in shape. After that I had to fight him again. I wanted to get my title back. What they paid me didn’t matter. I just couldn’t leave boxing that way.” –Ali on his loss to 10-1 underdog Leon Spinks.
It could hardly be claimed the victory went to Leon’s head, he remained humble saying: “I still love Ali, he’s my hero. Ali’s the greatest, I’m just the latest.” but he struggled with the leeches and hangers-on overnight success brings. Shortly after the fight he was arrested for having $1.50 worth of marijuana and cocaine on him. Rather than prepare for his first title defence, Spinks would do anything but train, partying away surrounded by hangers-on enjoying the ride, and disappearing all the time, away from all the attention which threatened to overwhelm him.
“It was time to start training seriously and I tracked him down in North Carolina in a little shack drinking moonshine whiskey. He’s smoking dope, groggier than hell, like this is a dream and he’s gonna enjoy it because any day he might wake up. At most he trained 10 days for the rematch.” –Butch Lewis on Spinks’ less than ideal preparation for the rematch.
Ali to the contrary pushed himself harder than ever before. He ran 3 to 5 miles each morning before breakfast. He sparred around 200 rounds, more than he had in years.
“The day after the fight, sometime around 2am Ali was getting ready to go out the door saying to himself “gotta get my title back. Gotta get my title back.” He went out running down the damn freeway, punching, shouting “Gotta get my title back!” his hands were blazing real fast. Sweat was streaming down his face. He kept it up for almost an hour until he was exhausted.” –
Harold Smith, chairman of ‘Muhammad Ali Professional Sports’.
“All my life I knew the day would come when I’d have to kill myself. I always dreaded it and now it’s here. I’ve never suffered like I’m forcing myself to suffer now. I’ve worked this hard for fights but never for this long. All the time I’m in pain. I hurt all over, I hate it, but I know this is the last time I’ll have to do it. I don’t want to lose and look back saying ‘Damn I should have trained harder.” –Muhammad Ali on his training for the Spinks rematch.
5,000 or so fans were in attendance the night Spinks dethroned Ali. 63,350 were in the New Orleans Superdome for the rematch. The place was packed and humming with excitement as Ali aimed to become the first 3 time World Heavyweight champion and the oldest aged 36. There was no interest in the first fight, no appetite amongst the public to see an over-the-hill Ali bore his way to a decision against a less than top contender. But now the narrative was interesting, people wanted to see if history could be made, if Ali could once again defy expectations. 7 months on from looking as old and finished as he ever had, could Ali defy all inevitability by somehow looking younger and better against the man 11 years his junior?
Yes is the answer to that and he did so on a night when Joe Frazier sang the American National Anthem and infront of a raucous crowd that often reached deafening decibels.
The early rounds were competitive, the big thing was Ali wasn’t doing any rope-a-doping, he wasn’t about to let Spinks build up a lead this time. Ali was commanding with his jab and his movement was the most surprising aspect of the fight, he moved like a man doing a pretty good imitation of the Ali of half a dozen years ago. Spinks was unable to ever change the momentum of the fight and Ali dominated the score cards winning atleast 10 rounds on all 3 cards to earn the final win of his career. He remains to this day the only 3-time Lineal Heavyweight Champion in history. Leon Spinks never reached such heights again and he retired with a record of 26 wins, 17 losses and 3 draws.
“May your song always be sung, may you stay forever young.” –Howard Cosell on commentary quotes Dylan.
Round 12 – vs Ken Norton I March 31 1973 & vs Ken Norton II September 10 1973
“The whole time I wasn’t allowed to fight, no matter what the authorities said, it felt like I was Heavyweight Champion of the world. Then I lost to Joe Frazier. And what hurt wasn’t the money that losing cost me. It wasn’t the punches I took. It was knowing that my title was gone. When I beat Sonny Liston I was too young to appreciate what I’d won. But when I lost to Frazier, I would have done anything except go against the will of Allah to get my title back again.” –Ali.
On June 28th 1971, 50 months to the day Ali refused induction into the US Army, the United States supreme court unanimously reversed his conviction and all criminal charges against him were dropped. The justices initially had it 5 to 3 in favour of upholding Ali’s conviction, then one justice who was dying of cancer decided to shift his vote to make it 4 to 4. This would still have seen Ali go to prison.
Thankfully in the end, Justice Potter Stewart put forward an argument for Ali in such a way it meant that Ali’s conviction could be reversed without ruling that members of the Nation of Islam were entitled to conscientious objector status which was enough to appease everyone into overturning his conviction.
“It’s like a man’s been in chains all his life, and suddenly the chains are taken off. He don’t realise he’s free until he gets the circulation back into his arms and legs and starts to move his fingers. I don’t really think I’m going to know how that feels until I start to travel, go to foreign countries, see those strange people in the street. Then I’m gonna know I’m free.” –Ali after the US supreme court vote to drop all charges against him.
Ali had his boxing license back, his passport back, but he did not have his titles back. That was one thing he was going to have to get back on his own.
After The Fight of The Century, Ali was taken straight to hospital but he left without spending the night, not wanting the world to think Frazier had hospitalised him. Frazier himself was in the hospital much longer, around a month due to hypertension and a kidney infection which were exacerbated by the brutal fight.
Ali would have to wait for another shot at Frazier, with Smokin’ Joe showing no sign of wanting to fight Ali anytime soon. Or indeed anyone else for that matter as the Champion did not fight for the remainder of 1971. Ali on the other hand fought three more times that year including against Jimmy Ellis, a former sparring partner whom he’d sparred over a thousand rounds with. Ellis, who was trained and managed by Ali’s own trainer Angelo Dundee also had Dundee train him for this fight with Ali’s consent, as it meant Dundee could pick up more money as both Ellis’ trainer and manager, rather than the much smaller fee he received from Ali as a trainer. Despite clearly being better prepared to fight Ali than anyone else in history, Ellis was still stopped in the 12th and final round.
