• Friday, March 01, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Celebrating Ali at 72

businessday-icon

From George Chuvalo, George Foreman, Joe Bugner, Joe Frazier, Ernie Terrell, Earnie Shavers, MacArthur Foster, Bob Foster, Muhammad Ali fought them all; all over the world from Tokyo to Lake Tahoe, from Kuala Lumpur to Zaire, from Vancouver to Jakarta, from Dublin to Frankfurt, from London to Zurich.

It was no surprise really as he had promised to be a busy champion, fighting at least three times in a year against any opponents. It is even said he took on some boxers just so that they could earn a decent payday. It is a measure of the man. Ron Lyle, Jurgen Blin, Chuck Wepner, Al Lewis fall into this category.

But if there was one fight Ali should not have engaged in, well almost, it was the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ He can be forgiven for the Thrilla because of the elevated nature of that bout. That fight in a sweltering October night in 1975 cemented his position as the ‘Greatest’ which was what he had set out to achieve when he first put on a boxing gloves as a kid.

But all the other fights after Manila were unimportant, even the rematch against Leon Spinks when he reclaimed the world heavyweight title a then record third time is not so consequential in the overall scheme beyond that record.

The bout against Larry Holmes was even more needless. Holmes a young fighter who was Ali’s sparring partner in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ could not understand why Ali, a supposed friend could direct some of those hurtful remarks at him before their fight in 1980. Holmes should have known better being aware of the Ali’s predilection for ribbing his opponents, but apparently didn’t and carrying that grudge into the fight he would brutally beat his former mentor.

Asked many years later about his impression of Frazier and Ali, Holmes would respond that he would take a second to decide on anything concerning Frazier but would take a minute to decide on anything concerning Ali. He still apparently held some grudge. That is the way of the old sport.

Ali described the third and final bout against Frazier as the ‘closest thing to death.’ Both pugilists had met twice before, first in 1971 after Ali’s exile in the ‘Fight of the Century in Madison Square Garden which Frazier won. Ali won the rematch but the world wanted a final showdown to decide who was indeed the greater of the two.

On fight night both boxers were out to destroy each other, they threw punches with murderous intentions; this was a direct function of Ali’s merciless taunting of Frazier who he christened the ‘Gorilla’ He would perfect his legendary poetic effusions on the hapless Frazier. In fact his line: ‘It will be a thrilla, a killa and a chilla when I catch the gorilla in Manilla’ would take the contest into a different orbit.

After on furious exchange during the fight, Ali cried out ‘Man but they said you was all washed up,’ to which Smoking Joe replied ‘someone somewhere sure lied.’ Ali won when Frazier couldn’t come out for the 15th round after legendary trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel against Frazier’s wish.

Ali would pay the greatest tribute to his old foe this way: Frazier is a one speed fighter. His heart is a lion. He would fight way beyond exhaustion, he would keep coming; his bones, sinews screaming it’s either you kill me or get out of my way. I was throwing punches with power I was borrowing from tomorrow but Frazier won’t go down.’

Inside and outside the roped arena, Ali fought great battles even more so outside. He switched to Islam from Christianity, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam war, saying ‘No Vietcong ever called me no nigger…’

All this combined to make him the most hated and vilified person in America. Eventually his title and license were withdrawn and for nearly four years, Ali was out in exile but he was unbowed remaining his effervescent self in the face of the persecution.

Finally his license was restored in 1970 and the ‘Second Coming’ would effectively commence. He defeated Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena before taking on Frazier in 1971 in the first of their epic duels. Having never lost before, this fight showed an Ali that was now slower. Before exile his fleet footedness took him away from opponents’ reach.  ‘Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see,’ he told Sonny Liston when he first won the world title from the man he called the ‘ugly bear’ in 1964.

But now he was getting hit, he didn’t move as well as he used to. This is the Ali the world now had to get used to. It is left in the realm of conjecture what those lost years would have been like, although many boxing buff agree those would have been his best years.

From now on Ali had to be very creative, devising various means other than ‘floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee’ to deal with stronger fighters. His mastery of every conceivable boxing style meant he was able to do battle against peculiarly difficult f boxers like Frazier and Ken Norton. A measure of Ali’s versatility is seen in his ability to stop George Foreman, a fighter so feared and devastating he destroyed both Frazier and Norton in round two.

Ali perfected the strategy that became known as the ‘rope a dope’ against Foreman. Leaning on the ropes and inviting Foreman to hit him, Ali tricked the champion into a slugfest, occasionally bouncing off the ropes to snap combinations at the head of the relentless Foreman.

The bout would follow this pattern, and with trainer Angelo Dundee and sidekick Bundini Brown shouting ‘move champ move’, Ali stuck to his strategy. He would say later that trainers and handlers often don’t know what happens inside the ring and that it was his neck on the line. His position was that if he had to dance as was the initial plan by his corner he would have to move six steps to Foreman’s two or three in which case he would tire out so quickly.

Ali continued to give Foreman talking lessons as the boxing lesson was ongoing. Finally the falling down lesson followed in round eight when an exhausted Foreman was taken into the ‘half dream room.’

Before the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ Foreman had never been taken to the distance, he had never been to what Ali called the ‘half dream room’ and Ali had wondered how Foreman would react when he gets there. By the time Ali led Foreman to the room with a combination of punches in round eight, good ol’ George couldn’t respond. Flashing neon lights, alligators playing trombones and actors’ costume on the walls in the ‘half dream room’ proved too much for him.

Parkinson syndrome laid the champion low after he finally quit the fistic business, trapping a razor sharp mind in a wasted body. But the old chap has never complained. He has borne it all with stoic equanimity.

Muhammad Ali gave the world so much pleasure and excitement, and it is nice to know that the old guy is still floating in this side of eternity as he turns 72 today.