The greatest showman of them all
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74, called himself "the Greatest" and made good the claim, not merely as the most dazzlingly talented of all world heavyweight boxing champions, but also as one of the most irresistible and compelling personalities of his age.
If his emergence as a symbol of political and racial protest was rather more specious, Ali became the most universally recognised figure in the world. And unlike so many other icons of the Sixties, he survived the hostility that he aroused.
His tragedy, however, was that his long career in the ring reduced him to a physical wreck, albeit a greatly loved physical wreck.
In 2005, George W Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yet when he first burst upon the scene in the 1960s as Cassius Clay, he appeared as the most outrageous braggart ever to have adorned a boxing ring.
"If Liston even dreamed he could beat me," he taunted the world heavyweight champion, "he'd wake up and apologise."
His admirers warmed to the high spirits and good humour that underlaid his unremitting self-promotion and loved him the more for taking such delight in his own act. But American boxing commentators - men who had blithely ignored the gangsterism surrounding the sport - fulminated against the upstart for undermining what they conceived as the dignity of the ring.
Clay's mantra, that he would "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee", was an accurate description of his boxing style. In his prime, he would glide effortlessly around the ring with his hands down, casually swaying out of the way of fearsome blows and countering with lightning punches from all angles.
Even so, before Clay fought Liston for the world championship at Miami Beach on February 25, 1965, the experts were virtually unanimous that he would receive his comeuppance. Liston was a terrifying figure, who had scored even more knockout victories than he had served prison sentences. Clay privately admitted that he was scared. In public, though, he redoubled his braggadocio.
"This will be the easiest fight of my life," he assured incredulous reporters. And he produced some new verses: "Who would have thought/When they came to the fight/That they'd witness the launching/Of a human satellite?"
Liston, never loquacious even in his rare moments of affability, could only promise pain and destruction. At the weigh-in, it seemed that Clay was breaking down in hysteria as, with his pulse beating at twice its normal rate and his eyes rolling, he shrieked insults at Liston.
But when the fight began, Clay proved, gloriously, as good as his boasts. Surviving a desperate fifth round, when he was blinded by some mysterious substance, he completely demoralised Liston and by the sixth round was hitting him at will. The supposedly unbeatable champion failed to appear for the next round.
"Eat your words," Clay screamed triumphantly at the hacks.
The following day, he gave the assembled scribes fresh cause for grievance by declaring that he had become a Black Muslim. He was renouncing his "slave name" and would thenceforward be known as Muhammad Ali.
In fact, he had been involved with the Nation of Islam since 1959. Before the Liston fight, Malcolm X, the movement's most charismatic figure, had been at Miami Beach to instil the challenger with a sense of destiny.
"Do you think Allah has brought about all," Malcolm X demanded, "intending for you to leave the ring as anything but champion?"
But the Black Muslims, under their leader Elijah Mohammad, were dedicated to the separation of the black from the white race.
White civilisation, they believed, was the product of the devil's race, and Christianity was the means whereby they maintained their domination.
From such doctrines, Ali now claimed to draw his spiritual sustenance. He cast himself as folk hero to underprivileged American blacks who found a role model in his confident demeanour.
"I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man," he said years afterwards.
"I had to show the world."
This meant taunting even black opponents - Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton - with being great white hopes.
Yet no one who knew Ali could believe for a moment that he really hated whites. His membership of the Black Muslims was another of the myriad paradoxes that formed his character.
The supreme practitioner of the most brutal of sports continued to pride himself - with some reason - on being "the prettiest".
The most joyous of pranksters, a man who genuinely loved children, handed out a vicious beating in the ring to an incapacitated Ernie Terrell - merely because Terrell had insisted on calling him "Clay" rather than "Ali".
In 1966, Ali put himself further beyond the bounds of white American respectability when he used his Black Muslim religion to claim the status of a conscientious objector and refuse call-up into the American army. "Man," he told reporters, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong."
The issue had at first been avoided, for in 1964 Ali had been adjudged unfit for military service after failing a mental aptitude test. But when, under the pressure of the Vietnam war, standards were lowered, Ali was reclassified as fit for the draft. Even then, he could have negotiated a deal with the army whereby he would have been allowed to pass his national service giving exhibition bouts without any combat duty. But having once nailed his colours to the mast, he rejected compromise.
Rather, he linked his opposition to the war with his stand on civil rights. "Why," he demanded, "should they ask me to go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"
In April 1967, he refused to take the symbolic step forward when summoned to Houston for induction into the military. One hour later, the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his licence to box and other boards soon followed suit.