One fight in this time that Ali didn’t have but almost had was against Wilt Chamberlain, a 7 feet 2 basketballer who really figured he could beat Ali due to his enormous height. He was trained by Cus D’Amato and thought by focusing his boxing solely on fighting Ali, he could learn enough to win the fight. Ali’s extreme confidence for this bout (given he was a world class boxer going against a basketball player making his pro debut) is thought to have scared Chamberlain off, and the thing was suddenly off on the day of contract signing.
By the end of 1972, Ali had bounced back from the Frazier loss with 9 straight wins against occasionally decent, occasionally mediocre opposition. After years without his passport, he also got back on the road fighting in Switzerland, Japan, Canada and Ireland. Ali’s performances however were not highly praised, he was slacking off in training as he struggled to motivate himself for it, and counting on his superior skills in the ring to take him to victories over much less gifted fighters. There was doubts though as to whether this Ali was going to be good enough when it came to a fight for the title with Frazier who had fought just twice since beating Ali with 2 wins in a combined 7 and a half rounds.
Then came 1973, the year that shook up Heavyweight boxing and changed everything. First on the 22nd of January in Kingston, Jamaica, Joe Frazier was dethroned in devastating fashion by 1968 Olympic Gold Medallist and 4-1 underdog George Foreman. Big George was fighting his 38th bout despite only having turned 24 twelve days prior. He became the third youngest Heavyweight Champion in history with a vicious display of punching power.
Frazier was dropped six times in little over 5 minutes and despite gamely getting up and trying to carry on each time in the end Arthur Mercante, referee of the Ali-Frazier 1 fight had to stop it (which was a relief to Angelo Dundee who was ringside and pleading for the fight to be stopped) and Joe Frazier was beaten for the first time in his professional life.
“DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER! The heavyweight champion is taking the mandatory 8-count, and Foreman is as poised as can be! In a neutral corner, he is as poised as can be.” –Howard Cosell as Frazier is knocked down for the first of six knockdowns.
Then on March 31st Ali faced Ken Norton, a fighter with a record of 29-1 but few respected names on his resume. Whereas in Ali’s prior bout against Joe Bugner in Vegas he’d enter the ring in a robe bearing the legend “The People’s Champion” gifted to him by the King Elvis Presley, Norton’s previous bout had been in front of 700 spectators for a $300 dollar purse.
Ali trained less than 3 weeks and was hampered by a sprained ankle, an injury he’d picked up whilst in his words ‘revolutionising the game of golf’. After Ali entered the ring Howard Cosell who was doing commentary for the bout even remarked that: “It seems to me that Ali has taken Kenny Norton more lightly in the pre-fight build-up than any opponent I have known him to fight.”
Ken Norton was an old sparring partner of Joe Frazier’s and Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch also trained Norton. Here’s what he said of the bout: “The biggest mistake Ali’s people ever made was putting him in the first time with Ken Norton. He’d been sparring with Frazier for several months, he was very sharp, style-wise he was hard for Ali and he was coming into his own as a fighter. Norton had four more inches of height than Frazier and he had a good jab, not as good as Ali’s but pretty good. I told him to step toward Ali with his jab. Norton’s right hand being in the proper position would mean Ali’s jab would be blocked. And Norton’s jab would hit Ali in the middle of the face, because Ali kept his right hand out of position. Do that a couple of times and being Heavyweights, Ali would be back against the ropes.”
In the second round, Ali was back against the ropes when Norton threw a straight right, nailed him and broke his jaw. Ali’s mouthpiece which was taken out between each round and usually just had slobber in it, was now full of blood after each round to the point it turned his bucket in the corner, which was filled with ice and water, red.
“The jaw was broken in the 2nd round. He could move the bone with his tongue and I felt the separation with my fingertips at the end of the 2nd round. All of us and I have to include myself- were consumed by the idea of winning that fight. My whole thing was to keep Ali fighting. I should have said ‘stop the fight’ there’s no disgrace in having a broken jaw. It goes down as a TKO, you have a rematch six months later. And life goes on. But Ali was supposed to beat Norton, he couldn’t afford a loss. Also, if Ali lost it was more than a fight. There was always politics involved, you didn’t stop the fight as a white guy especially when Ali didn’t want it stopped. Ali knew his jaw was probably broken but he said he didn’t want it stopped, he’s an incredibly gritty son of a bitch. The pain must have been awful. Yet he still fought the 12 rounds. God Almighty, was that guy tough. Underneath his soft, generous ways, underneath all that beauty there was an ugly trucker at work.” –Ferdie Pacheco.
Ali looked slow and sluggish in the fight which was dull. He didn’t fight a good round until the 11th where he looked to come on strong as he often did to snatch the fight late. The 12th and final round was the decisive round of this fight. One judge had Ali 2 points ahead, one had Norton a point ahead and the third had the fight even. Norton won the final round and because of this he won the fight. Afterwards, Ali had 90 minutes of surgery with Dr. William Lundeen who performed the surgery saying of Ali’s jaw: “A clean break all the way through. I can’t fathom how he could go on the whole fight like that.”
Losing to Frazier was one thing, but losing to a fighter like Ken Norton was something else and gleeful members of the press jumped all over it with one saying: “Ali has a big name and not much to defend it with. It isn’t a big achievement but a kid coming up can be made by knocking out Ali. He is the guy the hungry kids want to get their hands on. Ali is a loser now, and they match old losers with young winners.”
Sports Journalist and good friend of Ali Howard Cosell sums up the mood after Norton beat Ali. “It was the end of the road as far as I could see. Ken Norton, a former marine, in the ring against a Draft Dodger. Richard Nixon had just been reelected with a huge mandate. Construction workers were marching through the streets supporting the war in Vietnam, which showed no signs of winding down. It seemed as though Ali would never get his title back again.”
