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I just found out this evening that today is Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday.  I am re-posting this diary that I wrote only a couple of months ago not long after Ali's arch rival Joe Frazier passed away.  There has never, ever been someone like him.  And, it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of Muhammad Ali again in our lifetime.
During this season of political protests, when tens of thousands of people around the country are expressing their democratic will and forcefully asserting their constitutionally-guaranteed political rights, it is instructive to remember an American who did just that with dignity, conviction, and style over four decades ago by standing up to the establishment and adopting controversial positions which were, to say the least, extremely unpopular at the time.

He was much more than a flamboyant and charismatic boxer whose triumphs in the ring thrilled countless number of fans.  Millions more around the world cheered him on for his courageous stands on behalf of freedom of speech and expression. He was called a traitor to his own country and, yet, his principled opposition to war and aggression (as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War) made him a hero and one to emulate for an entire generation of young people.  Freed perhaps from their earlier biases, not many would later question his pugilistic mastery, poetry, and personal bravery.

His exploits in the boxing arena alone would have have been sufficient to enshrine his place in history. That wasn't enough for him.  Exercising his free speech rights cost him dearly but his actions reflects a life that epitomizes uncompromising personal integrity and political courage.  

Sketch Credit: Fan Art! (Artist: Otrofco).  Muhammad Ali hovers over Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in the first round of their rematch fight in Lewiston, Maine in May 1965, exhorting him to "Get up and fight, sucker!" The photograph that inspired this sketch is widely considered to be one of the most famous in sports history. Photographer Neil Leifer described the iconic moment in this article.

Becoming a Media Sensation and Achieving Fame

John Lennon may have been right when he claimed in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ had ever been in his time.  But it wouldn't last long for them.  Far more than kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, priests, scientists, and, yes, even famous rock 'n roll musicians, it was a young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who soared to such heights in the 1960's that he, alone, would become the most recognized person in the world.


Supremely confident of his own skills and possessing a magnetic personality coupled with a quick wit, he could "float like a butterfly" and "sting like a bee."  He would make outrageous claims before his highly-publicized fights and, somehow, miraculously make them come true in the ring.  

Given the worldwide acclaim that Muhammad Ali finally achieved, no one diary can do justice to understanding this complicated man.  This diary will look at three of his fights -- with Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier -- and his bitter, costly struggle with the United States Government, which tried to draft him to fight a war in a far-away foreign land and one he was determined not to participate in.  In doing so, I hope I would have exposed you to a few photographs, videos, and poems that you may have never seen or read before.  It will also include a special tribute to Joe Frazier, who passed away earlier this month.

Watch Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in the above video clowning around for photographers with the Fab Four (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney) on February 18, 1964 in Miami, Florida.  Read more about the controversy generated by John Lennon's remark about Jesus. Video credit: Readers Almanac.

Everyone loves a winner.  The Beatles only met Clay by default after Sonny Liston refused to be photographed with them.  John Lennon was skeptical of being associated with Clay for he didn't think he (Clay) could beat Liston in their upcoming fight.  However, they also needed each other for media publicity for neither Clay nor the Beatles had yet achieved the worldwide fame and acclaim that they would in spectacular fashion in the years to come.    

Reporter Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times describes the memorable encounter

As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me.  There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards.  As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America.  They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op.  He had taken one look at them and said "I’m not posing with those sissies.'  Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay -- to at least get a shot with him...

They were cursing.  They were angry.  They were absolutely furious.  I introduced myself.  John said, "Hi, I’m Ringo."  Ringo said, "Hi, I’m George."  I asked how they thought the fight was going to go.  "Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker," they said.  Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali.  Cassius Clay.  He glowed.  And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs -- because he was perfect.  He leaned in, looked at them and said, "C’mon, let’s go make some money."

And then -- if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn it was choreographed -- he turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring.  You can see this now on YouTube [see above].  They followed him out to the ring and they began capering around the room.  They lined up.  He tapped Ringo.  They all went down like dominoes.  It was a marvelous, antic set piece.

