I constantly have this argument with people whenever the topic of Boxing comes up.
Who was the greatest heavyweight of all time?
It seems that most go for the likes of Mike Tyson, for instance, most likely because of the epic and ferocious ability that he exuded from such a young age, the spectacular way he was able to vanquish opponents in the ring. I have to agree, his knock outs were spectacular, even if against also-rans fighters. But yes, he was one of the greats.
But not “the Greatest”.
I watched ‘When We Were Kings’ for the umpteenth time during breakfast this morning, and still laughed out loud with reverence and awe whenever Ali spoke. The overflowing pile of books I have accumulated of the subject of Muhammad Ali over the years has taught me many things that I constantly strive for. I loved Ali since a young age, always trying to emulate his light footwork, attempting to “float” like he and Bruce Lee did, around my friend’s backyard while we snotted each over with boxing gloves, flicking out jabs, and shuffling our feet. It wasn’t until I was older that I grew to respect the man, his actions, and his words.
His words helped me attempt to achieve things that in my quietest moments, I thought I could never pull off. I have been a part of 6 Australian Taekwon-do teams over the years, my first being in 2003 when I was 19, my latest (and hopefully not my last) back in 2014. Every day I juggle a pile of commitments that will take years to complete, but Ali is one of the things I recall, and it gives me strength, fortitude and perspective.
2013 World Championships.
“My Toughest opponent has always been me” – Muhammad Ali.
Though all the memories, 2013 stands out the most in my mind as it was 6 years after the previous one. I was turning 30, and to top it off, I was still relatively new to freelancing paid work in comics, and my first short story was for a little publisher in the US, coinciding with the World Taekwon-do Championships in the UK. Suffice to say, it was a busy lead up, with training and drawing to make deadlines.
I really didn’t know if I could do it.
But, to motivate myself, I surrounded the house (and eventually brought with me to the UK), the words of my idol, Ali. In both my comic book and publishing aspirations and fighting, the words resonated. I’m not going to plaster all his quotes here that I had, but they very much helped me, even just to get out of bed and put the training gear on early morning, or come home after a long day at work to train at the gym, or run at night. (To this day, after barely any sleep, and a full 11 or 12 hour day at work, I still find myself with the fortitude to stop at the gym and slog it out for an hour or 2, despite not having anything immediate on the horizon to strive for. Just, for me, I suppose.)
“One day, I won’t be around to answer people’s questions, or advise young aspiring athletes. What I want to say is for the people whom I’ve never met. It is for the boys and girls whose hands I will never hold. It is for the champions to come. These comments are for every spirit on the downside of advantage:
Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something deep inside – a desire, a dream, and a vision. They have to have the skill and the will.
But the will must be stronger than the skill.
When I was boxing I would set a goal for myself to demonstrate to other people what could be done, and to prove to myself that anything was possible when I set a goal then worked to achieve it. We create out own realities according to our thoughts and beliefs. The critics who told me what I couldn’t do didn’t know as well as I what I was capable of.
Everyone wins and everyone loses every now and again. If we didn’t experience loss, we would never know what we are capable of. The important thing to remember is:
You don’t really lose when you fight for what you believe in. you lose when you fail to fight for what you care about.” – Muhammad Ali.
So how did it all go? Well, the US release was fun, but not Earth-shattering. I know only a handful have ever seen the book in Australia, let alone cared about it. But, one could argue that that experience eventually lead to the current projects I have on the drawing board, and ones possibly to come. It’s all experience. And you have to keep going.
“…If you want to win, the will can never retire, the race can never stop, and the faith can never weaken.”
Regarding the 2013 fights, well, I remember after winning a fight or two, I lost my first fight in years. Faith did weaken. I was drained, sure- no sleep because of the last minute 1-day delay of the division, and not feeling well, I hadn’t had a meal in 24 hours. Regardless, this guy was very good. In fact, he went on to win Gold. After watching it weeks later, the fight looked far more even-looking on footage than it felt. And the judges awarded it close, but still, I felt horrible. I remember my left ribs were sore (and to this day, become stiff if I lean on that side sitting for too long). I’d coped a few decent hits to the head, so consequently a bit “punchy”, and exhausted. I needed space. I ended up in a quiet corner of a locker room, Dobok top off, gloves still on, tears streaming down my face. I knew some point later in the day, we had team sparring events, so I had to pull myself together. Stupidly, this popped into my head.
“Inside the ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong” – Muhammad Ali.
I returned to the hall. We were all pretty wiped but I knew we had to step up and do our best in this next event. Seeing the first fight become a one-sided affair, and the referee not doing much to control the nonsense, and loved ones watching on, was enough to spur me on to step in for my turn again after the earlier defeat.
The fight lasted seconds. KO with a left hook. I later discovered this gentleman won Bronze in my individual division, which makes me imagine to this day what could have been if the Draw for the fights had been a little different.
“Everything that God created has a purpose. The sun has a purpose. The clouds have a purpose. Rain has a purpose…even the smallest insect, and fish in the sea have a purpose.
Regardless of how large or small, we were all born to accomplish a certain task. It is the knowledge of that purpose that enables every soul to fulfill itself.
One person with knowledge of his life’s purpose is more powerful than ten thousand working without that knowledge” – Muhammad Ali.
When I was a kid in year 7, I really couldn’t sit and watch boxing like I do now. I recall falling asleep on a few occasions watching fights on TV. They weren’t cartoons, so I wasn’t too invested. There was one tape that my Dad had which was “Rumble in the Jungle 1974” and “ Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston 1964”.