Where once one man stood between Ali and the Heavyweight title, there was now 3: Joe Frazier, Ken Norton (who had both already beaten Ali) and the Invincible looking George Foreman. Ali had been 3 and a half years out the ring, he was no longer the same fighter and he was now 31 years old. He had no chance.
“He is a beaten man and he is a broken fighter, what was once a very great fighter becomes now part of fistic history in all probability.” –Howard Cosell live in the ring moments after Ali’s decision loss is announced.
Step one of getting the title back was winning a rematch with Ken Norton which took place six months after their first fight due to the length of time it took for Ali’s jaw to heal. This time Ali trained hard, he was no longer overlooking or underestimating Norton, he knew he’d be in for a tough fight.
Norton trained hard also and the outcome was a great fight, a much better spectacle than their first fight. This time both men looked like top Heavyweights, rather than one looking like a has been and the other looking like someone who’d just got Ali on the right night. Norton proved on this night he could give Ali a hell of a tough fight even when he’d trained hard, was prepared right and wasn’t fighting with a broken jaw.
Ali came in 9 pounds lighter than in their first fight, it was the lightest he’d come in since before the Frazier fight. He’d lost the flab around his gut as in training he’d focused on “whipping his Adonis-like physique back into shape.”
The lighter and fitter Ali was up on his toes constantly moving for the opening four rounds, Norton was unable to land much atall. Ali though establishing a lead on the cards through the first third of the fight had been unable to land a shot which made Norton respect his punching power.
This emboldened Norton and the 5th round signalled a change of direction for the fight. It was about to become a whole lot closer. Norton began to have some success in cutting down the ring on Ali and began landing some good shots.
The 6th round was close with both men having good success at times, the fight was at a frantic pace as it entered its second phase. The 7th was Norton’s best round of the fight, Ali seemed to be tiring and wanting a breather. He was forced to absorb a barrage of blows from Norton and at a point seemed to be summoning all his willpower just to cling on and remain on his feet.
As the fight built towards its climax, Norton began to time Ali excellently and the jaw that had been broken by Norton six months prior was forced to soak up more punishment. The final minute of the 9th round was a thriller, Ali tired of dancing stood and traded with Norton, no decisive blow either way was struck but the fans were being treated at this point.
Ali was forced to take a battering in the 11th with Norton clearly sensing blood and throwing with frequency and force desperately trying to take his man out. Ali was going nowhere but going into the final round the scorecards would be close.
Ali had boxed very well, it was his best performance for a long time but still Norton had been able to trap Ali in corners and Ali had been unable or unwilling to tie up his man to prevent the barrage. Norton was extremely confident with no fear of Ali’s power and having plenty of success landing on Ali either with big powerful shots or with his jab which was proving very effective too.
The hard miles Ali did in training for this bout made the telling difference in the fight as in the 12th round Ali came out still strong in the legs and he did the better work in this round, dominating the first minute before a more even final two. But Ali definitely won the round and he won a split decision with the deciding vote going to the referee who scored it 7-5 for Ali.
After the bout Ali looked absolutely exhausted, he’d certainly never before looked as tired after a fight. He rested both his arms on the ropes and looked out into the crowd, not speaking or even acknowledging anyone in his corner. Even as the scores were announced Ali remained motionless and in his post fight interview he was too tired to brag, or slate his critics, or call out Foreman or Frazier, he praised Norton and acknowledged the fact he was a little more tired than usual, because of his age.
Muhammad Ali had 9 rematches in his career, 11 if you include his 3rd fights v Frazier and Norton where he would go beyond avenging losses to take the lead in their head to heads. He won all 11. Nobody would beat Ali the second time around, regardless of whether they won the first fight or lost.
On a physical and mental level Joe Frazier was Ali’s toughest adversary in the ring but on a technical, tactical level it was Ken Norton. In 1976 they fought a third fight to decide the winner of their series. It was their only fight scheduled for 15 rounds and just like their two 12-rounders it went the distance, it was the only time they fought with the World Heavyweight Championship on the line.
George Foreman said of the Ali-Norton match-up “It was Norton’s style of keeping his right hand up in front of his own face. He would catch Muhammad’s left jab and he was tall enough with a long enough reach to jab back. Frazier did well against Ali in close, but he didn’t have the reach on the outside the way Norton did. Muhammad had a rough time with Norton.”
Ali won the final fight of the trilogy in a close, hotly disputed decision which was audibly booed by some in the crowd. The judges scored it unanimously for Ali 8-7, 8-7, 8-6-1. The fight was far too close and debatable to ever be reasonably called a robbery but it was by far the most controversial of all Ali’s 19 points decision victories.
As with the first two the fight was decided in the very last round, even more so this time. The fight was even on two scorecards and Norton trailed by a point on the other. As Norton sat down for his final pep talk of the night before going out to fight the final round his corner advised him to not take any chances, that the fight was won and to not give Ali the chance to steal it. So he fought the final round cautiously. Meanwhile in Ali’s corner Angelo Dundee told him: “Fight like hell this round, we need it.” That’s what Ali did and he won that last round and subsequently the fight.
“The first time I fought Ali I felt it was an honour just to be in the same ring with him. I liked him before we fought, after we fought, just not during. I don’t want to be remembered as the man who broke Ali’s jaw, I just want to be remembered as the man who fought three close competitive fights with Ali and became his friend when the fighting was over.” –Ken Norton on the Ali-Norton Trilogy.
Round 13 & Round 14 – vs Joe Frazier III October 1 1975
“It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” –Muhammad Ali.
