This month (17 Jan) saw the 70th birthday of one of the most remarkable men of my lifetime. A warrior, a supreme athlete, a poet, a social campaigner, a shameless showman and a man of the highest principle and personal honour - Muhammad Ali.
on 17 Jan 1942 and originally named Cassius Marcellus Clay after his father. Ali became a boxer because of a childhood incident when at the age of 12 someone stole his bicycle. He remarked to a Police Officer that he would ‘whup’ the thief. The Police Officer advised him to learn to box first. As a result of that advice, over the next 6 years Ali won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title culminating in his winning the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Sometime later Ali threw the gold medal into the Louisville Kentucky Ohio River in disgust after being refused service in a ‘Whites Only’ restaurant.
Ali then turned professional.
He was a highly unorthodox fighter who rather than hold his hands close to his face held them lower and relied on his lightning reflexes and foot speed – the famous Ali shuffle. In 1964 Ali beat Liston in a title fight and became – at the age of 22, Heavyweight Champion of the world, at that time the youngest challenger to ever beat a reigning champion and a record which stood for over 20 years until Mike Tyson broke it in 1986.
In late 1964 Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam and originally took the name Cassius X ( a reference to slavery and slaves having no surname) dropping his birth name of Cassius Clay, eventually changing to Muhammad Ali instead and in a fight two years later the phrase “what’s my name” came into being when during pre-match for bout against Ernie Terrell, Terrell referred to him as ‘Clay’. In retaliation Ali mercilessly beat him for the full 15 rounds continually taunting Terrell with “What’s my name Uncle Tom? What’s my name”. Ali deliberately did not knock him out - which he could have done easily, preferring instead to punish him and a reporter on the night commented that it was “a barbarous display of cruelty”. A dark moment in an otherwise glorious career.
In 1966 Ali was declared eligible for Draft into the US Armed Forces. Bizarrely, two years previously he had failed the tests because his literacy skills were below standard, but by 1966 the Vietnam War was in full swing and in order to keep the military supplied with recruits, the standards were lowered and all previous failures revisited and regraded accordingly. Ali declared he would not join the military and that his religion forbade him to go to war saying “We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” He went on to utter what became a phrase of a generation of black Americans “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. None of them ever called me nigger”. The
military called him for induction in 1967. Ali refused four times to answer his name when called and was arrested. Ali was tried, found Guilty and the Appeal process commenced. His boxing licence was suspended and he was formally stripped of his title. US
Until that point, there was little organised resistance to the Vietnam war. From that moment on all that changed. Ali’s stance even inspired Martin Luther King to openly oppose the war. Ali became an iconic figure giving speeches at universities and rallies right across America, coming out with phrases such as “No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in
Vietnam while so-called Negro people in are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Louisville
In 1970, Ali was reinstated as a professional boxer and his licence returned to him despite his conviction still standing and the Appeals process still on-going - public pressure was simply to great for the US Government. It was now a period of heavyweight greats and over the following years Ali fought such legends as Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, Ernie Shavers and Larry Holmes – the so –called Golden Era of heavyweight boxers. Ali – ever the showman and now social activist, took his fights to the third world. The Phillipines famous ‘Thrila In Manila’ – which Ali later described as the closest thing to death imaginable and which left both boxers completely and utterly exhausted, and the Zairean ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, insisting that the ticket prices were set at a level affordable to the local population's ordinary people. Ali finally retired from the ring in 1981 after losing to Trevor Burbick. Three years later in 1984 he was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, attributed to years of physical punishment and blows to the head.
The Thrila In Manila
Since his retirement he has remained a devout Muslim and campaigned tirelessly against racism and the exploitation of the third world. He has been awarded dozens of honours, had roads named after him, songs written about him, been the subject of countless books, films and even TV shows appearing several times on Michael Parkinson’s BBC chat show. One of his fights was even the inspiration for the first Rocky film. Every heavyweight champion ever since lives under his shadow, is compared to him and always found wanting - merely pretenders to the throne.
And now he is 70 and - as he himself proclaims, he is truly ‘The Greatest’.
Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali. And thank you.
The Ali Rap