In June, after a Houston jury had found him guilty of draft evasion, he was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. The court also took away his passport, making it impossible for him to fight abroad.
The extended appeals process ensured that the only jail sentence Ali served was for 10 days in 1968 - and that for driving without a licence. He was, however, banned from boxing just when he was at his absolute prime. When Ali returned to the ring in 1970, it was immediately evident that he had lost the ability to keep up his speed for more than a round or two at a time. On the other hand, his will and self-belief were as strong as ever, while his experience and cunning enabled him to maintain a psychological advantage over most opponents.
He also made the ultimately disastrous discovery that he could take a punch - indeed, almost any punch. In place of the quicksilver artist who was hardly ever hit, appeared a man of unconquerable pride and superhuman courage, who for years unflinchingly absorbed punishment from the hardest hitters in the world.
His bravery ensured some of the most brutal fights ever seen - notably the three against Joe Frazier and "the rumble in the jungle" in 1974 against George Foreman. It also led to his destruction. By 1978 he retained only the shadow of his former skills, and his speech was already slurred.
In that year, he lost the heavyweight championship to Leon Spinks, a relative novice. By a Herculean effort he regained the title from Spinks seven months later - the first time anyone had won the championship on three separate occasions.
After that, Ali at last retired, but in 1980 - missing the fame, wanting the money, still searching for glory - he insisted on making a comeback to fight the new world champion, Larry Holmes.
The match was always madness and Ali's difficulties were compounded by a doctor who prescribed a drug which drained him of energy. He took a terrible beating before the fight was stopped in the 10th. Yet in 1981, he submitted to further torture, losing on points to Trevor Birkbeck before finally accepting that his career in the ring was over.
As the 1980s wore on, Ali's face, which had once radiated joie de vivre, became a lifeless mask. He suffered permanent fatigue, his mouth drooled saliva, a tremor developed in his hand. In 1984, he received a diagnosis of post-traumatic Parkinsonism caused by injuries sustained from boxing.
It is easy to reflect that wiser counsels would have forced his retirement from boxing five years earlier. But then wisdom had never played any part in Ali's extraordinary career. The valour and the fathomless self-belief that drew him to his doom were precisely the qualities which had propelled him to the summit.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay at Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, the elder son of Cassius Marcellus Clay senior, a sign painter. His paternal ancestors were probably slaves, but his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, had a white grandparent, an Irishman, Abe Grady, from County Clare, and a white great-grandfather called Moorehead, who had married a slave named Dinah. From infancy, the boy showed unusual energy, confidence and panache. He started boxing at 12 after his bicycle had been stolen and a policeman persuaded him that it offered the best hope of chastising the offender.
So rapidly did he advance that by 18 he had won six Kentucky, and two National Golden Gloves, championships. Selected for the 1960 Olympics as a light-heavyweight, he at first refused to go to Rome because he was afraid of flying. But once there, he made himself immensely popular in the Olympic village. He also carried off a gold medal, which (according to the legend) he symbolically threw away on his return, after being excluded from a hamburger joint in Louisville.
But Clay was already set on his destiny. A Louisville a group of millionaires formed a syndicate to finance his first years as a professional boxer and in October 1960 he won his first professional fight on points, after which he was sent to train with Archie Moore, light-heavyweight champion of the world. But Clay decided Moore had nothing to teach him and at the end of 1960 began working with Angelo Dundee, who would be his trainer for the rest of his career.
Clay's bragging owed something to a meeting in 1961 with Gorgeous George, a wrestler who used to promise that he would crawl across the ring if his bum of an opponent should beat him. Clay took up the style. That year, he became a television attraction and began predicting, with remarkable success, the rounds in which his opponents would fall.
One of them, in 1962, was Archie Moore. "That old man will fall in four," Clay opined. "I'm here to give him his pension plan." The prophecy was correct. But he failed to fulfil his prediction to dispose of Doug Jones in six, only narrowly winning a points decision.
The triumph over Liston came in Clay's 20th professional fight.
Having announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam, the new world champion departed to Africa to discover his roots. In May 1965, when he defended his title against Liston and knocked him out in the first round, many felt that the challenger had taken a dive. Later that year, Ali disposed of Floyd Patterson in the 12th.
When his contract with the Louisville consortium expired, Ali further alienated himself from the boxing establishment by appointing Herbert Muhammad, Elijah's son, as his new business manager.