"Robert Lipsyte Describes How Cassius Clay Met The Beatles" - Readers Almanac.  Photo credit:  Read more about this encounter in "Winner by a Decision" by Lipsyte in Smithsonian magazine.  See these two videos about Ali, Liston, and the Beatles -- Muhammad Ali Training for Liston and Meeting the Beatles and Cassius Clay Conquers The Beatles.  A week later, Clay would defeat Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Champion.  

The Early Years

Sometimes, insignificant events happen that can forever change a person's life.  In Ali's case, it was having his bicycle stolen at the age of twelve that would shape and define his entire life

Who would’ve thought that a stolen bike was the key to the beginning of the Muhammad Ali story?  But it was.  In 1954 in Louisville, Kentucky, 12-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay’s bike was stolen while he and a friend were at the Columbia Auditorium.

Young Cassius found a cop in a gym, Joe Martin, and boiling with youthful rage, told Martin he was going to "whup" whoever stole his bike.  Martin admonished, "You better learn to box first."  Within weeks, 89-pound Cassius had his first bout -- his first win.

Source: "Muhammad Ali Biographical Sketch."  The above photograph is of a young Ali when he was twelve years old.  Photo credit: dipity.  

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, grandson of a slave, began boxing at the age of twelve, and, by eighteen, had fought 108 amateur bouts.  How is it possible that the young man who, in his twenties, would astonish the world not just with the brilliance of his boxing but the sharpness of his wit seems to have been a dull-average student in high school who graduated 376th out of a class of 391?  In 1966, his score on a mental aptitude test was an Army IQ of 78, well below military qualification.  In 1975, Ali confessed to a reporter that he "can’t read too good" and had not read ten pages of all the material written about him.  I remember the television interview in which, asked what else he might have done with his life, Ali paused, for several seconds, clearly not knowing how to reply.  All he’d ever known, he said finally, was boxing.

Mental aptitude tests cannot measure genius except in certain narrow ranges, and the genius of the body, the play of lightning-swift reflexes coupled with unwavering precision and confidence, eludes comprehension.

Joyce Carol Oates, "The Cruelest Sport," New York Review of Books.  The above video traces Ali's early career as a young boxer in Louisville, Kentucky and has video clips of several of those fights.  Alone among his contemporaries, he had an unorthodox fighting style, with his hands staying down most of the time. Instead, he relied heavily upon his speed and quickness to elude his opponent's punches.

In 1964, a brash new pro boxer, Cassius Clay, explodes onto the scene, fresh from his Olympic gold medal victory.  Bold and outspoken, he cuts an entirely new image for African Americans in sport with his annoying arrogance and his unapologetic belief that he is the greatest boxer of all time.  To his credit, he sets out to prove that with his highly agile and forceful style soon making him a formidable boxer who soon claims the heavyweight championship.

His personal life is no less noteworthy with his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, his friendship with the controversial Malcolm X and his abandonment of his slave name in favor of Muhammad Ali stirring up controversy.

Source: "Ali," a biographical movie released in 2001.  Actor Will Smith had to gain a considerable amount of weight to play the starring role.  Muhammad Ali is pictured above with Malcolm X in 1963.  Photo credit:  

Confronting "The Big Bear"

Cassius Clay appeared on NBC's The Jack Paar Show in late 1963 and talked about his achievements as a young professional boxer and explained to his host (video) as to why he would defeat Sonny Liston.  He then recited the below poem, with Liberace playing the piano.  

This is the Legend of Cassius Clay

This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y,
Of a muscular punch that's incredibly speed-y.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.

Then someone with color and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans are runnin' with Cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
and the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid's got a left, this kid's got a right,
If he hit you once, you're asleep for the night.

Source: shippinganywhere.  Also see this terrific Clay video in which he performs a magic trick to the amazement of CBS' Ed Sullivan, Muhammad Ali Talks with Ed Sullivan.

Few boxing experts gave Cassius Clay a chance to win against Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight boxing champion and one who possessed the hardest punch in the sport.  Liston was not one to mess around with.  In a pre-fight publicity poem which predicted Liston's defeat, Clay sketched the outcome in advance

A Total Eclipse of Sonny Liston

Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with a left,
Clay swings with a right,
Just look at young Cassius carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room,
It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom.

Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing,
And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring.
Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown,
But he can't start counting until Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight,
That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.
Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,
That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

The above video has highlights from the first Ali-Liston fight in 1964.  Both fights between the two boxers generated a great deal of controversy and unsubstantiated rumors that Liston threw the fights either because he was under the influence of the mob or afraid of the Nation of Islam.

Defying all odds, Clay would defeat Liston by a technical knockout in the 6th round on February 25, 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world.  A week later, he would change his name to Muhammad Ali.  Defending his title nine times over the next three years, he would be stripped of his title in April 1967 for refusing induction in the United States Armed Forces.

"I Ain't Got No Quarrel With the Vietcong.  No Vietcong ever called me Ni***r."

What was behind Ali's refusal to be inducted and fight in Vietnam?

On August 23, 1966, Muhammad Ali embarked on the biggest "fight" of his life when he applied with the Selective Service for conscientious objector status on religious grounds (as a minister with the Nation of Islam).  In what became an extensive legal, political, professional, and personal battle, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title, and became a lightning rod -- and a voice -- for opinions on the Vietnam War.  Muhammad Ali's willingness to speak out against racism in the United States, and the affect it had on domestic and foreign policy, earned him many supporters and detractors.  In 1971, nearly five years after it began, Ali's legal battle finally culminated with a unanimous decision (8-0 with Thurgood Marshall abstaining) by the United States Supreme Court overturning his draft conviction.

Source: "African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War".  In the above video, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. forcefully defends Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam, a war he referred to as "objectionable, abominable, and unjust."  Watch this video "The Politics of Muhammad Ali" to get a better sense of Ali's political beliefs and how some other black athletes, celebrities, and friends felt at the time.

In a bygone era of professional sports -- when athletes were unafraid to express opinions on political issues -- Ali received a great deal of support from other prominent black athletes, notable among them Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar).  

Read more about this meeting organized by Jim Brown in Cleveland, Ohio and Brown's thoughts on it many years later

I ain't draft dodging.  I ain't burning no flag.  I ain't running to Canada.  I'm staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead.  I've been in jail for 400 years.  I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain't going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people.  If I want to die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese.  You my opposer when I want freedom.  You my opposer when I want justice.  You my opposer when I want equality.  Want me to go somewhere and fight for you?  You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs.  You won't even stand up for my right here at home.

Source: Ali, a biographical film in which actor Will Smith played the role of Muhammad Ali.  Photo credit: Cleveland Plain-Dealer, "NBA 'Free-agent Summit' a Reminder of a 1967 Event in Cleveland That Wasn't about Money" by Branson Wright.  Pictured above are Front row: Bill Russell, Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor).  Back row: Mayor Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

"The Rumble in the Jungle"

A great deal has been said and written about this fight since 1974.  In a pre-fight promotional appearance at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, Ali tried to "psych out" George Foreman

"You Know I’m Bad"

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don't get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.


If you have never seen this terrific documentary about the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight, the full version is available on YouTube and features many media and literary celebrities including Howard Cosell, James Brown, B.B. King, Don King, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton -- "When We Were Kings."

Author Norman Mailer also wrote a wonderful book about the fight -- The Fight.  I highly recommend it.

Poster source: A World of Boxing.  A poster promoting the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire that came to be known as "The Rumble In The Jungle" (left) and underdog Ali knocks out Foreman in the 8th round using his now-famous "Rope-a-Dope" boxing strategy to regain his heavyweight title.  Photo credit: Vintage Treasures.

"The Thrilla in Manila"

The third and final fight between Muhammad Ali and arch rival Joe Frazier in 1975 may have been the most vicious of all fights in boxing history.  It was marked by ugly rhetoric and unfounded accusations by Ali, which he came to regret later in life.

What was behind this feud between two great champions?

It wasn't Frazier's fault that Ali was more attractive, witty, articulate, politically newsworthy and exciting in the ring than any heavyweight in the history of boxing.  By contrast, Smokin' Joe was built like a truck, didn't have much to say, fought like a machine programmed to only move forward and was seen as a king illegitimately crowned due to a void created by political and religious prejudice.

