Muhammad Ali (56-5, 37 KO’s), the son of a sign painter, was born January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky.
He decided early in life that he wanted to be both rich and the heavyweight champion of the world.For most people that would remain a dream something to aspire to but never realise. This man would achieve it – and how.
At the age of twenty-one Clay had obtained half of his dream, the heavyweight crown. He had also been drawn towards new (to him) religion, Islam and with it a new name, Muhammed Ali. Shortly after his bout with Liston, Ali entered into the first round of what would be a long drawn-out battle with the United States armed forces after flunking two intelligence tests for the draft and being classified 1Y.
Originally known as Cassius Clay, Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, subsequently converting to Sunni Islam in 1975 and more recently to Sufism. In 1967, Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, based on his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War.
He was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion charges, stripped of his boxing title, and his boxing license was suspended. He was not imprisoned, but did not fight again for nearly four years while his appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was successful.
When loquacious Cassisus Clay signed for a match with Sonny Liston, only three of the forty-six “experts” polled failed to pick Liston to be an easy winner over the “Louisville Lip” or “Mighty Mouth”, as Clay was dubbed. His bravado made people overlook the fact that the Louisville, Kentucky, youth had fought his way up, starting boxing at the age of twelve.
When he won the light-heavyweight championship at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, eighteen-year-old Clay had won 108 amatuer bouts, including six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and the 1969 International Golden Gloves heavyweight crown, while losing only eight fights.
After Clay returned to Louisville, a syndicate of businessmen managed his pro career, and Angelo Dundee managed his training.
Clay’s jibes, poems, predictions and antics mounted along with his pro victories, which numbered twenty by the time he faced Sonny Liston. Clay had a genius for getting mass media attention with his clowning and physical appeal.
Color and excitement, which had been missing in boxing since the time of Jack Dempsey had returned.
Surprisingly the Clay/Liston bout, on February 25, 1964 in Miami, was a financial fiasco for promoter Bill MacDonald, with a turnout of only 8,297. Even more more surprisingly, Clay won the fight when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. Clay charged out in the first round and failed to land any telling blows, although he demonstrated his speed in delivering quick jabs to Liston’s head while dancing and moving away from Liston’s vaunted left hook.
Early in the third round, Clay opened a nasty gash under Liston’s left-eye, but the champion retaliated well enough in that round and the following one to keep the score fairly even.
The fifth round brought a dramatic turn as Clay stopped punching and kept moving away from Liston claiming he couldn’t see because of some foreign substance on Liston’s glove. Clay balked at coming out for the sixth round because of blurred vision, but with the prodding of his second, Angleo Dundee he re-entered the ring.
Clay answered the bell, recovered his vision and fought a furious round that tired Liston badly and as the seventh round was about to get underway, referee Barney Felix announced that Liston refused to continue, owing to the eye cuts and injury to his left shoulder.
When the fight was stopped, the officials, Felix and the judges Bill Lovitt and Gus Jacobsen, had scored the bout a draw.
No title fight in any class ever stirred up so many questions, charges, suspicions or angry reverberations as did Ali’s 1:42 knockout of Liston in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25 1965. Ali leaped out of his corner and immediately connected with a right and a left to Liston’s head.
Suddenly he landed a corkscrew right to the left side of the head, and Liston sagged to his knees, and then rolled over onto his back.
Liston struggled to get back up but again fell on his back. Ali danced over to the fallen man, calling his names and telling him to get up and fight, ignoring the exhortations of referee Jersey Joe Walcott to go to a neutral corner.
The rules say that there can be no legal count over a fallen boxer, so long as the standing fighter refuses to go to a netural corner.
Nevertheless, knockdown timekeeper Frank McDonough started counting when Liston hit the canvas. He eventually got as far as twenty-two before Liston lurched to his feet.
Both fighters began trading blows and then referee Jersey Joe Walcott heard Nat Fleischer shout “Joe, the fight is over!” Although Ali had not gone to a neutral corner, Walcott accepted the timekeeper’s count, separated the men, and declared Ali the winner.
