By John F. McKenna (McJack)
Cassius Clay first burst upon the American and international, seen when he won the light heavyweight Gold medal at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam after his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston. Clay was an instant matinee idol and even early on you had the sense that he would ultimately become a great fighter. He was a fight promoters dream and was blessed with good looks, a quick wit and an abundance of humor. In addition to that he could really fight.
His first difficult fight was against Doug Jones in 1963. Clay won a disputed decision in a fight that was named “Fight of the Year” by boxing writers. In his next fight against Britain’s late Henry Cooper, he came closer to being knocked out than at any other time in his career. Cooper caught Clay at the end of the 4th round with his best weapon, a powerful left hook that left Cassius temporarily senseless. Clay’s wily trainer Angelo Dundee allegedly sliced his glove with a razor. The glove had to be replaced giving Cassius the precious time he needed to recover. Clay went to work in the 5th round on Coopers’ eyes which were prone to cut and the fight had to be stopped.
Clay’s next fight was with the dangerous Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Cassius nicknamed Liston the “Big Ugly Bear”. Very few people including this writer gave Clay a chance against the murderous punching Liston who had KO’d Floyd Patterson in one round to win the heavyweight championship in 1962. Liston was considered unbeatable by boxing insiders and boxing fans alike. The standing joke at the time was that the only one who could beat Liston was the Green Bay Packer’s football team.
The fight took place on February 25, 1964. Clay’s speed was way too much for Liston who seemed to be swinging in slow motion. Clay’s punches were quick and within four rounds Liston’s face and eyes were puffed up. I watched the fight on closed circuit television in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and boxing fans could not believe the unfolding upset they were watching. Always a big fan of Clay and then later Ali, I began to believe he really had a chance. The only time it appeared that Clay might have problems was when a substance on Liston’s gloves got into his eyes and temporarily blinded him, forcing him to spend the 5th round dancing out of harms way while his eyes cleared. In the 6th round Clay again went on the attack and it became clear that Sonny was not going to be able to turn things around. Liston quit on his stool at the end the 6th round complaining of a shoulder injury, a story no one ever really believed.
After the Liston fight Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and announced that he had converted to Islam. His 2nd fight with Liston was on May 25, 1965. Ali wound up landing what has been referred to ever since as “The Phantom Punch”, knocking Liston out in the 1st round. The punch appeared to have nothing on it as Ali was backing up when he threw the punch. There have always been allegations that the fight was fixed due to Liston’s mob ties and his inability to get up after being hit with a punch few people saw.
After the 2nd Liston fight Ali cleaned up the heavyweight division in a fashion that had not been seen since Joe Louis’s twelve year title reign. In this writer’s opinion Ali reached the pinnacle of his fistic prowess against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in November 1966. In that fight Ali exhibited speed of hand and foot that had never been seen before or since in a heavyweight, and because of his blinding speed the power of his punches was deceptive.
In Ali’s next fight against Ernie Terrell in February 1967 he again demonstrated his greatness as a fighter. Terrell at 6’6” was considered to be a very good fighter with a great left jab and above average boxing skills. Terrell was no match however against Ali and was beaten badly over 15 rounds. You got the feeling that Muhammad could have knocked out Terrell whenever he chose to and simply wanted to torture Ernie for his refusal to call him by his Muslim name. Many people had thought before the fight that Terrell had a real chance against Ali, but again Ali’s speed was too much for Ernie to cope with.
In Ali’s last fight before going into exile he handled top contender Zora Folley like he was a rank amateur before knocking him out in the 7th round. In this writer’s view Ali would never achieve the same level of greatness he had from the time he defeated Liston in their 1st fight in February 1964 until he went into exile in April 1967. Ali was stripped of his title at that time and would not fight again for 3 ½ years when he fought Jerry Quarry in October of 1970.
Again I watched that fight on closed circuit television at the Cherry Hill Arena. I was struck by the change in the make up of the crowd. Whereas before Ali had been vilified for standing up for his beliefs in refusing to be drafted, the crowd, now mostly white, was clearly pulling for Muhammad. And while Ali was still a great fighter, the 3 ½ years he had spent in exile had seen some deterioration in his once unmatched boxing skills.
Ali went on to achieve some of his greatest victories after he came out of exile in 1970, but he was now just a mere mortal. He lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, fighters who were really not in the same league as the pre exile Ali. Instead of staying on his toes for an entire fifteen rounds Ali would sometimes dance for thirty second intervals just to dazzle the crowd. His greatest victory over George Foreman was as much tactical as physical.
In an interview six months before the Forman fight trainer Angelo Dundee prophesied what would happen when Ali and Foreman squared off in the ring. Dundee, always a good judge of a fighter’s attributes, said that his fighter (Ali) would wear down the larger, more muscular Foreman. Because of Foreman’s build, Dundee said, he would run out of gas after about eight rounds at which point Ali would knock him out. The knockout Dundee predicted would come more from big George being exhausted than from any devastating punch.
As it turned out Dundee’s prophesy could not have been more accurate. The closest comparisons that can be made to Ali’s dominance of the heavyweight division from 1964 to 1967 are Jack Dempsey’s annihilation of the heavyweight division from 1919 when he KO’d Jess Willard in three rounds until 1923 when he pole axed Luis Angel Firpo in two rounds. Joe Louis dominated in the same fashion when he won the heavyweight title in 1937 and beat all comers until entering the service in 1942 at the start of World War II.
Ali was known for a number of good quotes, but my very favorite was what he said to reporters who were getting on him about his tendency to brag. He shot back:
“It ain’t bragging if you can back it up!”
“When We Were Kings” was a 1996 documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire which accurately depicted the events leading up to and including Muhammad Ali’s famous fight with George Foreman in October 1974. The film won an Academy Award.
In one scene from the documentary Ali is seen walking into the ring in Zaire with his entourage following him looking dejected. At one point Ali turns around and chastises them for their unbelief in him. It is a remarkable scene and demonstrated that he had the rare ability to believe in himself when no one else did.