Muhammad Ali, quite often, was the subject in a lot of debates.
In 1960, then known as Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome. He then began his pro career in the fall.
He’d belittle opponents before these fights, guaranteeing a win — sometimes predicting the exact round he’d knock out a foe — and then he’d walk his talk.
He was a fabulous boxer with incredible foot speed. His punches came fast and they came with power. By the end of 1963, his professional record was 19-0, 15 wins by knockout.
Sure he was. But he was awfully entertaining.
Some boxing fans didn’t like him. Many did.
On Feb. 24, 1964, he was a huge underdog in a heavyweight championship fight against the reigning title-holder Sonny Liston. The underdog won the fight by TKO in the seventh round and, immediately afterwards, ran right over to the press table and screamed, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
A national debate began immediately after that fight. Liston said he had entered the ring with an injured shoulder — and that was the sole reason he couldn’t go past Round 7. Liston insisted he was still the best fighter in the world.
Fans of Clay — and he was accumulating them all over the world — disagreed. The best fighter had won.
After defeating Liston, the new heavyweight champion of the world, upon converting to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Through it all, he decried the bigotry against African-Americans that’s so prevalent in America.
On May 25, 1965, Ali and Liston fought again for the heavyweight title. The entire fight lasted 132 seconds. In Round 1, at the 1:44 mark, Liston was on the canvas. Ali stood over the fallen man and yelled, “Get up and fight, sucker!” The Sports Illustrated photo which captured the moment may very well be the most famous sports photo of all-time.
Liston didn’t get up, Ali won by knockout and a debate began immediately. Was Liston on the ground because that’s where he wanted to go? Or did Ali’s fast-right punch actually connect with Liston?
Liston said Ali landed a “good right-hand punch” which caught him off-balance.
Was the fight a fix?
Over 40 years later, that debate continues.
Liston quickly faded from public eye while Ali rolled on, continuing to whip opponents.
By the spring of 1967, Ali was 29-0. Soon after, he was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces, stating he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
He was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and remained free on bond after appealing. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
Ali was scheduled to fight Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 in what was billed “The Fight of the Century.” Neither fighter had ever lost a professional fight.
Those of us who love sports and were alive in 1971, will never forget the pre-fight hype.
Ali guaranteed a win. He also hurled personal insults at Frazier, who boiled in anger.
The fight lived up to its billing. Ali and Frazier pounded each other for 15 grueling rounds. Frazier won via decision.
The next week, Ali was on TV being interviewed by Howard Cosell. I will never forget it. To me, it was a special moment.
When asked about Frazier, Ali said, “He’s a heck of a fighter.”
Ah ha! Through so much bravado, Muhammad Ali was a good sport, too.
In 1974, Ali was scheduled to fight George Foreman, the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and a 25-year-old powerhouse. At age 32, Ali had clearly lost some of his foot speed.
A heavy underdog, Ali guaranteed victory and then stunned the world with an eighth-round knockout.
Ali later lost the title, regained it and retired in 1981 with a record of 56-5.
In 1984, Ali announced he had Parkinson’s disease. From then on, his speech and movement heavily impacted, Ali rarely gave interviews. Still, he did fly all over the globe pushing philanthropic causes.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Ali “Sportsman of the Century.” Was Ali the best athlete ever? That debate rages on.
In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On Friday night, after a 32-year fight with his greatest opponent — Parkinson’s disease — Ali died in Phoenix at age 74.
“He certainly was a compelling figure all of his life,” said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, of Belton. “He was famous all over the world.
“I know that he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, like a lot of other people. Some of those people against the war ran off to Canada. Ali didn’t do that. He stayed and stood his ground. Obviously I didn’t agree with him. But it is a free country and I don’t hold any grudge against him. For those of us that fought, we fought so people can have that right to speak their own views freely.
“I know from personal experience that he was trying to help others. When I was working in the Pentagon from 1979 through 1981, Ali was flying to assist other countries in need. He went to several countries in Africa to help. People remember him as a boxer and changing his name and changing his religion but he was a man of many aspects.
“He fought Parkinson’s disease for a long time and you must have sympathy for anyone who must deal with that disease.
“And so those are my own personal observations of this man and his times.
“But, for sure, during his time as a boxer, he had no peer.”
For sure. On that, there is no debate.