Ali’s third title defence of his second reign was against Joe Bugner in Malaysia. Ali had already faced Bugner once before beating him by unanimous decision in a slow, dull fight. The same outcome was expected this time so there was very little hype and interest in the fight. To change this, it was suggested to Ali that he should tell the press he’s retiring and that this will be his last fight. And Ali was extremely convincing.. until the prospect of another fight against a certain someone came up. “What about Joe Frazier? Aren’t you going to fight Frazier again?” A reporter asked and Muhammad’s eyes lit up. “Joe Frazier! I want him bad. How much money do you think I can get if I go whup Joe Frazier?”
And so Muhammad Ali would face his old foe one last time in Manila, Philippines. In the build-up to the fight, Ali was more personal than ever before. He regularly called Joe a Gorilla, and would punch an action man sized Gorilla which he refereed to as Frazier. Former MLB player Reggie Jackson said this: “The one time Ali stepped over the line was with Joe Frazier. Joe’s a hard-working, decent, honest man with very little formal education. He’s a proud man with great honour about him. Muhammad ridiculed Joe. He humiliated him infront of the world. He took the English language and ripped him to shreds with it. Joe couldn’t match wits with Ali he didn’t have the verbal skills. So his response was to get more angry and bitter. It hurt Joe that black people loved Ali more than they loved him.” Whilst Ali explained his pre-fight antics as a deliberate tactic to get his man mad, because “if he’s mad, he cant think” he succeeded in getting Frazier so mad that just as in the first fight, Frazier was made so mad he was willing to die in the ring to hurt Ali.
Joe wasn’t the only person angry with Muhammad Ali in the build-up to the Thrilla in Manila, another was Muhammad’s wife Belinda Ali. Ali had been involved in an extramarital affair with a woman named Veronica Porsche since around the time of The Rumble In The Jungle. Belinda had been aware of the affair but not how serious it had become. She became aware when Muhammad brought Veronica along to meet the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife. Ferdinand told Ali how beautiful his wife was and infront of the assembled press Ali was too embarrassed to correct him. After this incident Ali decided to confront the issue and come clean to the world about the affair saying “I could see some controversy if she’s white but she’s not. The only person I answer to is Belinda Ali and I don’t worry about her.”
Well if he wasn’t worried about her, he was about to be because Belinda was on her way to the Philippines. She arrived in his hotel room where the two had a heated one hour shouting match where no doubt Belinda was the loudest. The last thing she said was “You tell that bitch if I see her, I’m gonna break her back. If I see her anywhere I’m gonna break her back.” Belinda then went straight back to the airport and flew back home. Ali and Belinda divorced two years later in 1977 and he also married Veronica that year.
With Ali vs Belinda out of the way, and Belinda vs Veronica thankfully (for Veronica’s sake) being narrowly avoided, the only fight left for Manilla was Ali vs Frazier 3. Though his infidelity coming out in the press was hardly ideal buildup to a huge and difficult fight, Ali had gone into fights before with even bigger strain, such as when he was fighting whilst the threat of death and prison loomed. Dave Wolf who was in Frazier’s camp believed in retrospect that this stuff actually helped Ali to thrive come fight night as it allowed him to not get tied in knots worrying about the fight itself. Whilst chaos raged as it so often did around Ali in the build-up to a fight, Frazier prepared outside of Manilla, in the mountains where he would ready himself for the bout by sitting for hours in a contemplative state.
The referee would be a Filipino as Frazier’s team worked to ensure the referee for the Ali-Foreman bout wouldn’t referee this one as they did not want Ali to be allowed to clinch on the inside unpenalised. Ali’s team however were worried about Frazier’s frequent shots below the belt, as he would pound Ali’s hips and legs to diminish Ali’s movement. And it was part of Frazier’s gameplan for this fight, as it had been for their previous bouts to hit him anywhere: “If you kill the body, the head will die.” so the old boxing axiom goes.
Ali’s strategy was to make a very fast start. Frazier was a notoriously slow starter and Ali wanted to knock him out in the early rounds, or atleast hurt him badly enough that Frazier wouldn’t be his most effective for the rest of the fight. Going into this fight Ali was a couple of months shy of his 34th birthday and Frazier though not yet 31 was considered to have less left than even Ali, who had not looked great since the Rumble In The Jungle. So with a lot less expected of them than in the Fight of The Century, the two men met for the deciding fight in their trilogy. They produced the Greatest Heavyweight Fight of all time, the greatest back-and-forth fight ever and one of, if not the, greatest fight ever.
The bell for the first round sounded at 10.45am local time at the Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City in the Metro Manilla district of The Philippines. Ali started furiously fast, flat footed and infront of Joe, never backing off or looking to dance and move. Ali hit him with countless, blistering shots but Frazier was as hungry as he’d been for their first fight and he was not going to be deterred no matter what punishment Ali handed out.
The referee, as Frazier’s corner had hoped, constantly warned Ali not to hold the back of Frazier’s head. As this meant Ali could not smother Frazier’s attacks on the inside he instead employed an extended guard to block Joe’s vision and keep him at bay. As he could not smother he vowed to not let Frazier in close atall. Frazier in response upped the pace further and was able to close the distance, taking advantage of Ali’s extended guard by hooking at his exposed, vulnerable body. So with holding and clinching off the menu, there was no resting on the inside for either man, their only option was to exchange blows or in Ali’s case, cover up.
Frazier was beginning to have sustained success at getting on the inside, then staying there with Ali for a while. Frazier would continually march forward, as if oblivious to the shots Ali was landing on him and in the end Ali was forced to change tactic. Ali began to use the ‘rope-a-dope’ to conserve energy and get Joe to use up his, but the tactic was rarely less successful than here. Frazier was a great inside fighter, much better than Foreman for example, and was happy for the chance to pound Ali anywhere, on any unprotected area of Ali’s body he could find.