These I loved.
Seeing the man dubbed ‘The Louisville Lip” brag and joke and stand up to these bigger, brutish supervillain-types of Sonny ‘The Bear’ Liston and young George ‘The Mummy’ Foreman, use to make me laugh, like Spider-man taunting the Rhino or Juggernaut from one of the comic books I’d read. He was a superhero.
As I got older, I particularly noted that the fights were a great contrast, between a man who was at the beginning of his career, and a man a decade later, who was beginning the downward years of his career. What strikes me now to this day was that Ali, who gave away the best earning years of his life, when he was at his fighting peak (look at those fights against Cleveland Williams, and Zorah Folley) for his religious and racial beliefs, had to re-invent himself skillfully, and change the way he fought his opponents. He adapted to life. No long able to duck and dance against the younger and tougher men that his division had to offer, Ali had to expose weaknesses, and overall, use experience. And if none of that worked, such as against the powerful Joe Frazier, he had to use psychological warfare (harsh sometime, but it sold tickets), and just good old fashioned guts and determination.
Yes, I humbly believe he fought too long. Spinks, though an avenged win in the end (and a third Heavyweight title) should have been the curtain call. But such is the desire of the fighter to keep fighting, long after the body ceases to be fully capable. But much can be said for that spirit to carry on.
The first fight against Liston in 1964 is another lesson in itself. Ali (then Clay) was proving to all the naysayers that he had the ability to achieve what everyone told him was impossible; beat Sonny Liston to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Early in the fight (I want to say Round 4, I think), Ali began to complain his eyes were stinging. It was speculated the liniment uses to stop cuts bleeding to Liston’s face had gotten in Ali’s eye. Liston, known to be in the Mafia’s pocket, was speculated to have cheated in this instance, by having the liniment on his glove, and smearing it into Ali’s face (since the Boxers had never touched heads at this point, and Liston was struggling to even tag Ali until the complaint). Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, frantically washed Ali’s eyes in vain, as Ali was ready to quit (calling out “Cut my gloves off!”, trying to claw his face.) Dundee, sensing the referee’s presence, shielded him from getting a proper look at Ali, and assuring Ali that the sweat would eventually wash the product from Ali’s eyes, instructed Ali to dance for a round (virtually blind), and try to survive the onslaught of punches Liston would barrage him with.
So Ali danced. And by round 6, Ali could see again, and began to fight back. So much so that by the beginning of round 7, Liston, who realised Ali wouldn’t give in, spat out his mouthguard and refused to get up.
Ali had won.
No matter what life throws at you, and as tough as it’s going to get, and even when you are ready to quit, you have to keep going. Even when you initially try again, and you feel like you’re stumbling around blind, you put your hands up and keep dancing.
I was sitting here marking a pile of student work after spending a rainy morning scrolling through the news, hoping that the news of Ali would get better. Waking up to see that my hero, since as far back as my ill-fated days as a little kid trying to box and failing miserably, was on life support, was not the way I wanted to greet the weekend of work. A selfish thought, given the biblical downpour of rain, washing away poor folks’ cars merely a kilometer from the house.
We are lucky. I’m not a religious man. But I grew up with friends devoted to the spirituality of the church, or to their God, and I respect that; if the good aspects of religion bring them and their families comfort, then who am I to be a jerk about it? I hate the twisted aspects of it: war, poverty, mental and physical abuse, but that’s painting everyone with the same brush. It’s no different than assuming because I like Ali and Boxing that I’m an unintelligent thug who goes about punching people in the street. Ali, was someone I immensely respected, who was Muslim. And though I don’t share the exact same beliefs, I do admire his love and devotion to the teachings of Islam, the love and peace he spoke of from his teachings, and his thoughts on racial equality, particularly now in a world still full of hate, turmoil and distrust. He understood the big picture, more than many other so-called leaders and politicians. He had compassion. His work with the United Nations, Special Olympics, his talks with the Dahlia Lama, are just a small taste of the compassion the man had. Look up his speeches. It makes you forget for a moment the violence of war in the world. And you may say, “Boxing is violent”- yes, but maybe two people competing in a ring and walking away at the end is better than nations fighting and losing countless people.
I apologise that the tone is somewhat self-indulgent, but in order to share, even if it’s just myself, what the G.O.A.T meant to me, then this exercise of coming to terms with the loss was worth my afternoon.
If you can track down a book called King of the World by David Remnick, it’s a great look at Ali, in the context of the era, the Heavyweight division, the Civil rights movement, Malcolm X etc. ESPN’s extensive look at his career in the Heavyweight Boxing box set is a wonderful overview of his best, and obscure fights you don’t usually see. And I would also recommend trawling thru Youtube; everything from his complete Wide World of Sports interviews with Howard Cosell, to his Parkinson interviews in 1971, 1974 and 1981, to his appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts can all be found on there. They’re amazing.
To finish up, by my bed side, among the giant pile of “to Read” are two books, where much of Muhammad Ali’s thoughts, poems and inspiring words can be found. Two in particular: More than a Hero: Muhammad Ali’s life lessons by Hana Ali, and Muhammad Ali: The Soul of a Butterfly. Anyone with a passing interest in the Champ should check them out. They’re great pick me ups. There is one chapter in the latter book which, given today’s horrible news, seems appropriate. If you have indulged my thought streams about my hero, I do appreciate it.
How I would like to be remembered.
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humourous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.
And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.” - Muhammad Ali
Rest in Peace, Ali.
January 17, 1942 - June 3, 2016