Worse, however, was the demolition job Ali did to Frazier's reputation, manhood and status as a black man.  Endless clips show the lighter-skinned Ali repeatedly calling Frazier ugly, referring to him as a gorilla, saying he belonged in a zoo, making fun of his flat nose and, worst of all, insisting that Frazier was an Uncle Tom, a mere puppet of white financiers.  It was the latter charge that particularly enraged the disciplined, working-class Frazier and, unfortunately, stuck in the mind of the black community.

Todd McCarthy, "Thriller in Manila" - Variety.  The British documentary "Thrilla in Manila" was released in 2009 and is largely sympathetic to Joe Frazier's point of view.  

This is an excerpt from the classic account of this fight by Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated

The maddest of existentialists, one of the great surrealists of our time, the king of all he sees, Ali had never before appeared so vulnerable and fragile, so pitiably unmajestic, so far from the universe he claims as his along.  He could barely hold his fork, and he lifted the food slowly up to his bottom lip, which had been scraped pink.  The skin on his face was dull and blotched, his eyes drained of that familiar childlike wonder.  His right eye was a deep purple, beginning to close, a dark blind being drawn against a harsh light.  He chewed his food painfully, and then he suddenly moved away from the candles as if he had become aware of the mask he was wearing, as if an inner voice were laughing at him.  He shrugged, and the moment was gone.

A couple of miles away in the bedroom of a villa, the man who has always demanded answers of Ali, has trailed the champion like a timber wolf, lay in semidarkness.  Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet of him.  "Who is it?" asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around.  "I can't see! I can't see! Turn the lights on!"  Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see.  The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far -- and now surely too far.  His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya.  "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," said Frazier.  "Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion."  Then he put his head back down on the pillow, and soon there was only the heavy breathing of a deep sleep slapping like big waves against the silence.

Time may well erode that long morning drama in Manila, but for anyone who was there those faces will return again and again to evoke what it was like when two of the greatest heavyweights of any era met for a third time, and left millions limp around the world.  Muhammad Ali caught the way it was: "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of."

"Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great" - Mark Kram, Sports Illustrated.  The "Thrilla in Manilla" was the third and final fight between two of the greatest boxers in history, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship.  It took place on October 1, 1975 at the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City in Manilla, Philippines.  Photo credit:

Remembering Joe Frazier (1944-2011)

For all of the memorable fights in Muhammad Ali's long career, his three fights lasting forty one brutal rounds with Frazier in the 1970's came to define both of their careers.  Not unlike Jim Brown in football, Jimmy Connors in tennis, and Michael Jordan in basketball, Frazier was a ferocious competitor who gave it his all in the boxing ring. Never one to take a minimalist approach towards anything, he came to epitomize the every-day, workman-like approach that elevated him to the highest levels in his chosen profession.

With Joe Frazier's passing last week, it was only fitting that this diary also reflected his many contributions to the world of professional boxing.  Like Bogey and Bacall; Abbott and Costello; and Rodgers and Hammerstein, it seemed incongruous to write about Ali without giving Frazier his due and one he truly deserves.  While the diary is largely about Muhammad Ali's life, the two names are inseparable. Both champions benefited from and magnified each other's strengths and accomplishments.

Muhammad Ali (above) seen taunting Joe Frazier at Frazier's training headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the "Fight of the Century" on March 8, 1971 held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Frazier would win the 15-round fight by unanimous decision and deal Ali his first professional defeat.  Photo credit: Guardian.

An article in the U.K.'s Daily Mail newspaper captured the essence of the man

Back in 1973, I was a cub reporter at a sports agency. The assignment was to interview Joe Frazier and his trainer Yank Durham told me to meet him at the Hilton in Park Lane at 6am...

After a brief stop while he had medicine balls dropped on his torso of steel we walked back to the hotel, and proof that Frazier never forgot his humble roots when employment was precious.  A youngster was casually sweeping outside the hotel. Frazier saw the youngster and bristled.  The champ grabbed the mop and cleaned the front of the hotel in an instant.  He then threw the mop at the youngster.