Ali regained control in the 4th, despite Frazier taking any opening he could find to pound Ali’s hips to limit his mobility in later rounds, this round clearly belonged to Ali who controlled distance with both hands, delivering crosses into Joe’s skull whilst ducking his hooks. In the 5th however Frazier started smokin’. He started getting through Ali’s defence. He would punch Ali’s arm aside then come up underneath to bypass his extended guard and he was also having success by punching against Ali’s highguard to activate it then digging into his ribs. Frazier expertly carried out his plan to crowd Ali, hurry him by accelerating the tempo and forcing him to fight at a quicker pace than he was comfortable with. All told Ali was trapped up against the ropes for two minutes of the 5th round.
In the 6th, Frazier staggered Ali with a leaping gazelle punch and seconds later he hit him with another whipping left hook. Ali again fell back into the ropes behind him, but seemed only slightly dazed. These punches would have KO’d most men but Ali remained on his feet and finished the round. Years later when re-watching the bout, Frazier would shake his head in disbelief at how Ali had withstood these punches.
“I’ve never seen two people give more, ever.” –Ed Schuyler, boxing journalist on the Thrilla in Manila.
At the beginning of the 7th round Ali whispered in Frazier’s ear: “they told me you was washed up Joe.” to which he simply replied “they lied.” Ali recognised he’d lost the last rounds, in Dundee’s words ‘giving them away’ by attempting to rest on the ropes which you don’t do against Joe Frazier. Ali came out dancing in the 7th, throwing a multitude of different punches but Joe just continued to up the ante and Ali was again forced to rest on the ropes for the last minute, having punched himself out.
No longer able to dance, Ali had his wings clipped by Joe in the 7th but he could still sting like a bee. In the 8th he went toe to toe with Joe in a brutal round. Frazier like always when fighting Ali, was happy to take a few shots to land one of his own but these were not the light, flicking shots he was used to from Ali who was landing shots with full force. But Ali was once again forced to grab a breather before the end of the round and Frazier jumped on him pounding the body.
Ali took a lot of punishment in the middle rounds. Frazier was absolutely relentless, always on him. The air conditioning didn’t work so the heat in the arena was incredible, unforgiving and that’s just for people in the arena watching the fight. Let alone being in an intense, physical, non-stop war under the lights with their added heat. Ali was nearly 34, in his 51st fight, being put under extreme, constant pressure by a relentlessly aggressive, powerful fighter. Most men would have wilted, at a time it looked inevitable that even Ali would be forced to give in. He was having trouble just staying awake between rounds, such was his point of exhaustion. Ali spent these rounds in sluggish retreat, throwing little, clinching, covering up and dancing as best he could. The only consolation was Frazier’s emotions were now starting to get the better of him- he was constantly headhunting, even when those shots weren’t on, rather than continuing the assault on Ali’s body and battering his arms which could have stopped Ali’s ability to throw punches. After the 9th round, Ali went back to his corner and told his trainer “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.”
Ali began to turn the tide back in his favour, in the 11th round he began to unload a series of fast combinations. The round began with Frazier giving Ali a beating on the ropes but for the Champion this was a painful but necessary thing as even as he allowed his body to be used as a punching bag he stored up the strength required for a rally at the end, dragging Frazier into the centre of the ring where he paid him back for his punishment dishing out his own and swelling his opponents eyes. Whilst Frazier was a marathon runner, maintaining a constant, steady pace whilst gradually weakening, Ali was a sprinter, taking long intervals without much activity before exploding into life and throwing his all into it.
All fight long Ali had aimed exclusively for Frazier’s head and the accumulation of hundreds of punches had swelled Frazier’s face to the point he was fighting with tiny slits for eyes. Frazier now couldn’t see out of his left eye which had already been damaged in a training accident, years earlier. He could no longer see Ali’s rights coming and he was being hit with them over and over again. Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch instructed his man to change his posture thinking this would allow him to atleast see the punches coming but it left him more open. Ali digging deeper than he ever had needed to before came out throwing everything at Frazier, giving him a sustained beating unlike any he’d dished out to his foe previously.
Futch considered pulling his man out after the 13th, seeing the damage Frazier and his eyes were taking, but he also saw the extent of Ali’s physical and mental fatigue and he knew Frazier still possessed the power in his fists and his mind to triumph in the fight. He decided to give Frazier one last round.
With both men’s legendary, extraordinary skill, physicality and willpower being stretched to the very end of their limits, the men fought on with failing bodies, will alone keeping them up and punching. Then Ali again found yet more resolve he didn’t know he had, launching yet more assaults on Joe but Frazier again as he always seemed to do against Ali, endured, remaining on his feet to the bewilderment of the Champion.
British Sportswriter Frank McGhee describes the final 2 rounds of the fight: “The main turning point of the fight came very late. It came midway through the thirteenth round when one of two tremendous right-hand smashes sent the gum shield sailing out of Frazier’s mouth. The sight of this man actually moving backwards seemed to inspire Ali. I swear he hit Frazier with thirty tremendous punches—each one as hard as those which knocked out George Foreman in Zaire—during the fourteenth round. He was dredging up all his own last reserves of power to make sure there wouldn’t have to be a fifteenth round.”
Unbeknownst to Frazier’s corner, at the end of the 14th round Ali instructed his cornermen to cut his gloves off, but Dundee ignored him. Ali later said “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight anymore.” With a round to go, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch decided it was a round too many, he’d seen enough. Frazier tried to prevent the stoppage telling Futch “I want him boss.” but his protests were unsuccessful with Futch replying “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today.“ The Thrilla In Manilla therefore became the first and only Ali-Frazier fight not to go the distance after it was stopped after 14 of the scheduled 15 rounds. After the fight Ali declared Frazier the greatest fighter of all time except for himself.
