Muhammad Ali: Bells after fifteen rounds

The legendary boxer passed away yesterday at the age of 74

Muhammad Ali: Bells after fifteen rounds

PA / PA Wire/Press Association Images

After the death of Muhammad Ali, Michael Carlson looks back at the life of the boxer who transcended sport to become an icon. 

1. When We Were Kings is the title of a superb documentary film about the 'Rumble In The Jungle', Muhammad Ali's classic battle with George Foreman in Zaire, where he regained the heavyweight crown. The title is fitting, because Ali's fame began in the ring, and it was a time of giants in boxing's most glamorous division. George Foreman said that he, Joe Frazier and Ali were like one person; they had been forged together in the public imagination, but there was also Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Henry Cooper, Ernie Terrell: men over whom Ali needed to triumph to establish himself, and men who now shine in his reflection.

Watch the moment Foreman falls in the film - at ringside the writer George Plimpton is frozen in drop-jawed disbelief, Norman Mailer is already beginning to celebrate. Boxing has always drawn great writers; there is no more telling display of character, no more naked revealing of what is happening inside a man's heart, than that time in the ring, and writers and film-makers have always known that.

2. Muhammad Ali was the most important sportsman of the 20th Century. He became a symbol for battles of conscience, for racial justice, for people far removed from power, for religious belief, and for so much more. He was unquestionably the most recognisable human being in the world; he could go virtually nowhere without being mobbed. But it started on a smaller scale.

When he burst onto the scene after winning his Olympic light-heavyweight gold in Rome, he brought something new to sport: showmanship and self-promotion. He carried the trash-talk of the playground and the braggadocio of the professional wrestling ring into the arenas of 'legitimate' sport. From 'I Am The Greatest' a poem by Cassius Clay: 'This kid fights great, he's got speed and endurance/If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.'

Ali's style coincided with the rise of sports television: it was the beginning of the time when sportsmen stopped being paid as competitors and began to realise TV turned them into entertainers, like movie stars. This did not mean Ali was embraced immediately or automatically. To many 'traditional' sports fans, mainly whites, he was a loud-mouth, he was uppity, he needed to be put into his place.

3. From 'I Am The Greatest', A Poem by Cassius Clay: 'The fistic world was dull and weary/with a champ like Liston things had to be dreary'.

I once wrote about Sonny Liston, who might legitimately have been considered the baddest man on the planet, saying 'his only skill was hurting people'. The white audience faced severe problems trying to decide if they should root for Liston - someone who'd learned his boxing in prison, to be the one to shut 'the Louisville Lip' up. Not that they doubted he would; he was a 7-1 favourite. Cassius Clay had irritated people calling Doug Jones 'an ugly little man' before their title eliminator in Madison Square Garden, which Clay won by decision. He spent the build-up to the fight entertaining celebrities like the Beatles (his win over Henry Cooper a few months earlier had already made him a star in Britain) who flocked to Miami; he called Liston a 'big ugly bear' and seemed so hyper at the weigh-in sportswriters claimed he was scared to near-death.

Clay's victory in February 1964 shocked the world. Soon after, he announced his conversion to Islam and his name-change to Muhammad Ali. When he won the rematch with Liston in Maine (delayed and moved to its unlikely location because boxing politics had already stripped him of the WBA version of the title for agreeing the rematch, rather than facing the WBA's top contender) the surprise was such that many still believe Liston took a dive, falling to the famous phantom punch.

 

4. Floyd Patterson may have been the first black 'white hope'. Ali beat Patterson, who had been destroyed twice in short-order by Liston, when the fight was stopped in the twelfth round, Ali had carried 'the rabbit', in order to inflict extra punishment on Floyd, for insisting on calling him Cassius Clay, his 'slave name'. Ali was clearly angry at the 'credit to his race' boxer the establishment wanted to see win. Patterson had first lost his own championship to the Swede Ingemar Johansson, then re-gained the title; my father, whose parents were Swedes, was a Floyd fan because of that.

The generation gap was already apparent in our house in late 1965. Ali then beat four white fighters in a row within the space of six months in 1966: Canada's George Chuvalo, Cooper and fellow Brit Brian London, and Germany's Karl Mildenberger. By the time he'd finished, my dad was an Ali fan, even when Ali fought the guy deemed the latest, perhaps last, Great White Hope, Jerry Quarry.