Although Liston continued to fight, he was never considered a major contender. Five years later, on January 5, 1971, his wife found him dead in his Las Vegas home.
The circumstances surrounding his death remained mysterious, even sinister-a balloon of heroin was discovered in his kitchen at the time he was found.
On November 22, 1965, Floyd Patterson stepped into the ring with Ali in Las Vegas, hoping to win back the heavyweight title for a third time. Instead the ex-champion received a merciless beating from a younger, taller, heavier and sharper opponent.
Ali at 210 pounds bewildered the much lighter194-pound contender with left jabs and jolting rights to the body. The one sided affair was halted at 2:18 of the twelfth round by referee Harry Krause.
Although 1966 was a successful year for Ali pugisltically, it opened by taking an emotional toll. Since becoming a Muslim he had become increasingly involved in his adopted religion. In January he divorced his wife, the former Sonji Roi, a model, because he said, “she would not abide by the Muslim standards” by giving up her flashy dressing and makeup.
Then in February, a reporter showed up at Ali’s home to tell him that his local draft board had re-classified him 1A and that he could expect to be called up shortly. With what turned out to be unfortunate timing, the media picked up on Ali’s I got no quarrel with them Vietcong and a brushfire of patriotic reaction raced across the country, causing the cancellation of a proposed fight with Ernie Terrell.
Public sentiment drove Ali out of the country to seek fights on foreign soil for almost a year while he waited for a decision on his appeal for draft deferment as a conscientious objector and then as a Muslim minister.
Ali arrived on English soil after offering England’s Henry Cooper the possibility of winning the heavyweight championship. The English welcomed Ali with open arms. A sell-out crowd paid $450,000 to watch the 188-pound Cooper to try and flatten the 201-pound Ali with his powerful left hook.
In June 1963, the Englishman came close when he knocked Ali off his feet at the end of the fourth round, the bell just barely rescuing Ali. However, Cooper was stopped in round five when facial cuts made it to dangerous for him to continue.
On May 21, 1966, Cooper got a second chance, but his hope was quenched suddenly in the sixth round when Ali landed two swift punches to the head, opening up a deep, jagged wound over Cooper’s left eye and sending cascades of blood down his face.
Referee George Smith halted the fight.
Three months later, badly out-classed Brian London, at 200 pounds, landed only two punches of minimal potency before Ali hit him with a right to the jaw in the third round, sending London down on his face.
At the count of seven he raised himself partially, looked at the referee Harry Gibbs, and went down again to be counted out as 11,000 fans booed their countryman.
Ali defended his title for the fourth time in five months when he met the 194 pound champion of Europe, Karl Mildenberger on September 10, 1966, in Frankfurt Germany, before an audience of 45,000.
Ali toyed with the German until late in the fourth round, when the champion became angry after Mildenberger landed two jolting lefts and launched a two-fisted attack that drove Ali across the ring. Ali recovered and delivered a left and right combination that opened a gash over Mildenberger’s right eye.
From the sixth round on, Ali battered Mildenberger, then stepped back occasionally to survey his handywork. Tired and bloody, Mildenberger managed to come out for the twelfth round. After Ali backed the German into the ropes and belted him with a flurry of lefts and rights, referee Teddy Waltham stopped the bout.
“The Big Cat” Cleveland Williams received a similar beating from Ali on November 14 that year, in Houston, Texas. Ali decked the 210 pound challenger three times in the second round and once in the third before referee Harry Kessler stopped the fight.
Three months later, Ernie Terrell, weighing 212 pounds, suffered the slow punishment and humiliation Ali had promised him for refusing to acknowledge the champion’s adopted Muslim name. The fight went to the full fifteen rounds, but Ali’s superiorty was obvious, and referee Kessler and judges Jimmy Webb and Ernie Taylor unanimously awarded thirteen rounds to the champion.
New York’s Madison Square Garden drew a gate of $244,471 on March 22, 1967, as 13,780 fans watched thirty-four year old Zora Foley succumb to an extremely fast Ali in the seventh round.
