Bert Randolph Sugar the late boxing author and historian wrote about Muhammad Ali in his book “The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists:
“The boxing world was his stage. This playful and boastful fighter became the most flamboyant figure in boxing. if not the world of sports, strutting with the air of a carnival midway and adding amazing agility in the ring to his touch of theatrics outside it.”
And the world of boxing has not seen the likes of Muhammad Ali in the ring since he hung up the gloves nor will the sport ever see one like him again. It was this transformation at the same time of a fighter who became “The Greatest” and at the same time the world saw and heard an athlete that had more of an impact than Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan or any of the other greats who made headlines in the world of sports.
Or for that matter, Ali, the fighter and figure may have been more popular than a sitting President of the United States because of his charisma. That age of boxing and the champion, and because of Ali, always put the sport in the spotlight.
Some said, Ali could make a run for the White House, despite the controversy of avoiding the draft and refusing to go to war because of his Muslim faith, and having to give up his heavyweight championship that he won another two times.
It was capturing the world with that charisma, and the attributes of Ali in the ring. The “Rope a Dope” and “Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee”that his assistant Drew “Bundini” Brown gave Ali, are two of the most memorable lines that are an impact of the Ali era. And there was the influence Ali had on other athletes, and society because of his courage and being one of the best because of his accomplishments and what he said.
His legacy, in his own words while battling Parkinson’s Disease that was diagnosed in the 1980’s are remembered as the boxing world and society mourn his passing. Words that Ali said when he changed his name to Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, when converting to Islam, which at the time in 1964 was shocking for an athlete in that era. The night before, Ali upset Sonny Liston in Miami Beach and won the heavyweight championship.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth,” said Ali. “And I don’t have to be what you want me to be, “I’m free to be what I want.”
Years later the association with Ali and the late Howard Cosell came to fruition. They became a team and the world of sports television became something different. It was Ali and Cosell, and the story of a Catholic kid from Kentucky who converted to Islam and a lawyer from Brooklyn who became a sportscaster.
They were the voices of sports at the time. It was Ali and Cosell who became the “Greatest.” And with tributes coming now and in the days to come, one has to also analyze that Muhammad Ali was indeed an icon and possibly the “Greatest.”
Ali in that same book written by Sugar rated his top heavyweights in order, of course after him. There was no argument or discussion. His footwork in the ring was what made Ali great, so was that charisma. But he said in order his top Ten All-Time heavyweight Champions were Jack Johnson, Jack Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. He said about Frazier, who knocked him down in the 15th round at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971: “Joe Frazier hit hard. Brawler, Just kept coming, moving forward, no matter how hard you hit him. Could take a punch.”
And, Ali could take a punch that was seen three years later when he defeated Frazier in a rematch though not for a title because George Foreman had it at the time,
There was “The Thriller in Manila “ and third fight with Frazier in the Philippines. Eight-division champion Manny Pacquiao, the now Senator from the the Philipines said about Ali, “He did so much for mankind,” and the name Muhammad Ali is always a part of boxing in his country.”
There was the “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. Avenging losses and coming back to win another championship. Ali was the sports icon who transcended sports and of course the sport that gave him fame.
Bob Arum, the 84-year old promoter of Top Rank who has been in the business 50 years, recently celebrated his first promotion when Ali fought George Chuvalo. He will be one of many that will attend the Ali funeral in Louisville Kentucky, the birthplace of Cassius Clay and where an icon reigns.
Said Arum moments after Ali passed away at a hospital in Phoenix Arizona, “A true great has left us.
Muhammad Ali transformed this country and impacted the world with his spirit. His legacy will be part of our history of all time.” Arum promoted more fights for Ali over the rival promoters, including Don King.
Angelo Dundee, his trainer that worked most of his championship fights in the corner understood the personality. There were clashes and of course always believing that Muhammad Ali indeed was “The Greatest.” Dundee, up until his passing in February of 2012 saw that Ali took a lot of punches. There was always a fear that Parkinson’s syndrome would overtake Ali and his championship hands and brain.
The final few fights may have taken a toll against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in 1980 and 1981. Dundee, the confident did not want Ali to continue fearing there would be injury and the fight against Holmes may have taken a toll.
But Ali told Sugar in another book written by Dundee, “My View From the Corner” that he chose him as the trainer because, “He wasn’t bossy. He didn’t tell me what to do.” Ali would say, “In those days, Elijah Muhammad told us that the white man was the Devil, and I believed him. It made me very controversial.
Angelo Dundee paid no attention to all that talk, all that bad publicity. He never said I was wrong. He never asked why I joined the Muslims.. He never said anything about it.”
Ali added, “That is one reason I stayed with him. He let me be exactly who I wanted to be, and he was loyal. That is the reason I love Angelo.”
And when you look at the legacy, Muhammad Ali has to be the number one heavyweight of all-time, possibly the best in the modern boxing era. Rocky Marciano had the 49-0 undefeated streak before retiring, but not the charisma.
From this perspective, there was one personal experience with Muhammad Ali. It was at ringside and a shake of hands. Not many words except “The Greatest” saying, “You look good but not as good as me.”
That was the charisma and how Ali had that impact with the many members of the media he came across over the years as a fighter and ambassador of the sport.
Ambassador, because he spoke and had an impact until Parkinson’s kept Ali silent. He was loved and hated, but in the end indeed no debate as “The Greatest.” Boxing has lost an icon and will never see one of this magnitude again. The heavyweight division has never been the same since the Ali era. And it can be said, the sport that has been in a decline years after Ali’s last win against Leon Spinks.
He was a boxer, a symbol, his best promoter and of course, “The Greatest.”
Rest in Peace Champ and prayers to a family that will always keep Muhammad Ali in our presence at ringside.