“Ali and Frazier were fighting for something more important than the Heavyweight Championship of the World. They were fighting for the championship of each other. I don’t even think about who won in Manila, what matters most about that fight is how great it was. Both men gave it everything they had. They knew it was probably the last time they’d face each other.” –Jerry Izenberg, sports journalist.
“It took about 24 hours for his brain to recuperate, for the thought processes to become complete. And the effects on the rest of the body lasted for weeks. It was the toughest fight I’ve seen in my life.” –Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor and physician.
“We were gladiators. I didn’t ask no favours of him and he didn’t ask none of me. I don’t like him but I gotta say, in the ring he was a man. I hit him punches, those punches.. and he took ‘em. He took ‘em and he came back, and I got to respect that part of the man. He was a fighter. He shook me in Manila, he won.” –Frazier on Ali.
“I don’t think two big men ever fought like me and Joe Frazier. One fight, maybe. But three times, we were the only ones. Of all the men I fought in boxing: Sonny Liston was the scariest, George Foreman was the most powerful, Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer. But the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier. He brought out the best in me, and the best fight we fought was in Manila. I’m sorry I hurt him (with words, rather than punches). Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn’t have done what I did without him and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.” –Ali on Frazier.
Ali and Frazier never faced each other again and after 3 fights, 41 rounds, thousands of punches and only one knockdown, the in-ring rivalry at least was over. Frazier fought only twice more, never winning again and losing a rematch with George Foreman in 5 rounds. Ali fought 10 more times but much of what Ali had left as a fighter left him that night in the Philippines.
That night only Ali attended the reception given by President Marcos. He was battered, bruised and hurting when he accepted the congratulations of Frazier’s wife with a smile and the extension of his fingers. Meanwhile Frazier lay on a bed in semidarkness. “His eyes are just about completely shut.” said Futch explaining his fighter’s absence.
A light was turned on as an old friend walked within two feet of Joe Frazier who lifted himself to look around but still could not see. Upon being informed of his visitors identity he said:
“Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. Lawdy, lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
Round 15 – vs Joe Frazier I March 8 1971
Smokin’ Joe Frazier won Gold for America in the ‘64 Olympics, four years after Cassius Clay. Just like Clay, he won the World Heavyweight title in his 20th fight, or a version of it atleast. The title was made vacant when Ali was stripped and 2 years later Joe unified the division beating Jimmy Ellis. Frazier was 26-0 with 23ko’s, a highly respected and rated fighter. But a question lingered in everyone’s mind: would this guy be world champ if Ali was still around?
Frazier wanted Ali back in boxing, he did not delude himself to think he would ever be accepted by the world as the rightful Heavyweight champion of the world unless he faced Ali in the ring and beat him.
During Ali’s exile from boxing the relationship between him and Joe had been cordial. Frazier helped Ali out financially whilst he was unable to box and took part in prearranged stunts with Ali to build hype for a potential fight between the pair if Ali was ever free to box again. He also supported Ali’s right not to serve in the army, testified before congress, lobbied President Nixon to reinstate Ali’s right to box and in solidarity with the banished former champion, refused to fight in the original eight-man tournament for the made vacant WBA title which Jimmy Ellis won.
But once this fight was announced their relationship completely changed. Ali insulted Frazier in a way that cut so deep the scars remained for a long, long time after Joe had retired. He was called dumb, ugly and an uncle Tom as Ali seemed determined to turn black people against Frazier. He branded him a dumb tool of the White establishment. “The only people rooting for Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.”
Frazier greatly resented the way Ali had manipulated the public into seeing Joe as some ‘Black White Hope’. He was darker than Ali and grew up much poorer and it deeply upset him the way Ali seemed able to take all the love and support of Black America.
In Ali’s mind he was just promoting the fight and aswell playing his psychological games which he always employed to gain an edge in ring warfare. But this was a fight that really needed no promotion atall. It was billed as the ‘Fight of The Century’ and it’s easy to see why: two undefeated heavyweight champions, both with a legitimate claim to the title. The title being the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World. Because at that point, it was being greatly disputed by everyone from New York to New Zealand, with scarcely a soul without an opinion. The fight was a sporting event with no equal.
On March 8 1971 Ali stepped into the ring to attempt to win back what had been unjustly taken from him. He was just four and half months into his comeback and fighting his third fight.. Both men earned $2.5M dollars from the fight, a record at the time but they could have made far more. Another offer made to them was $1.25M guaranteed and 35% of the gross which would have made each fighter $9 million dollars each.
“I prayed ‘Lord, help me kill this guy, ‘cause he’s not righteous.’“ –Frazier on the prayer he made in his dressing room before coming to the ring.
The world held its breath as boxer met slugger, as Ali in the red trunks met Frazier in bright green for the first time. The pace of the first four rounds is frantic, the action non-stop. Ali landed lots of punches on Joe but he couldn’t deter him from coming forward. Frazier continued to walk Ali down, never allowing Ali to control distance and jab from safety. The ring was made to look very small, as Ali never used it. He didn’t move and didn’t dance instead choosing to stand toe to toe with Joe and try to beat him at his own game.
In the opening four rounds, Ali threw so many punches, landing alot, but when he did miss throwing over the top of Frazier’s crouching, erratic defensive movements, he was often punished with huge hooks. Ali won 3 of the 4 opening highly competitive rounds but it may have been a case of winning the battle but not the war, as he exerted lots of energy, having to throw so many punches because any time he stopped Frazier was right on him throwing hard shots to the head and the body.
In the 5th round, Frazier attempted to psyche out Ali. He was smiling, almost laughing whilst Ali missed him with shots, as Frazier ducked and moved his head out of the way. Then when Ali found his target, Frazier didn’t seem to care, he then began talking to Ali in between taking fistful’s of punches. This really showed just how fired up Joe was, it was quite a sight to see the master of in ring psychology Ali forced to taste his own medicine off Frazier.