 

5. 'I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.' When Ali was called up for the draft in 1966, he had to be reclassified 1-A, because he'd originally been judged 1-Y, which meant he was fit to be called up only in times of 'national emergency', because his IQ was measured at 78. This put him in the bottom 16% of Americans; the army didn't take anyone from the bottom 30%. 'I said I was the greatest, not the smartest' he said at the time.

He would belie that statement many times in the next few years. Clay was not a good student; he never was a reader. But he absorbed things he thought were necessary to learn, like a sponge, and his ability to separate what he needed to learn from what he didn't was superb. He had the charisma to make people, interviewers, great writers, all feel he was talking on their level, probably because they were more eager to be understood on his. And he could recycle old tropes, jokes, stories, and make people feel they were brand new.

As anyone who went through the process knew at the time, draft boards are not elected bodies, nor civil service, they are made of up of local grandees who rarely sent their own sons off to war. Many people thought the timing of Ali's reclassification by the Louisville draft board, when he was already 24, was more than coincidence, because it happened just after his contract expired with the ten influential Louisville millionaires who originally backed him, and they saw the Nation of Islam's Elijah Muhammad taking control of the fighter.

 

6. 'No Viet Cong ever called me nigger'. I use the N word because that's what Ali said, and because how can anyone who wasn't alive at the time understand fully the depth of anguish and honesty in what he was saying if they don't hear the lash of the word? Ali failed to step forward for induction into the army in April 1967 and almost immediately had his New York State boxing license withdrawn, and was stripped of his titles. In June, a jury took only 20 minutes to convict him, and the case went to appeal and eventually to the Supreme Court. Here's how he explained it: 'what should I shoot them for? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me, they didn't put no dog on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father...How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.' This made my decision to be a conscientious objector, and face the consequences, so much easier.

 

7. In 2014 I wrote Ernie Terrell's obituary for The Guardian:

Ernie Terrell, who has died aged 75, lost his heavyweight championship to Muhammad Ali in the infamous 'What's My Name?' fight, one of the most brutally cruel displays in boxing history. In the build-up to their match Terrell insisted on calling Ali by his 'slave name', Cassius Clay. This tactic had backfired for Floyd Patterson in an earlier loss to Ali, but because Terrell also held a belt Ali felt was his, Ali was infuriated. He called Terrell 'an Uncle Tom nigger' and said 'I'll make him eat those words, letter by letter'.

The unification fight was held in February 1967 in the Houston Astrodome, where 37,000 spectators made it the biggest indoor boxing crowd ever. In his pre-match poem, Ali talked of knocking Terrell out of the stadium in the first round: 'The ref is frantic/Terrell's over the Atlantic/Who would've thought, when they came to the fight/They'd see the launch of the a coloured satellite!'

For 15 rounds he taunted Terrell as he inflicted as much damage as he could. He thumbed Terrell's left eye, and later pushed it on the ring-ropes, leaving Terrell nearly blind. By the twelfth round, Terrell was simply covering his face, and in the thirteenth Ali landed a stream of unanswered punches, but referee Harry Kessler never stopped the fight. Terrell nearly lost the sight in his left eye, and was never the same fighter again. Ironically, only two months after the fight, Clay was again stripped of his title.

 

Terrell remained philosophical about his beating by Ali, saying, in 2009, 'We were fighting...I bore no animosity. What he say, all that, don't count. That was his way of promoting the fight'.

 

8. The cover story of the April 1968 issue of Esquire Magazine was called 'The Passion of Muhammad Ali', and the picture, created by George Lois and shot by Carl Fischer, is often considered the greatest of all time: a homage to Mantegna's 'Martyrdom Of St Sebastian', Ali in his white boxing trunks penetrated by arrows.

The issue hit the stands just as President Lyndon Johnson announced that he 'would not seek, nor shall I accept' the nomination of his party for President. It was easy to think we, young people protesting the Vietnam war and the ongoing problem of racial prejudice, had won. Easy, but as it turned out, delusional.

 

9. While banned from boxing, Ali toured college campuses giving lectures. Sometime I believe in the spring of 1970, before the Invasion of Cambodia, shootings at Kent and Jackson State, and the student strike, I was in a packed crowd at the brand-new rink at Wesleyan, listening to Ali, and hanging around afterwards to applaud as he left by car. I honestly believe that absent Ali's visit, the lacrosse team, of which I was a part, would not have been the first group on campus to vote to join the strike. There is a clip from around that time on You Tube where Ali faces down a young critic, telling him that white folks are the enemy, not the Viet Cong. 'If I die, I'm gonna die right here fighting you,' he says. We believed him, and we somehow believed that 'white folks' didn't include us.

