‘I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.’

Ali v Liston 2 - 1965

Shortly after the first Liston clash, on 6 March 1964 Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, announcing to the world he had officially converted to Islam. His brother also renounced his birth name and went from Rudolph Valentino Clay to Rahman Ali. Louisville’s most talented, controversial, yet certainly favourite fighting son went on to say, ‘Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name. It means beloved of God and I insist people use it when people speak to me.’ Unfortunately for some, they refused to acknowledge his wishes and suffered in the ring as a consequence.

The Liston rematch was exactly 15 months after the first fight, on 25 May 1965. The bout was referred to as ‘The Phantom Punch,’ and is engrained in folklore as one of the most mysterious moments in the square ring.

After reading out the instructions, referee Jersey Joe Walcott told Ali and Liston, ‘Good luck, shake hands and come out fighting.’ Similar to the first fight, Ali was light on his feet, bouncing, evading punches while Liston was lunging at the new champion, looking to inflict serious harm. Very few punches had landed, when shortly after the halfway mark of the round, Ali threw a crisp right hand lead to the side of Liston’s head and down he went. As Ali was celebrating the knockdown, Liston was rolling around on the canvas as if he’d been hit by a truck. After about 15 seconds Liston was on his feet and Walcott went over to him shaking his gloves, getting him ready to fight. Suddenly, one of the officials grabbed Walcott’s attention, highlighting the fight was over. As Ali celebrated with his team, Liston just stood there looking out of sorts. A bizarre ending to say the least. At precisely two minutes and 12 seconds of the opening round, the fight was officially over.

Few witnessed the blow from ringside. The debate which still goes on decades later has no clear answer. Did the punch connect? Did Liston take a dive for the mob? Was Ali really that fast? We’ll never know.

Six months later Floyd Patterson challenged Ali for his old crown at the Convention Centre, Las Vegas. The pre-fight pressers brought some heated moments as Ali ridiculed his opponent, while Patterson insisted on calling Ali ‘Cassius Clay’ and an ‘Uncle Tom,’ (a term referring to when a black man is excessively obedient to a white man). Many believe the bad beef was staged, as neither fighter had any genuine malice for each other. After carrying Patterson for 12 out of the scheduled 15 rounds, the ref stopped the fight and Ali was declared winner by TKO.

Ali v Patterson 1965

After winning every round against George Chuvalo in his hometown of Toronto, boxing’s biggest braggadocio fought his next two contests in the UK. Ali received a very warm reception on this side of the pond and responded in kind. ‘Ever since I first came here in 1963 to fight Henry Cooper, I have loved the people of England.’

Ali v Cooper 1966

After a testing encounter with Cooper in 1963, Ali was intent on putting on a faultless performance on 21 May 1966 in front of 46,000 spectators at Arsenal Football Club, Highbury. Despite a galant attempt from Cooper who weighed a mere 188lbs, he was fighting a ghost that night as Ali hit at will and rarely received any telling shots. Similar to the first bout, the contest was stopped due to a terrible cut over Cooper’s left eye, but this time in the sixth round.

Ten weeks later, Ali knocked out Brian London in three rounds at Earls Court Arena, Kensington, then five weeks after he travelled to Frankfurt, Germany stopping the European heavyweight champion, Karl Mildenberger in 12 rounds. Ali’s last fight of the year was against Cleveland Williams. The Georgian born fighter, known as ‘Big Cat,’ was 67-5-1 had notable victories against Ernie Terrell and Wayne Bethea, and two knockout losses to Sonny Liston. Williams was known to be one of the biggest punchers in the division and many believed could knock Ali out on 14 November 1966 in front of over 35,000 at the Astrodome, Houston. Ali however, put on a pitch perfect performance, with some of the finest footwork and punch selection ever seen in a boxing ring. At one minute and eight seconds of the third round, Ali was declared winner by TKO.

Ali v Williams 1966

A little under three months later, Ali fought Ernie Terrell on 6 February 1967 at the Astrodome Houston, with each fighter bringing a version of the world heavyweight title to the table. However, the contest was not remembered for its unification merits, but for one brief comment which was endlessly repeated throughout the contest.

Terrell, the WBA world heavyweight holder since 1965, insisted on calling Ali, ‘Clay.’ Ali, the WBC champion, was deeply grated by Terrell and countered by repeatedly calling him an Uncle Tom. Standing at 6ft 6inches and known as ‘The Octopus,’ Terrell was an imposing figure and confident in his ability and strength, however, he had genuinely angered the wrong person this time. As opposed to the Patterson bout where the Uncle Tom term was banded at the pressers as a staged event, this time the beef was real between the pair.