In a couple of the middle rounds, Ali spent half the round trying to rest and recover some energy, as Frazier continued to pound him against the ropes, targeting his hips knowing it would harm his ability to move later. Ali also tried a few of his tricks to put Joe off such as hitting him with flurries of light pitter, patter punches and resting his fist in Joe’s face as he moved forward but these tricks did nothing to stop the relentlessly aggressive Joe Frazier.
In the 11th round Frazier gave Ali a real battering, after a brutal left hook Ali was wobbling and stumbling all around the ring playing possum and Frazier appeared to buy it as he did not go all out for the finish. The rest of the world though, all the uninvolved participants in the fight, were not as fooled as Frazier seemingly was, it was clear Ali was in trouble at this point, it was the most one-sided round of the fight.
Ali showed enormous resolve to come back in the final rounds of the fight and regain a foothold in the fight. In the 12th though he was hit with a punch that seemed to almost knock his head clean off his shoulders, his head was forced way back but Ali just took it.
In the final round he was hit flush on the jaw with a punch he wasn’t able to take, and Ali was down. He was quickly up and Frazier didn’t have enough left in the tank to seriously come close to putting him down again or stopping Ali. The last 30 seconds both fighters were so worn out they held each other in a clinch for most of it, neither man with enough strength left to do any more. The fight went the championship distance and was a 15-round war which somehow lived up to and even surpassed it’s billing of ‘The Fight of The Century’.
“Frazier hit him flush on the jaw with the hardest left hook he’d ever thrown. Ali went down, and it looked like he was out cold. I didn’t think he could possibly get up. And not only did he get up, he was up almost as fast he went down. Not only could he take a punch, that night he was the most courageous puncher that I’d ever seen. He was going to get up if he was dead. If Frazier had killed him, he’d have gotten up.” -Ferdie Pacheco on Frazier knocking down Ali, Round 15.
Ali showed tremendous will to get up from the punch that put him down, especially after already fighting for 14 absolutely gruelling rounds but in the end, the outcome was the same as Ali couldn’t prevent Frazier retaining the belt via unanimous decision.
22 of the 25 judging sport writers also gave the fight to Frazier but I think this fight was a lot closer than it is historically acknowledged as being and also than it was acknowledged at the time.
The referee scored 8 rounds for Frazier, 6 rounds for Ali and 1 even which highlights how close this fight really was. However one judge scored just four rounds for Ali which I find kind of ridiculous, as I personally had Ali winning 4 of the first 5 rounds. Though that said, then and now you will see many fights which look to be clearly close, but then one judge has it massively in favour of one of the fighters.
Alot of the rounds had to be considered close and it depends on what the judges and referee were looking for. Ali surely landed more punches in most of the rounds, but Frazier landed the bigger, more eye catching power punches. He was the aggressor taking the fight to Ali coming forward and it was Ali always initiating the clinches which may have gone against him. The fight was certainly in a style which benefited Frazier which could be put down to Frazier forcing Ali to fight his kind of fight, but in truth from the very start of the 1st round Ali seemed perfectly happy to fight that style of fight anyway. Also worth acknowledging is how Frazier seemed to finish every round strong, coming on at the end of the round which could have influenced how judges scored the particular close rounds, whereas Ali would often do his best work in the first half of the round.
It could hardly be claimed Ali’s punches had no effect on Joe, they rearranged his features, both his eyes were puffed up real bad. Both men fought a tremendous fight, showing incredible fitness to take such punishment and fight 15 rounds at such a pace.
Ali who always found an extra gear when it seemed both him and his opponent were blowing out, again did so here after taking a battering in the 11th but for the first time in his career, he was matched all the way through the fight, Frazier never fading away or tiring, so Ali was unable to press home his usual fitness advantage in the championship rounds. In the middle rounds when he went to the ropes he was likely hoping Frazier would punch himself out abit, giving Ali the chance to come on strong but Frazier never ever looked likely to give Ali that opportunity.
Frazier overall deserved to win the fight for the way he kept coming at Ali and never once got disheartened at the amount he was getting hit off Ali. He was willing to accept being hit 3 times off Ali if it meant he could hit him back once. He wanted to punish Ali for the things he’d said about him and he clearly didn’t care about what punishment he’d have to take back in order to dish it out.
The 11th round and the big knockdown punch in the 15th were for me enough to sway it in favour of Smokin’ Joe. Frazier was apparently so pissed off with Ali and therefore so determined to beat him, he would have been willing to die in the ring to get the win over his foe. Looking at the fight, that doesn’t seem farfetched to say, Frazier took so much punishment but he never altered from his gameplan, and in the end this faith in himself paid off in the ultimate way with a magnificent performance and victory over the great Muhammad Ali.
“Ali and Joe did a lot of damage to each other that night. In a way it was horrible watching their features change. But it was history in the making, an incredible fight. It was the last round I remember best. That round showed me Ali was the most valiant fighter I’ve ever seen. Frazier hit him as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was exhausted. He went down and he was up in 3 seconds. I didn’t ask if he wanted to continue, because if he’s any kind of fighter atall he’ll say yes. Ali wasn’t just any kind of fighter he was possibly the greatest and most courageous fighter who ever lived. In fact he fought better in that round after the knockdown than before it. Refereeing the fight meant a lot to me. I knew I had taken part in a very important historical event. At the time I was doing public relations work for a beer company. That was my regular job and the following morning I was at my desk at 8AM as usual.” –Arthur Mercante, referee of The Fight of The Century.