 

10. If Ali had never become a public figure outside boxing, never revolutionised the way we saw sport, and never set sportsmen free to be entertainers, he would still be an iconic figure based on the major fights he fought after his return. The enforced absence from the ring cost him some of his speed: few opponents had been able to hurt him with solid punches before. The three fights against Joe Frazier, the Rumble in The Jungle against George Foreman, the two split decisions against Ken Norton, are all ingrained in my memory. Some of them I only heard on the radio, but I've since watched them over and over again, and can see the relentless Frazier plowing forward, head down, left arm low and cocked to deliver the hook that caused so much damage. I now watch the 'Rope-a-Dope' strategy against Foreman and think about the courage, the intelligence, the risk Ali took...and think mostly about the long-term damage those big fights inflicted on The Champ.

 

11. In 1976 I was a press liaison at the Montreal Forum during the boxing finals, at which both Spinks brothers won gold medals. Leon Spinks' win over Cuban Sixto Soria was the greatest amateur bout I've ever seen. In 1978 I watched Ali retake his title from Spinks, on closed circuit at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. It was the result I wanted, but I took no joy from it. Ali would be nearly 40 when the fifth and final loss of his career - a difficult-to-watch unanimous decision against Trevor Berbick - finally convinced him to retire.

 

12. From the poem 'I Am The Greatest' by Cassius Clay: 'Then someone with colour, someone with dash/brought the fight fans running with cash.' Clay understood from the first what he was doing, and in his poem he refers to himself as a new kind of fighter, to boxing's 'New Frontier'. He claimed to have based his style on the early TV wrestling star Gorgeous George, but it's more likely he was copying 'Classy' Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed 'King of Men', who was big in the Louisville when Clay was young.

In 1976, Ali took part in a fight with the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, and brought Blassie in as his manager. Watch them on the Tonight Show, guest-hosted by MASH actor McLean Stevenson. Blassie says Ali has 'the fastest feet, the fastest punch and now he's proven he's got the fastest brain too...because he hired me.' Although Ali claimed it was going to be a real fight, that was never Inoki's idea; negotiations as to how the fight should be scripted broke down, as neither guy would do a job for the other. So we saw Inoki lying on his back in the fight, using his feet to keep Ali away, easily the least edifying moment of Ali's career. He was born to be a boxer and a performer, not simply a performer.

 

13. In 1988 I was in Pesaro, Italy, broadcasting a middleweight title fight between Sumbu Kalambay and Mike McCallum. The night before the fight I stayed up late with Angelo Dundee, Ali's legendary trainer. I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe someone in the way Angelo did; it was somewhere between respect and worship, like a follower who had been blessed in ancient times to fight alongside a demigod. And it was sincere. I learned a lot about boxing on that trip, but I never did discover whether Angelo actually sliced Clay's gloves to buy time in the first fight against Cooper.

 

 

14. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, I was in charge of host broadcast coverage of basketball at the Georgia Dome. The bane of my life was any game with the US Dream Team II, because my fellow broadcasters and journalists would desperately try to get into broadcast/press seats, not working but just to see the superstars. But before the game with Angola, Ali, who of course had lighted the Olympic torch to open the games, arrived courtside. The Angolans broke off their warmups to crowd around, followed by the Dream Teamers who rushed out of their locker room to join them. Here were the world's biggest superstars turned into fan boys, just like the rest of us. I walked casually down to court side, a fan boy myself, just to admire the admiration.

 

15. I woke to the news Ali was gone, and listened to tributes and watched my memories gather and soar. I rummaged through some boxes and found my copy of Cassius Clay's 45, 'I Am The Greatest', b/w 'Will The Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down'. It's more than half a century since I first heard it. This is a DJ copy I won in a college competition; on the single as released the flip side is Ali singing 'Stand By Me'.

The sleeve is a bit worn, and I don't have a record player anymore, so I couldn't play it. I just looked at the pictures on the sleeve and heard the voice in my head, clear as it was when I was 12. 'This is the legend of Cassius Clay/the most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal and brags indeedy, 'bout a tremendous punch that's incredibly speedy...If Cassius says a mouse can beat a horse, don't ask how, put your money where your mouse is...if Cassius says a cow can lay an egg, don't ask how, grease that skillet.'

The world that brought that character into the spotlight no longer exists, and a great part of the reason for that is Muhammad Ali. But the shadow of those things that drew Ali to the spotlight outside of the ring, those most American clouds of race, of war, of rich and poor, still lingers over the country. It's a different country, in part because of Ali, and he was The Greatest.