Ali v Terrell - 1967

Come fight night, both fighters weighed in at 212lbs. Despite showing flashes of competitiveness in the opening couple of rounds, by the third Terrell’s face was already starting to show signs of a one sided beating. At the midway point of the fight, Ali unloaded a barrage of punches which had Terrell on unsteady legs and started to shout, ‘Tom.’ The most famous taunt from Ali came in the eighth screaming, ‘What’s my name?’ wanting the Chicagoan resident to accept him as Ali and no longer Clay.

Ali won a very wide points decision and many believe he could have finished the fight in the seventh round, but instead wanted to make Terrell suffer, which he vehemently denied. No love was lost after the fight as Ali said to those listening live on television that Terrell was a joke of a champion. Terrell on the other hand at a later date claimed he had made a mistake calling Ali by his old name and that he meant no malice. Six weeks later Ali smashed Zora Folley in seven rounds at Madison Square Garden. However, his biggest fight was about to happen outside of the ropes.

Ali v Folley - 1967

The Vietnam War had been active since 1955 and the U.S. had been assisting the country with resources and knowledge. However, it wasn’t until 1965 when the first U.S. ground troops arrived in Vietnam in an attempt to curb the spread of communism throughout the country. Literally thousands of soldiers from America were being sent out to a horrific warzone and the reaction from those being called up for the draft was varied. Some enlisted into the army, others protested against the war burning their draft cards and many other objectors renounced their U.S. citizenship and moved to Canada. Ali, a man of strong beliefs had no intention of fleeing to Canada or becoming a soldier.

On 28 April 1967, Ali went to the Armed Forces Induction Centre in Houston, dressed in a pristine blue suit. He was addressed as Mr Cassius Clay and then asked to step forward to be inducted into the United States Army. He didn’t move an inch and later that day 25-year-old Ali was stripped of his boxing licence. His infamous quote at the time of conviction was, ‘I got no quarrel with them Vietcong.’

Eight weeks later, on 20 June 1967 he was convicted of violating the Universal Military Training and Services Act by evading the draft, fined $10,000 and given a five year prison sentence. He paid a bail bond which kept him out of prison whilst he appealed his case and in the meantime the sporting community came out in their droves to support Ali in his decision. However, it was no easy cruise for the champ, by a very long stretch.

The majority of America turned their back on Ali for refusing to fight in Vietnam, not to mention this was all happening at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967, where racial tension was at boiling point. As a result, he sought refuge at the home of the Nation of Islam on the South Side of Chicago, while his conviction slowly worked its way up to the Supreme Court.

The only fight action Ali saw was in 1970, while participating in a computer simulated contest between himself and former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. The bout was called, ‘The Super Fight,’ and the computer had Ali losing by stoppage in America and Marciano losing also via stoppage in the European version. You can read more about the contest here…

Despite having a criminal case hanging over his head, in 1970 Ali’s boxing license was reinstated and he was able to squeeze in two fights before the end of the year against Californian Jerry Quarry and ‘Ringo’ Oscar Bonavena. Quarry retired in the third round due to a cut, while Bonavena was halted in the fifteenth. However, the best victory that Ali tasted was in 1971 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction, bringing his sentence to an immediate end.

Ali v Bonavena 1971


On the boxing front, Ali was about to find out that regaining his titles was not going to be as easy as he might have convinced the media and himself. Shortly after he went into exile, a new kid on the block had emerged, by the name of Joe Frazier. The 1964 heavyweight Olympic gold medalist had beaten Buster Mathis in March 1968 for the heavyweight world title and successfully defended his crown six times, with only one of his opponents lasting the distance. The media had already been cooking up the future contest and both fighters did their bit to keep that narrative alive. Incidentally, with no income from boxing during his exile, Frazier leant Ali money to ensure he didn’t need to struggle unnecessarily.

The stage was set for 8 March 1971 at Madison Square Garden. Ali was unbeaten in 31 contests, while Frazier, who possessed the WBC, WBA and Ring Magazine titles was undefeated in 26 outings, with a 90 percent knockout ratio. The media had dressed up the contest as Frazier holding the banner for pro-war and Ali as the ambassador of antidisestablishmentarianism. The war of words began, with Ali once again branding his opponent an Uncle Tom and even went as far as ruffling the champions feathers by saying, ‘Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.’