Ali gave the first three rounds to his opponent as he danced around the ring. At the opening of the fourth round, chief second Angelo Dundee told Ali to Get Going, at which point Ali showed what a breathtaking fighter he really was. Every punch he delivered was sharp and on target. At the start of the seventh round, Ali manoeuvred Foley into position.
A short downward right, similar to the phantom punch that decked Liston at Lewiston, downed Foley and the fight was over.
While Ali was busy piling up victories, the U.S Government was reviewing and turning down Ali’s request for a ministerial deferment. On April 28, 1967, Ali was ordered to report to the Houston induction centre. He reported but refused induction. On May 9, a Federal Grand Jury indicted him on the charge of failing to submit to the draft.
Within a few hours both the New York Boxing Commission and the World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his title and banned him from fighting anywhere in the United States.
Ali was tried on June 19th and 20th in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in Houston, presided over by Judge Joe Ingraham. With the judge’s emphatic statement that the court was to consider only whether Ali had refused induction, not the fairness of the 1A classification or Ali’s status
as a Muslim, there was little surprise at the guilty verdict.
What did cause a surprise was the maximum penalty of a five-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. Ali was released on bail, and his lawyer, Hayden C. Covington, of New York, filed an appeal. Meanwhile, Covington had also initiated a civil case questioning the legitimacy of the Louisville, Kentucky, and Houston draft boards because there were no blacks on either board.
Shortly thereafter, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the district court’s verdict of guilty, and a further appeal was filed with the U.S Supreme Court, On August 3 Judge Ingraham refused Ali’s request for permission to travel to foreign countries to honour flight contracts. Ali was ordered to turn in his passport.
One bright light appeared for Ali, on August 17, he married seventeen year-old muslim Belinda Boyd. While the case was pending in Supreme Court, the federal Government disclosed that five telephone conversations involving Ali had been tapped by the F.B.I.
The Supreme Court ordered the district court to reconsider the case, and on July 24, 1969, Judge Ingraham ruled that all five conversations were irrelevant to the conviction.
A year elapsed before the Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision. During that time Ali had held a press conference on February 3, 1970 to say emphatically that he would not enter the ring as a professional.
He called Nat Loubet, editor of the Ring, to inform him that he had quit boxing. At this time the Ring magazine acknowledged the vacancy the New York and World Boxing Association had declared two years earlier.
Two years after Ali’s match with Foley, he managed to get a licence in Georgia to fight an eighth-round exhibition against three minor heavyweights in September and then to fight Jerry Quarry, whom he knocked out in three, on October 25 at Atlanta, Georgia.
A breakthrough occurred when Federal Court Judge Walter E. Mansfield nullified the New York Commission’s refusal to give Ali a licence, calling it, an arbitrary and unreasonable action. Despite his insistence that he was through with professional boxing and no longer the title holder, on December 7, 1970, Ali met and destroyed Oscar Bonavena of Italy in the fifteenth round in New York.
Finally, on June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court handed down its long awaited ruling. The decision was eight to nothing in Ali’s favour, with Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining. Ali was back in the boxing game. Nothing caused such a great muddle around the heavyweight title as had Ali’s draft case.
The W.B.A had taken the title from him, and now it had to find a replacement. Three months later it sanctioned the organisation of an eight-man elimination tourney headed by Mike Malitz’s Sports Action Inc, a New York based firm, to determine who would take over Ali’s “vacated” title.
The intent of the tourney was somewhat thwarted when officials of the New York’s Madison Square Garden arranged a bout between George Chuvalo of Canada and Joe Frazier of Philadelphia, for July 19, 1967. Frazier knocked out Chuvalo in the fourth round, then refused to join the elimination group. The group consisted of Frazier, Thad Spencer, Ernie Terrell, Oscar Bonavena, Karl Mildenberger, Jimmy Ellis, Floyd Patterson and Jerry Quarry.
In retaliation, the W.B.A dropped Frazier from number one to number nine in the rankings, to enable Leotis Martin to get into the number-eight spot as Frazier’s substitute.
