Muhammad Ali passed away on Friday at the age of 74.
I was watching TV when there was a news flash that interrupted the TV show. I’d read a couple of hours earlier that Ali had been admitted to a hospital with breathing problems so for some reason I just knew what was coming in the news flash but when the newsreader said the words “Muhammad Ali is dead at 74” it didn’t quite register.
A couple of moments later I could feel my eyes filling up with tears when the magnitude of the news hit me. The world had lost one of it’s biggest ever icons. All of a sudden the world had changed. It might sound dramatic but that’s how it felt to me.
Ali will leave behind an incredible legacy. He was the greatest sportsman the world has ever seen. He was an amazing athlete, but he also had charisma, looks, humor, incredible self belief, immense courage and an unparalleled will to succeed.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr he would later convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali.
Outside of the ring he was a man of conviction and incredible courage even though some of his views during the 60’s and 70’s were controversial and divided opinion. He did inspire Americans to rethink their views on the Vietnam war after refusing to serve in the American Military during the conflict as he believed the war was unjust. The Authorities actually sentenced him to 5 years in prison. The sentence was revoked but he was banned from boxing between 1967 and 1970. Because of this the world missed out on seeing Ali box during what would’ve been his prime but when asked in later life if he would change anything he said he wouldn’t. His views and beliefs mellowed somewhat with age and he became by all accounts the most generous and loving man you could wish to meet. They say he would treat a beggar with the same respect that he would show to a monarch. He was just a very special human being of the likes we might never see again.
As a boxer he was sensational. For a big man he had incredibly fast feet and hands and very rarely wasted a punch. He had a granite chin and the heart of a lion. Technically he wasn’t text book. He had low hands, didn’t plant his feet to gain power and was susceptible to a left hook but that’s just semantics, the man was simply brilliant. He was also one the first to use “mind games” in sport to upset his opponents in the build up to fights. He would make some fighters so angry via verbal taunts in the lead up that they would literally abandon their game plan and thus lose the fight.
An Olympic gold medalist in 1960, he first fought for the Heavyweight title as a 22 year old Cassius Clay when he defeated the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston. In his own words “he shook up the world” and would continue to shake it up for years to come.
Despite the lost years from 67-70 he still became the first 3 time Heavyweight champion of the world. The 3 fights with Joe Frazier were legendary with Ali winning the trilogy 2-1 but perhaps the most famous of Ali’s fights was the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” when he fought George Foreman in Zaire. Foreman was deemed unbeatable just like Sonny Liston had been 10 years earlier but while the rest of the world believed this, Ali didn’t. He got inside Foreman’s head in the lead up to the fight and then during the fight he adopted the so called “Rope a dope” where he sat on the ropes for 7 and a half rounds and let Foreman literally tire himself out before unleashing a flurry of counter punches which knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.
He should have retired after the foreman fight but he enjoyed the fight game too much and so carried on another 7 years. During those 7 years there were some good performances but Ali was never quite the same and the world watched on in sadness when he fought the brilliant Larry Holmes in 1981. I can remember watching it on TV with my dad and asking if this is the great Muhammad Ali because he was getting battered. His reflexes had gone and he took too many punches that day despite Holmes not unleashing his full repertoire that I think he would have on any other fighter. Ali was Holmes’ hero and it must have been hard for him but he had a job to do so can’t be blamed.
Parkinson’s was diagnosed in 1984 and every subsequent TV appearance would show the degenerative disease getting worse and worse as the years passed on.
In 1996 Ali emerged in the Olympic stadium in Atlanta to light the Olympic torch. It was a moment that will go down in history and I’m pretty sure every person who witnessed that moment either in the stadium or watching on TV shed a tear or two as the great man completed his task despite shaking badly due to his disease.
The last time he was seen on the world stage at a major sporting event was the 2012 London Olympics where he appeared very frail.
Doctors have said his final year was a tough one for Ali.
I feel privileged to have lived at a time that he did. To have actually seen Ali fight would’ve been a life highlight. My Uncle Bill actually went with a group from Barnsley to watch the “Fight of the Century” between Ali and Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971! What an experience that must have been. I’ve always looked at Uncle Bill in awe thinking that he actually saw Ali fight!
Ali was the most famous person in the world for 5 and a half decades. Every village, town and city across the world will have heard of Muhammad Ali.
His words and actions will continue to inspire future generations. I’ve already got a picture of him with a quote on it that I will be printing off and pinning to both my sons’ bedroom walls to inspire them as they grow up.
He will be remembered forever as simply The Greatest.
Fly high Ali.
What is your greatest Ali memory?