Fans and media were at maximum capacity on fight night, with a who’s who of celebrities in attendance. Commentary came from a host of people including The Old Mongoose, Archie Moore, Hollywood actor, Burt Lancaster and photography from nonother than Frank Sinatra. Rumour has it that Sinatra was unable to purchase a ticket through the normal routes and his only way of being ringside was with a press pass, snapping for Life Magazine. The contest broke all records for viewership, being aired to over 300 million worldwide.

As the bell rung for the opening round, Ali threw his jab and combinations with great accuracy, having special success with his left hook. However, Frazier was a very different opponent to anyone he’d ever encountered, bobbing, weaving and smiling every time Ali landed, then landing his own vicious hooks as he fought out of a crouch. Despite Ali shaking his head, it was obvious Frazier had left his mark.

Ali v Frazier 1 - 1971

In the first minute of the last round Frazier almost launched himself off the ground as he threw and connected his trademark left hook on Ali’s jaw. Many would have stayed on the canvas for the full 10 count, but Ali somehow managed to muster enough strength to get to his feet and make it to the final bell. Despite his bravery, the judges all gave the decision in favour of Frazier, 8-6, 9-6, 11-4. Frazier was still champion and Ali had now suffered his first loss.

Ali v Ellis 1971

Eager to get back in the driver’s seat, Ali fought Jimmy Ellis four months later, stopping him in the twelfth. In his next nine fights he fought in five different countries, including Alvin Blue Lewis at Crocker Park, Dublin, where Ali was warmly welcomed as he proudly talked about his bloodline to the Emerald Isle. Other names of note in said winning streak were George Chuvalo, Floyd Patterson, Bob Foster and Joe Bugner.

They say every fighter has a boogie man and it turned out Ken Norton was Ali’s. On 31 March 1973 at the Sports Arena, San Diego, Ali took on Illinois born Norton who stood the same height but boasted a physique that looked like he had been sculptured from marble. Both fighters had only lost one contest, but Norton possessed a higher knockout ratio.

Ali v Norton 1 - 1973

From the opening bell the contrast of styles was very evident. Ali with his hands low, bouncing on his feet, flicking out the jab and the lead right, while Norton threw out his own ramrod jab and defended Ali’s attacks by leaning back and using his left shoulder and crossing his arms.

Every time the ex-marine landed in front of his home crowd his efforts were received with cheers. After an opening round which was probably owned by Ali purely on work rate, Norton came out for the second with more venom. In the first minute he landed with a long range clubbing left hook twice, which seemed to cause Ali issues. As Ali fired back his jab, Norton crouched and kept coming for him, firing jabs to the body and head. For the last two minutes of the round Norton kept pressing, having success with straight rights and hooks from all angles, as Ali found himself on the ropes. Nobody has ever been able to definitively say which punch did it, but Ali sustained a broken jaw in that round. From there on, Ali danced backwards for the balance of the fight, flicking out jabs and doing his best to evade vicious attacks from Norton.

Despite putting on a very convincing performance, Norton, to the amazement of those in attendance and the millions tuning in via television and radio, only just won the contest with a split decision. On a side note, three months prior Norton’s purse for fighting Charlie Reno was only $300. Let’s just say he earned a little more than that from this point forth.

Six months on and the rematch played out very similar to the first, minus Ali’s broken jaw. Once again, many believed Norton had been busier and landed the more telling shots, but this time the split decision swayed Ali’s way. With one victory a piece, the pair would eventually meet three years down the line to settle the score.

Ali v Norton 2 - 1973

Only five weeks later Ali beat Dutch heavyweight champion, Rudi Lubbers in Jakarta, Indonesia, before locking horns with his old nemesis, Joe Frazier on 28 January 1974 at Madison Square Garden.

Since their first encounter Frazier had lost his crown in two brutal rounds to 24-year-old young gun, George Foreman. In essence, whoever won the rematch would face Foreman. This time round Ali weighed 3lbs less, while Frazier came in almost 4lbs more. The fight was certainly not a copy of the first contest. Ali was lighter on his feet, threw greater volumes of punches with his trademark accuracy and was simply the more worthy winner on the night. Thankfully the judges also saw it that way, awarding him a comfortable points decision.