The New York Boxing Commission further complicated matters by declaring that the winner of the W.B.A tourney would not be recognized unless that champion defeated Frazier. The round-robin began on August 5, 1967, with Spencer pitted against Terrell, and Ellis against Martin, in Houston, Texas.
Spencer from Portland, Oregon, won a twelve-round decision over Terrell, of Atlantic City, New Jersey. On the same day and in the same arena, Ellis from Louisville, knocked out the Philadelphian, Martin, in the ninth.
In Frankfurt, Germany, Bonavena beat Mildenberger in twelve rounds on September 16, 1967. The final match between in the first round was fought between Patterson and Quarry on October 28 in Quarry’s home state, California.
Quarry won a split decision in which referee Vern Bybee voted a draw while judges Lee Grossman and Joey Lomas gave the fight to Quarry. Now Mexico and Britain entered the picture. Mexico’s governing body for boxing tried but failed to get Manuel Ramos placed in the W.B.A listings.
Ramos had stopped Terrell on October 14; likewise the British couldn’t get Eduardo Corletti, victory over Johnny Prescott on October 17, into the tourney. In the final round, on December 2, 1967, Ellis and Bonavena met in Louisville, Kentucky, where Ellis decked Bonavena twice and went on to win a unanimous decision in twelve rounds.
In Oakland, California, Quarry stopped 6-foot 4-inch Spencer in the second semi-final, three seconds before the bell ended the twelve-round fight on February 3, 1968. The final bout of the tournament took place on April 27, 1968, in Oakland, where the 197 pound Ellis won over the 195 pound Quarry in fifteen round
The referee Elmer Costa, and judge Fred Apostoli, the former middleweight champ awarded the fight to Ellis, while the judge Rudy Ortega scored the match a draw. The 11,358 fans brought a gate of $186,700.
Ellis was the W.B.A champion, but the New York Boxing Commission announced that it would recognize the winner of the Joe Frazier-Buster Mathis bout as the new champion.
Five state commissions, as well as those of Mexico and South America, followed New York’s decision. Thus, when Frazier stopped Mathis in the eleventh round, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois recognized Frazier as the champion while others recognized Ellis.
The opposing powers were reconciled when Frazier stopped Ellis in the fifth round on February 16, 1970, at New York. The title stripped from Ali had finally been filled. Frazier then became undisputed heavyweight champion two weeks after Ali had publicly announced his retirement.
It seemed that the whole messy business was over, but now Ali, still the ‘People’s Champion’ changed his mind and announced he would like to make a comeback.
Surprisingly, the state of Georgia gave him a licence, and on October 26, 1970 he returned after three and half years of inactivity to stop Jerry Quarry in the third round.
Hardened boxing reporters were amazed at how little the enforced rest had apparently affected the dancing master.
The match everybody wanted now, of course, was Ali v Frazier, a unique meeting of two unbeaten heavyweight champions. They remained that way as Frazier disposed of the light-heavyweight champion, Bob Foster, attempting to become the first to step up and take the top crown but, like those before him failing, Frazier was much too strong and knocked him out in two rounds.
Ali won a small battle in his war with the state when a federal court judge ruled that the New York refusal to give Ali a licence was unreasonable. On December 7, 1970 Ali took on Oscar Bonavena, the tough Argentinian at Madison Square Garden, New York, and knocked him out in the fifthteenth round, a feat Frazier had failed to achieve two years earlier. Soon afterwards the big fight was announced; for Madison Square Garden on March 8th, 1971.
The Fight of the Century
With a live audience of over 20,000 plus an audience of 1.3 million watching on closed-circuit television and with over 300 million all over the world awaiting the televised recording, the fight was a huge financial bonanza, for once justifying the tag ‘Fight of the Century’. Ali was by no means the unpopular character he had been four years earlier.
Opinion in America about the Vietnam War had swung considerably, and his long fight for his principles against the US government was seen as more of a brave struggle than a selfish refusal to acknowledge his responsibilities. He was supported by blacks and liberals, while Frazier had the backing of whites and the establishment.
Opinion as to the outcome was, equally evenly divided, with old-stagers favouring Frazier on the grounds that ‘they never come back’ (especially after four years) and the young favouring the charismatic Ali. In the event, Ali proved to be not quite ready.