"If you are going to do a fucking job, then fucking do it properly!"

With that, he disappeared back into the foyer.  Not a man to argue with, Joe Frazier.  As I found out. As the young employee found out.  And as Joe Bugner (and 31 other boxers down the years) found out.

Steve Stammers, "Joe Frazier Dead: A Cub Reporter's Memories of Smokin' Joe" - Daily Mirror (U.K.). Photo credit: Bleacher Report.  Sketch credit:  

A great champion in his own right, Smokin' Joe Frazier's life was celebrated at his funeral last week in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

[The Reverend Jessie] Jackson delivered a stirring eulogy, describing Frazier as someone who "came from segregation, degradation and disgrace to amazing grace."

"Tell them Rocky was not a champion.  Joe Frazier was," he said, referring to the hometown character from the boxing movie, "Rocky," and whose statue stands at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  "Tell them Rocky is fictitious, Joe was reality.  Rocky's fists are frozen in stone.  Joe's fists are smokin'.  Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Foreman.  Rocky never tasted his own blood. Champions are made in the ring not in the movies.  There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia."

Dan Gelston, "Ali Among Boxing Greats Paying Respect to Frazier", San Francisco Chronicle.

The exploits and legacies of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are forever linked in our collective memory.  As it ought to be.  RIP Joe Frazier.  You will always have our respect as one who fought the good fight.

Concluding Thoughts

Most great human beings have a few tragic flaws.  So did Muhammad Ali.  For all of the praise and accolades directed towards him over the decades, he could be, at times, as author David Remnick of the New Yorker magazine says in this video interview from The Charlie Rose Show, downright mean towards his opponents -- Joe Frazier, in particular.

Even so, that shouldn't diminish Ali's stature in American life.  He stepped up to take on the political establishment at a crucial time in our country's history and criticize the American role in Vietnam when few public figures dare do so.  His suspension cost him millions of dollars and earned him the enmity of many of his countrymen. Yet, Ali stood firm in his beliefs and history has proved him right.

Vindication is sweet revenge in life.

How should we remember this man?  Let him explain it himself, as he did in this interview with David Frost

David Frost: What would you like people to think about you when you've gone?

Muhammad Ali: I'd like for them to say:

He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to it to each and every deserving person he met.


There has never, ever been someone like him. And, it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of Muhammad Ali again in our lifetime.  

A Note About the Diary Poll

For many diehard boxing fans and students of the history of the sport, this is not an easy nor a cut-and-dried choice to make.  There are many factors that go into this selection: the boxer's overall win-loss record; the quality of his opponents; unique skills and boxing style; and difficulties encountered along the way to greatness.

I would be extremely interested in your comments and reasons for your choice as one you consider to be your favorite boxer of all time.  Thanks.

Ranking the 50 greatest fighters in history -- producing any kind of ranking, for that matter, of athletes in any sport -- is like flying a kite during a thunderstorm.  It might seem exciting and challenging, but you know it's going to hurt.

If one thing is guaranteed about this listing of the greatest 50 boxers of all time, it's that everyone who reads it will have an opinion -- and not one of those opinions will be that we got it exactly right... But writing a list like this is a subjective science, and an inexact one.  With perhaps one or two exceptions, there are no right or wrong answers.

Although few would question that Sugar Ray Robinson should sit at the very top, or that Muhammad Ali, Henry Armstrong and Joe Louis should be at the head of the chasing pack, cases can be made for and against the positioning, inclusion or omission of a good many others.  You want to argue that Tony Canzoneri is ranked too high or that Roy Jones Jr. doesn't belong on the list?  Go ahead.  Chances are your arguments in favor of your rankings are just as good as my arguments in favor of mine. link

Photo credit:  In the second photograph, pictured with Ali are Sugar Ray Robinson (center) and Joe Louis (right).  Photo credit: The Truth from the #1Pound4Pound.

Read more about this debate on these web sites

Originally posted to JekyllnHyde on Tue Jan 17, 2012 at 05:13 PM PST.

Also republished by Protest Music, Moose On The Loose, Barriers and Bridges, and Black Kos community.


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