I came home Friday evening (June 3), flicked on the TV and caught some old footage of Muhammad Ali in action. As first, I thought it was another TSN Top 10 countdown, reeling off the best Ali moments. But as the broadcast continued, I realized ‘The Greatest’ had passed away.
It was expected — considering his long battle with Parkinson’s disease — but nevertheless sad.
Where does one begin recalling the life of a person who, at one time, was the most recognizable face in the world? What hasn’t been written about Ali? I can’t think of anyone photographed more often. Maybe the Beatles or Elvis.
Ali’s life narrative was storybook: the angry boy who took up boxing after his bicycle was stolen; won an Olympic gold medal; beat the ‘unbeatable’ Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title; stripped of the title in his prime after refusing induction into the U.S. army; reclaimed the title by defeating the ‘invincible’ George Foreman; lost and regained the title a third time at age 36 from Leon Spinks.
Imagine his record had he been permitted to fight during his prime.
Ali spent about six years too many in the ring. It’s a shame the Thrilla’ in Manila ever happened in 1975. As great a fight as it was against nemesis Joe Frazier, it arguably marked the beginning of the end. His best days as a boxer were behind him, and signs of Parkinson’s were around the corner.
That third fight with Frazier was violent and then some, in the sweltering heat of the Philippines. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco once said it was the closest thing he’s seen to two men killing one another. The referee stopped the fight when he didn’t allow Frazier to come out for the 15th and final round, but Ali looked as weary and beaten.
After that, he was visibly slower, though still capable of winning back the title in 1978. Sadly, in 1980, he took on Larry Holmes and was soundly thrashed. It was farcical. But it wasn’t the end of Ali’s days in the ring. The following year he lost to Trevor Berbick in another meaningless fight.
A number of people were interviewed Friday, Wayne Gretzky among them. While playing hockey in Los Angeles, Gretzky recalled Ali once visited the Kings’ dressing room after a game. Ali looked around until he spotted Gretzky, then came over and said, ‘I hear you’re the great one. But I’m the greatest.’
Gretzky said the two best athletes he ever saw were Ali and Michael Jordan, with Ali being the best.
What’s easy to forget, especially in recent years watching him struggle with his illness, is that Ali — along with being one of the most famous — had also been one of the most despised people in the public eye. The ‘Louisville Lip’ was brash and confident, and rarely stopped talking (thus the nickname). All part of his shtick. But he had a mean streak, as evidenced in drawn-out victories over Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson — who bore the brunt of their insults — and his taunting of Frazier, whose mouth could not match that of the Lip.
No, Ali was no choir boy. But what a life he had. In his early days, he was a heavyweight who fought like a middleweight, revolutionizing the glamour division of the sport. Later on, he had to rely on his brain to win fights. He took on, and beat, the best during the toughest era of heavyweight boxing. He changed his name, he joined the Nation of Islam, he befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he travelled the world, he defied the authorities, he lit the 1996 Olympic flame and … and … and …
Rest in peace, champ.
Scott Stanfield is a reporter at The Comox Valley Record