It was a tremendous battle, fulfilling all hopes, with the plodding, relentless Frazier persistently boring in like a bull and the tall, more athletic Ali continually dodging and spearing in his shafts like a matador.
First one, then other seemed to have an advantage, but towards it was Frazier who stayed the course better.
If there were any doubts when the last round began they were dispelled when a left hook from Frazier sent Ali tumbling to the canvas as his leg buckled beneath him. He rose at three and remained upright to the bell, but Frazier won a unanimous decision. Both men had suffered physical punishment, but Ali took his defeat gracefully.
After the Frazier bout, Ali had a big victory to come in the courts. On June 28, 1971 the Supreme Court decided to unanimously in his favour, his prison sentence was quashed, and he was free to continue his comeback unhindered.
Ali had fought thirteen times since losing to Frazier. These included six knockouts, with a broken jaw loss to Ken Norton, whom he beat in a rematch, including a decision over the European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner in a twelve-round bout on February 14, 1973, in Las Vegas, Neveda.
This then set up Ali-Frazier II, a non title rematch with Joe Frazier, who had already lost his title to George Foreman.
The bout was held on January 28, 1974, with Ali winning a unanimous 12-round decision.
The Rumble in the Jungle
Muhammad Ali, on October 29, 1974, became the second man in boxing history to win the world heavyweight title twice.
He accomplished this with a knockout over George Foreman in 2:58 of the eighth round when a left hook, a right to the jaw, and another left hook deposited the champion on the canvas where he was counted out by referee Zack Clayton.
The only other heavyweight champion to achieve this feat at the time, was Floyd Patterson, who re-won his championship in 1960 by knocking out Ingemar Johannson who had taking the title from Floyd the previous year.
Approximately 62,000 fans witnessed Ali’s upset victory over Foreman in the 20th of May in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman, going into the fight as a 3-1 favourite, fought according to plan, the only way he knew how to fight, a crowding pushing, two fisted flailing attack.
From the opening bell upto the ending in the eighth round George had Ali against the ropes while he banged away at Ali’s rib cage in an attempt to blast his challenger out of contention.
Foreman looked formidable in the early round as he appeared to be overpowering Ali with jolting body blows. George’s attempt to land Ali’s head was less successful as Ali used the ropes to his advantage, sliding and moving just enough to avoid being seriously damaged. In the third round Ali began to use his left and several combinations to Foreman’s head, spearing the oncoming champion.
By the fifth round it became obvious to those at ringside that Ali was fighting a different type of fight than had been expected. He did not dance around the ring and exhibit the butterfly approach of speed and stinging.
Rather, he fought Foreman from a flatfooted stance and used his speed to counterpunch and cover up, avoiding the all-out blitz so characteristic of the champion’s mode of attack.
Despite Foreman’s statement to the writers in the dressing room after the fight was over that he was never tired during the fight and never felt as secure as he did during the bout; it was obvious to all at ringside that Foreman was kayoed as much from exhaustion as from Ali’s blows.
Foreman’s punching power lessened from the fifth round on, and the tide of battle moved from Foreman’s high tide, receding to an ebb as his strength failed and Ali began to land the better punches.
The surprise was that it was Foreman who lost his power and stamina while Ali, who many felt would be worn down by the pressing tactics of the champion was the fresher as the last three rounds of the contest were fought.
After the fight in both dressing rooms the new and old champion played the parts expected of them.
Ali; “I told you all I would do it, but did you listen? He was scared, he was humiliated. I told you I was the greatest heavyweight of all time.
“I didn’t dance. I wanted him to tire, to lose power. I decided to use the ropes. He punched like a sissy.
“I kept telling him during the fight to show me something, to come on and punch. Come on, you’re the champion! Show me something.
“What you saw wasn’t me, it was Allah. It wasn’t me, you know I can’t punch. Me knock out George? Not me, that was Allah”
Foreman played the opposite role. Asked if the count had been a fast one, he said emphatically, “No!”
“Ali was the better man tonight, give him the credit due.”