In Ali’s five previous contests, each bout went the 12 round distance, meaning he had fought 60 rounds in 30 months, of which 36 rounds were against Norton and Frazier. Many believed his next fight was a step too far, as he challenged one of the hardest punchers of all time. Cue, George Foreman and The Rumble in the Jungle, 30 October 1974.

Fearsome Foreman boasted a frightening record of 40-0, with only three of his opponents hearing the final bell. He was seven years younger than Ali and in addition to demolishing Frazier, he annihilated Norton in two rounds

The fight was heled in Kinshasa, Zaire and despite being the champ, Foreman received a frosty reception as Ali embraced the African nation and what they stood for. In the build up to the fight Ali was seen to be a God and everywhere he went in Kinshasa they shouted, ‘Ali, bomaye,’ which translates to, ‘Ali, kill him.’ Ali’s confidence never waivered as did his banter. In one press conference he said, ‘I've seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won,’ and in an interview with David Frost he said, ‘You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whup George Foreman's behind.’ However, despite all the chants of support and his optimism, 32-year-old Ali was in the fight of his life and walked into the ring a 4-1 underdog.

Joe Frazier was ringside with David Frost and said, based on fighting the pair, ‘I think that George is capable of dishing it out, but I don’t know about taking it. But as big man, he should be able to take almost anything.’

After a slick opening round from Ali, light on his feet and landing some textbook right hand leads, the second round came with a script that nobody saw coming. In total contrast to the first round, Ali planted his feet on the ground and moved up against the ropes as Foreman unloaded his heavy artillery. As Ali started speaking to Foreman saying, ‘Is that all you got George?,’ some shouted, ‘This is suicide,’ while other shouted, ‘Fix,’ believing Ali was going to take an early dive. Ali in the meantime was thinking, ‘strategy,’ and little did he know that he had just given birth to ‘The Rope-a-Dope.’

After swinging wildly and lethargically in round seven, Foreman came out for round eight with very little gas in the tank and was behind on all three score cards. Frazier’s comments ringside were, ‘I’ve got a feeling George is not gonna make it,’ and he was right.

As Ali resumed his rope-a-dope tactics, after two minutes and 40 seconds Foreman was there for the taking. As Ali landed with a right to the jaw followed by a barrage of punches, Foreman started to stagger before dropping to the canvas and being counted out by referee Zac Clayton for the full 10 count. The unthinkable had happened from a tactical genius who was now a two-time world champion. One of the biggest upsets in boxing which secured Ring Magazine Fight of the Year 1974.

Ali v Foreman 1974

Despite Foreman being very vocal for a rematch, Ali was in no hurry and focused on a set of different opponents, which was by no means an easier route. After stopping Ron Lyle in 11 rounds and comfortably beating Joe Bugner over 15 on points, the final instalment with Joe Frazier happened on 1 October 1975. ‘The Thrilla in Manilla’ turned out to be a savage swansong for the pair as they battled it out in temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius. Ali treated the fans to some vintage boxing in the first few rounds as he countered Frazier’s attacks with every punch in the book. However, as the fight progressed past rounds four and five, Ali started to reignite his rope-a-dope tactics, as Frazier pounded his kidneys. Rounds 12-14 were brutal. Frazier’s face had become a grotesquely swollen and bloody mass, while Ali, despite evidently running on the dregs of what little energy he had left, mercilessly unloaded his full armoury on a visually impaired Frazier.

Ali v Frazier 3 - 1975

As the pair returned to their stools at the end of the fourteenth, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch, against vehement protests from his charge waved off the fight. On seeing what had happened, Ali stood up to celebrate, but a split second later almost collapsed on his stool, void of any energy. It was without doubt the worst beating either fighting had absorbed and Ali was urinating blood for weeks after.

Following a five fight winning streak against notable opposition such as Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers, the rubber match with Norton, which many believed again Ali lost and even a fight with wrestler Antonio Inoki, the 1976 light heavyweight Olympic gold medalist Leon ‘The Neon’ Spinks challenged for the world heavyweight titles. The contest was seen by many as a complete mismatch as Spinks has only been professional for little over a year and had a record of six wins and one draw, all against low level opposition.