“If Ali lost it was like everything I believed in was wrong. It’s very difficult to imagine being young and black in the sixties and not gravitating toward Ali. He seemed to think less of what the establishment thought of him than about the image he saw when he looked in the mirror. And to people who were young and black and interested in tweaking the establishment, and in some cases shoving it up the tail of the establishment, you had to identify with somebody like that. The fact that he won all the time made it better. For all our passion in those years, we didn’t have a lot of victories. More often than not we was on the losing side so the fact Ali won was… he was a heroic figure plain and simple. So what you had that night were two undefeated heavyweight champions. One guy was dead set against the war, the other didn’t seem to have much of a feeling about it, but was supported by those who backed the war. It’s hard to explain today how dominant Vietnam was in a young guy’s life then. Ali was somebody to hold onto, he was ours. And fairly or unfairly, because he was opposing Ali, Frazier became the symbol of our oppressors. When Ali lost, I was devastated. I felt as though everything I stood for had been beaten down and trampled. We’d seen the people with flags and hard hats beating up kids with long hair who were protesting Vietnam, now was our chance to get even in the ring. Which ever side won that fight was right, and there was no middle ground. It was a terrible night. It was worse than Nixon’s reelection mandate the following year as Ali losing was much more personal because we had the feeling on the political side that we were in the minority anyway. We knew we’d lose going in, we had the world figured out but the majority didn’t see it our way. That’s why Ali-Frazier was so important, it was a level playing field. One against one, man against man.” –Bryant Gumbel, Sportscaster and Ali fan on the cultural significance of Ali v Frazier.
In the immediate aftermath Muhammad Ali handled his first defeat with real grace: “Just lost a fight, that’s all. Probably be a better man for it. The world goes on. You’ll all be writing about something else soon. I had my day. You lose, you don’t shoot yourself.” When told however that Joe had said he thought Ali doesn’t want to fight him again, the warrior immediately came back out as Ali replied: “Oh, how wrong he is.” A potential rematch may have been a bit pointless though in one boxing writer’s eyes as he wrote: “If they fought a dozen times, Frazier would whup Ali a dozen times, and it would get easier along the way.”
“Of all the names joined forever in the annals of boxing—from Dempsey-Tunney to Louis-Schmeling, from Zale-Graziano to Leonard-Hearns—none are more fiercely bound by a hyphen than Ali-Frazier. Not Palmer-Nicklaus in golf nor Borg-McEnroe in tennis, as ardently competitive as these rivalries were, conjure up anything remotely close to the epic theatre of Ali-Frazier.” –William Nack, journalist.
The Ali v Frazier rivalry was the greatest boxing rivalry ever and in all likelihood the best sporting rivalry ever too. It produced the greatest fight trilogy ever. It had everything: hatred, heart, skill, respect, dignity, envy. It was absolutely compelling, with both fighters having won atleast one of the fights and the final fight being the decider.
The Ali-Frazier rivalry ofcourse was never solely confined to the ring so when the fights ended and even when their careers had ended, sadly the rivalry did not stop there. The rivalry started from Muhammad Ali’s portrayal of Joe as the white people’s champion and an Uncle Tom, a narrative which alot of Ali fans bought. Frazier saw it as a betrayal after his support for Ali during his exile and it was a betrayal he struggled to ever really get over.
Ali-Frazier 2 added to it notably with the infamous brawl on Howard Cosell’s set and then finally the Thrilla in Manila it reached its nastiest point yet with Ali mercilessly mocking Frazier’s speech for its lack of education. Muhammad Ali always maintained at the time that he made such comments to generate publicity for a fight and to make his opponent angry.
Frazier is right to point out that Ali-Frazier fights hardly needed much publicising, but Ali has done this for all his fights including the one with Foreman. He has pointed out that it’s difficult for him to prepare for a fight without atleast building up some ‘pretend’ hatred for his opponent, or enough real hatred to get him through the fight. Ali reserved his worst pre-fight insults for Joe, and it was likely because he knew it got to Joe more than any of his other opponents.
No matter how personal or nasty, ‘trash-talking’ is seen as an acceptable and almost necessary part of hyping a fight and when the fight is over it’s usually all water under the bridge and forgotten about. But in this rivalry this sadly didn’t happen. Though the words used did undoubtedly add something to the rivalry along with the punches. Ali always had that something special inside him to dig deeper than anyone else, but I think Frazier got an extra few percent out of himself when fighting Ali that he couldn’t get against anyone else because of the hatred he felt for the man and because of his desperation to hurt him. So the war of words didn’t just build hype they also added to the quality of the fights by making Frazier even better.
That said, I think it’s fair to say Muhammad Ali was wrong to call Frazier an Uncle Tom and to attempt to paint him so unfairly as something he most definitely wasn’t. Some degree of trash talking was always going to happen but with Frazier Ali did it in a way that hurt him so deeply that he responded in a way which was also so sad and wrong.
Many years later Frazier would publicly mock Muhammad Ali for his Parkinson’s disease and say a few very ugly unpleasant things about him on more than one occasion. It should maybe be taken into account that at the time of saying these things Frazier was in a bad financial situation living in a one-room place above his gym having lost all his money earnt from fighting through failed business ventures and his own generosity. He also had a few not unserious health issues of his own. This no doubt impacted greatly on Frazier’s already existing bitterness toward Ali. He would have felt forgotten about whilst the world cherished Ali more than ever. In his final years of life he repeatedly said he no longer held any ill will towards Ali. Frazier died in 2011 with Ali attending his funeral and saying: “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”
In 1978, 3 years after the Thrilla in Manila, Joe Frazier appeared on Muhammad Ali’s edition of the British TV show ‘This Is Your Life.’ At the time both men were retired though Ali was to make an ill-fated comeback. Ali’s shock and delight at Frazier coming all that way to appear on a show dedicated to him was obvious and it was a great moment to see the two shaking hands, laughing and hugging.x