A large bruise swelled his left cheek and his left eye was slightly closed as he lay on his back on the rubbing table in his dressing room.
“I lost the fight, but I wasn’t beaten. I want a return fight. I followed the instruction of Dick Saddler, my trainer, but next time I will follow them better.
I can beat Ali”
As if making up for lost time, Ali now embarked on his second busy spell as champion. Four times he defended in 1975.
Chuck Wepner a 6ft 5ins (1.96m), 225lb (102kg) journeyman with a number of defeats on his record, was not likely to present any problems, and he did not, being stopped 19 seconds from the end of the fight at the Cleveland Coliseum.
Ron Lyle, like Ali 33 years old, had a better record than Wepner, with only two points defeat on his record. The two met at the Convention Hall, Las Vegas, and after dancing around his man for ten rounds Ali decided to end it in the eleventh round, and did so by forcing the referee to intervene after a flurry of punches.
Joe Bugner, the former British champion, was potentially a bigger threat than either of the two previous fighters when given the chance of the title. He was eight years younger than Ali, was slightly taller and heavier, and had an equally powerful physique.
He had already gone distance with both Ali and Frazier but unfortunately, Bugner was never a natural fighter and was in introspective mood and content to be comfortably outpointed again.
The Thrilla in Manila
All this led up to what was billed as The Thrilla in Manila, the third Ali-Frazier meeting. The two had built up a special rivalry since the Fight of the Century four and a half years earlier, and the public was anxious to see the rubber match between then, despite the fact that each had now suffered two defeats. The ultimate television audience was reckoned to be about 700 million in 68 countries.
Frazier had stopped Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis since losing to Ali, and the two men looked to be the best heavyweights in the business with the possible exception of Foreman, whose future ambitions were uncertain.
Ali predicted an early knock-out for the bout, in the Philippine Coliseum, Manila, and in the opening four rounds appeared to attempt to satisfy this prophecy, buckling Frazier’s legs in the first and continually jerking his head back in the third. But his fight strategy had to be revised when the challenger fought back hard in the fifth and sixth, having Ali in trouble.
After ten rounds the contest was level, but with both men down to their last reserves of strength, Ali’s long distance pummelling of Frazier’s face began to make the decisive difference. As Frazier’s eyes puffed up, by the end of the 14th Frazier could hardly see and his manager Eddie Futch would not allow him to go out for the last round. Both men were utterly exhausted and spoke of retiring, and neither was quite as good again.
Ali however, was champion and there were challenges to meet and turn aside. He rested for over four months and then took on a Belgian, Jean-Pierre Coopman, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He knocked him out in the fifth, following him with Jimmy Young, an American contender, who put up a good resistance before losing the decision at Landover.
Ali then went to Munich in Germany to face the European champion, Richard Dunn of Britain, and forced the referee to stop it in the fifth.
He indulged in an exhibition bout with a wrestler, Antonio Inoki, in Tokyo and then gave a chance to Ken Norton who was 1-1 with him after two exciting bouts.
Norton had appeared to have lost some confidence after his heavy defeat by Foreman two and half years earlier. However he always fought well against Ali, and took him the distance again at Madison Square Garden in another good battle.
Alfredo Evangelista of Italy, who later was to be European champion, was well outpointed over 15 rounds against Ali at the Capital Centre, Landover, but Earnie Shavers, a shave-headed puncher from Warren, Ohio gave him a sterner test. Shavers had won 52 of his 60 contests inside the distance, but Ali kept him well in
control to take the decision.
Ali was now 36, and heavier and slower than in his early championship years, and he now took on a man who could exploit the slowness, if nothing else. He was Leon Spinks, the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion.
Spinks was 27lb (12kg) the lighter and twelve years younger than Ali, but his professional career consisted of seven fights only, in one of which he had been held to a draw.
Ali and Spinks met at Hilton Pavilion, Las Vegas, on February 15, 1978. Ali fought a very lethargic, careless fight. He allowed Spinks, a 10-1 underdog in the betting, to be backed into the ropes, just as he had performed against Foreman. But Spinks did not wilt. He was a much lighter puncher and looked as if he
could buzz around the champion all night.