Ali v Spinks 1 - 1978

Incredibly, Spinks, a natural cruiserweight caused the upset of the year, beating Ali by split decision over 15 rounds and was now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Norton was now the Number 1 contender for the WBC title, but Spinks chose to fight Ali in the rematch, which obviously made better commercial sense, not to mention Norton may very well have blitzed the younger, smaller and less experienced champion. As a result, Norton was awarded the WBC title and Spinks fought Ali on 15 September 1978 at the Superdome, New Orleans in front of 63,3650 spectators, with his WBA strap on the line. Incredibly, Ali turned back the clocks and controlled the fight comfortably for the full 15 rounds, winning a very wide points decision. He was now the first ever three-time world heavyweight champion.

Ali v Spinks 2 - 1978

Despite announcing his retirement on 27 June 1979, Ali fought two more times. Whoever was involved in putting together these contests should eternally bow their heads in shame. On 2 February 1980, Ali took on the long reigning WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. The Greatest was now a shadow of himself. Out of shape, reflexes shot and Parkinson’s disease evidently surfacing. After 10 one sided rounds, a deflated Ali was retired from the fight. Holmes, a long term sparring partner of Ali broke into tears after the fight, feeling terrible about hitting his old vulnerable friend. It was the first and last time Ali was ever stopped in a fight.

The year after Ali fought Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas, lasting 10 punishing rounds against the future world champion. After the fight Ali said, ‘Father time won tonight,’ and formally announced his retirement for good this time. After 61 professional contests, the Louisville Lip retired with 56 victories and only five losses, and in 1990 would be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Muhammad Ali went on to prove his worth as a human being far transcended the ring. The same year he retired from boxing he saved a suicidal man from jumping off the ninth floor of a high rise building in Los Angeles. The man was believed to have been a Vietnam war veteran and was under the illusion he was still in action, while balancing on the edge of the window ledge. Despite the police’s best attempts to talk the man down, he inched closer to jumping.

By complete coincidence, Ali’s biographer, Howard Birmingham was in front of the building at the time and called Ali to come and try help the gentleman. Ali jumped in his car immediately, drove down the wrong side of the street flat out and arrived in less than five minutes. He then proceeded to jump out of his car, leaving the door wide open and ran up to the man named Joe. After 20 minutes he managed to get him off the ledge single handed and walk him out.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein was holding 15 American hostages in Iraq and Ali decided to try and get them home safely. Initially Hussein kept the champ waiting for days, during which time Ali visited schools, walked the streets and went to various mosques to pray. Although running out of his Parkinson’s disease medication and being in a bad way, he refused to leave Iraq and did eventually get to meet with Hussein. After a long chat, Hussein said to the media, ‘I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US……………..without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.’ Ali returned to the U.S. with all 15 hostages.

In 1996 Ali was the torch bearer for the Olympics in Atlanta and in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush. Bush called Ali ‘a fierce fighter and a man of peace.’

On 3 June 2016, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali passed away from sceptic shock relating to a respiratory issue. He was 74 years old. The funeral procession passed through the streets of Louisville as fans and well-wishers shouted ‘Ali! Ali!’ finishing off at Cave Hill Cemetery and his 10 pallbearers included, actor Will Smith who played The Greatest in the biopic ‘Ali,’ Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Jerry Ellis (Jimmy’s brother). The burial was a private affair, but the public funeral service had around 15,000 people in attendance. Guest speakers at the church included Billy Crystal, Will Smith and former President Bill Clinton.

Ali’s household CV boasted four marriages, nine children, one of whom (Laila) went on to become a long reigning undefeated super middleweight champion. He also has a grandson by the name of Nico Ali Walsh, who is a fledging middleweight at the time of writing. Nico made his debut on 14 August 2021, has his grandfather’s face tattooed on his right forearm, is trained by Emmanuel Steward’s nephew Sugar Hill and promoted by Bob Arum. Mr Arum, who started to promote The Greatest in 1966 for the George Chuvalo fight was quoted as saying, ‘I didn't fall in love with boxing, I fell in love with Muhammad Ali.’ The same could be said for many of us.

Ali was a man of many words, so it’s fitting to sign off with possibly his most poignant and shortest literary masterclass. In June 1975, Ali was asked to do the commencement speech at Harvard University, in front of a couple of thousand students. After delivering said speech, those in attendance gave him a deafening round of applause. As the clapping dissipated, a student shouted out, ‘Champ. Give us a poem!’ The Greatest took a breath and calmy replied, ‘Me. We.’

Paul Zanon, has had nine books published, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and has contributed to a number of boxing publications, including, Boxing Monthly, The Ring, Daily Sport, Boxing News, Boxing Social, amongst other publications.

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