In November 1966 the Texan authorities permitted a fight at the Houston Astrodome against Cleveland Williams. Watched by the largest indoor crowd (35,460) in the history of boxing, Ali put on a superb display, destroying Williams in three rounds.
Next came the disgraceful fight against Ernie Terrell; then in March 1967, Ali re-emphasised his supreme skill by knocking out Zora Folley in the seventh. That was his peak as a boxer. He would not fight again for three-and-a-half years.
Away from the ring, Ali enjoyed earning money on the college lecture circuit, where he was an immense success - though he tended to turn a talk on a topic such as "Friendship" into a Q&A session about who was the true heavyweight champion of the world. He appeared in a documentary film, A.k.a Cassius Clay (1970); acted a fight with Rocky Marciano for the benefit of the television cameras (in the American version, Marciano won; in the British version he lost on cuts); and won favourable notices as the lead in a musical called 'Buck White' on Broadway.
Meanwhile, attitudes to the Vietnam war had been changing, so that statements judged treasonable in 1966 now appeared simply constructive opposition. In October 1970, even before the Supreme Court had made any final pronouncement on Ali's case, the state of Georgia permitted a bout between Ali and Jerry Quarry.
But cognoscenti noticed that Ali, after dancing in the old manner in round one, had then looked slow and vulnerable.
If Ali had been canny, he would have delayed the confrontation with the world heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier. But with the Supreme Court's judgment still pending, he might be in jail within months. So he seized the chance to fight Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, where he was beaten for the first time in his career in a savage bout.
Three months later, the Supreme Court discovered a technical argument by which the case against Ali could be dropped. Frazier, though, was in no hurry to offer a return bout.
Ali won 10 fights in a row but in March 1973, overconfident and undertrained, he encountered Ken Norton. Ali's jaw was broken in the second round and though he struggled through the remaining 10 rounds, he lost the bout. But what looked like the end of his career turned out to be the prelude to its most glorious phase.
After six months' recuperation, he beat Norton on points. In January 1974, at Madison Square Garden, he won his second battle against Joe Frazier and in October, in Kinshasa, Zaire, he triumphed over the seemingly unbeatable George Foreman. After seven years, he was world champion again.
In the next three years, he successfully defended the title 10 times. But there was only one more great fight, the 'thriller in Manila' against Frazier in October 1975. Frazier really hated Ali, who never lost an opportunity to mock him as a gorilla and this fight transcended even their two previous bouts in unrelenting aggression.
Although Frazier was forcibly retired by his corner with one round to go, Ali said afterwards that the contest had been the closest thing to death he knew of.
It did not help either that before the fight, Ali had compromised his second marriage to the long-suffering Belinda by taking his stunning mistress, Veronica Porche, to President Marcos's palace, as though she were his wife.
After Manila, Ali's decline in the ring was rapid, with the final indignity being a loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas in 1981.
His final record was 56 wins (including five knockouts) against five defeats. In retirement, he spent most of his time on his farm at Berrien Springs, Michigan, devotedly cared for by his fourth wife, Lonnie.
Though he had earned more in the ring than all previous heavyweights combined, he was no more than comfortably off. For two decades, Ali had kept scores of hangers-on, while his generosity to charities knew no bounds.
As his health gave way, his religion deepened; by his own reckoning he only became a true believer around 1983.
Every morning, he rose at five to pray and study the Koran. "Everything I do now, I do to please Allah," he said. "I conquered the world and it didn't bring me true happiness. The only true happiness comes from honouring and worshipping God."
At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he struggled to control his violently shaking left arm in order to light the torch and the fastest of all heavyweights could hardly move; the Louisville Lip was scarcely capable of coherent conversation.
Yet that was only half the story. At the end of the Olympic Games, Ali was presented with a new gold medal to replace the one he had thrown away in 1960. As he showed the gleaming disc to each section of the crowd and laboriously kissed it for their benefit, he inspired waves of affection throughout the world.
Ali married first, in 1964 (dissolved 1966), Sonji Roi. He married secondly, in 1967 (dissolved 1976), Belinda Boyd; they had three daughters and a son. He married thirdly, in 1977 (dissolved 1986), Veronica Porche; they had four daughters. He married fourthly, in 1986, Yolanda ('Lonnie') Williams; they adopted a son. She and the children survive him.
Ali's youngest daughter Laila is a boxer and was (retiring in 2007) the unbeaten super-middleweight champion of the world. (© Daily Telegraph, London)