In fact, Spinks looked hyped up, and kept up a tremendous feverish pace, accentuated by Ali sluggishness. Occasionally Ali fought back and looked the more dangerous when he did, but the points were being pulled up by Spinks. Only in the last round did Ali stage a fight-back, when he hurt Spinks and drove him all around the ring.
It was too late. Although it earner him the verdict of one judge the WBA/WBC Heavyweight titles title changed hands on a split-decision.
There were those who wondered whether Ali’s commitment had been subconsciously less than total, in view of the fact that he now had an excellent chance, with a return-fight clause, to win the title for an unprecedented third time. The World Boxing Council were having none of this, and called Spinks to defend against Ken Norton.
Since his defeat by Ali, Norton had beaten Duane Berbick and Jimmy Young in an eliminator to make himself the top challenger. Spinks had to refuse to meet Norton and was thus stripped of the WBC title, and Norton was named as champion, on the grounds of having won the eliminator.
Norton proved to be a champion who never won a title fight, and on the strength of this his name is not usually included in the lists of champions. He was ‘crowned’ in March 1978 and was matched to ‘defend’ against Larry Holmes on June 9th, 1978 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
Larry Holmes was another big heavyweight of 6ft 4ins (1.93m) and 210lb (95kg). He was 29 years old and had an unbeaten record stretching back over 27 professional bouts. He had waited a long time for his chance, but it paid off when his experience helped him to outpoint Norton in an exciting fight.
Nobody but the WBC believed Holmes was the true champion with Ali and Spinks about to do battle again, the Superdrome in New Orleans was the venue for a carnival of Boxing. Four world titles would be decided there. The date was September 15, 1978 – over 14 years after Ali first won the title – and he made ring history by becoming heavyweight champion for the third time.
In this contest he did not allow Spinks any chance to dictate the pace. Instead of leaning on the ropes he gave Spinks a lesson in the art of moving in and out with stiff blows and using the ring to bewilder an opponent. This time Spinks did tire, probably because he was always fighting a losing battle, and Ali in the late stages ripped into him with the intention of knocking him out.
He failed to do so but won a very convincing decision. He was now approaching 37 years old. He did not defend for a year, and then decided to retire, leaving Holmes as the outstanding claimant to the title.
Two years later Holmes accepted a challenge from former champion Muhammad Ali and in fighting Holmes Ali saw the prospect of a fourth world title win, plus the obvious box-office rewards for a right between two champions.
It was billed at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, as for the vacant title.
Ali had got his weight down to below what was his best when in his prime, but in all respects was not the man he was. In fact at 38 year old, he had little to offer apart from one or two glimpses of his former glory. Holmes won as he pleased, and seemed reluctant to punish the former champion, frequently stepping back and glancing at the referee as a suggestion that it might be stopped.
It was relief to most onlookers when Ali’s corner decide it should be stopped after 10 rounds and Angelo Dundee refused to let his man come out for the 11th round, in what became Ali’s only loss by anything other than a decision.
Ali’s final fight, a loss by unanimous decision after 10 rounds was to up-and-coming challenger Trevor Berbick in 1981.
Muhammad Ali beat all top heavyweights in his era which was called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. Ali was named “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazine more times than any other boxer, and was involved in more Ring Magazine “Fight of the Year” bouts than any other fighter.
He also received the US Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Bush, who appeared almost playful, fastened the heavy medal around Muhammad Ali’s neck and whispered something in the heavyweight champion’s ear. Then, as if to say “bring it on,” the president put up his dukes in a mock challenge.
Ali, who had Parkinson’s disease and moved slowly, looked the president in the eye — and, finger to head, did the “crazy” twirl for a couple of seconds.
Ali 74, had suffered for three decades from Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal grace and his physical dexterity.
Muhammad Ali was a game changer, he transformed the sport of boxing. There will never be another one like him!
He is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and holds wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees.
He is also one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. What would he like people to think about him once he is gone? Here is his poetic reply.
R.I.P Muhammad Ali