He is simply ... The Greatest
'A Great Champion'
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"If you had told somebody in 1968 that in 1996 Muhammad Ali would be the most beloved individual on earth, and the mere sight of him holding an Olympic torch would bring people to tears, you'd have won a lot of bets," says Bryant Gumbel on ESPN's SportsCentury show.
Oct. 1, 1975 -- "Of all the men I fought, Sonny Liston was the scariest, George Foreman was the most powerful, Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer," Ali once said. "But the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier.
He brought out the best in me, and the best fight we fought was in Manila."
Frazier had won their first bout and Ali their second. It was 10:45 a.m. in the Philippines when their rubber match started, and the "The Thriller in Manila" lived up to the hype.
The bout turned out to be three fights in one: The first had Ali, the champion, outboxing and outscoring Frazier, nailing him with clean, sharp shots. The second fight, from the fifth through the 11th, had Frazier giving a terrible pounding to Ali. The third fight began in the 12th round and somehow Ali, with the will of a champion, tore into Frazier for the next three rounds.
When the bell rang for the 15th round, Frazier, with his eyes almost completely shut, remained in his corner as his trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel.
"Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier said. "Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion."
Ali said, "It was like death. Closest thing to dying that I know of."
Odds and ends Growing up, Cassius Clay (his birth name) had a volatile home life. Cassius Sr., a sign painter with minor artistic talent and a major taste for gin, engaged in periodic scuffles with his drinking companions, his wife and even his sons.
A Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, got Clay started in the ring after the 12-year-old's bicycle was stolen and he threatened to whip the thief.
When Clay was 13, a 14-year-old African-American was murdered while visiting cousins in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. He has said that the photograph of the dead boy's smashed, swollen face in "Life" magazine haunted him for years.
He graduated from Louisville's Central High School as a D student, 376th in a class of 391.
During the 1960 Rome Olympics, he made advances to Wilma Rudolph. The three-time gold winner spurned Clay's flirtations, preferring the company of sprinter Ray Norton.
After winning the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal, that fall Clay signed with a syndicate of Louisville millionaires, led by Bill Faversham Jr. He received a $10,000 bonus - $4,000 plus half his earnings for the first two years and $6,000 plus half his earning for the third and fourth years.
Ali is at least 3/16th white, a fact that didn't please him. "My white blood came from the slave masters," he said in the sixties. "The white blood harms us. When we was darker, we was stronger. We was purer."
On Nov. 15, 1962, he knocked out Archie Moore in four rounds, just as he predicted in rhyme. He was 16-0 with 13 KOs.
Before fighting the seemingly invincible Liston, Clay was asked if he was scared of the heavyweight champion. "Black guys scare white guys a lot more than black guys scare black guys," he replied.
He turned the weigh-in for his Feb. 25, 1964 fight against Liston into a wild scene, ranting and raving, his eyes getting as big as silver dollars as his mouth roared. "This boy is scared to death," the commission doctor reported. "He is emotionally unstable. He is burning energy at an alarming rate."
This scene was just part of Ali's plan. He wanted Liston to think he was crazy. It was all a sham.
That night, Clay's most troublesome time came after the fourth round, when he was blinded by ointment applied to Liston's cut. (The ointment got on Liston's glove and when he hit Clay, it got into Clay's eyes.) He talked of quitting, but trainer Angelo Dundee forced him to continue. A round later, Clay's vision was clear, and he landed several solid blows. When Liston didn't come out for the seventh round, claiming a shoulder injury, Clay was champ at 22.
Before his Nov. 22, 1965 fight with Floyd Patterson, Ali called the former heavyweight champ an "Uncle Tom." He was angry that Patterson refused to call him Muhammad Ali, but continued to call him Clay. Instead of scoring a quick KO, Ali mocked, humiliated and punished Patterson throughout before knocking him out in the 12th round.
After Ali's "I ain't got nothing against them Vietcong" remark, the media's response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Such titans of the press as Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon attacked him. One of the few in Ali's corner was Howard Cosell, who defended Ali's constitutional right of free expression.
In 1966, Jack Olsen of "Sports Illustrated" wrote: "(Ali) claims to believe that all whites are devils and challenges any 'whitey' to prove otherwise. He is firmly dedicated to segregation, and he believes that God, or Allah, is on the side of the black man and will cause the downfall of the United States before the end of the year. . . . (These beliefs) were reinforced by simple lessons in hate learned at his father's knee and by advanced lessons in hate learned at the feet of his surrogate father, Elijah Muhammad."
Ali earned an estimated $60 million fighting, more than every other heavyweight champion before him combined.
In 1977, "The Greatest" came to theaters near you. Ali starred as himself. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones and Paul Winfield also were in the film.
In 1987, "The Ring" magazine ranked him as the greatest heavyweight ever, a status Ali had claimed for years.