The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was a special human being 20 January 2020


The boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay jun. won an Olympic Games boxing gold medal at Rome in 1960. The apocryphal story is that Clay threw his medal into the Tevere.

In February 1964 he earned the right to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Not much print and air space is given to boxing these days but in 1964 it was huge news. Clay was a rank outsider in a two-cornered contest. Liston terrorised and brutalised opponents and every man in the world was scared of him. 

Refusing to be bowed, Clay talked himself up, taunted the champion before getting into the ring and beat him fair and square when they boxed. Liston did not get up from his stool to begin the seventh round. “Fix!” they cried.

In May 1965, Clay (now Muhammad Ali after joining the Black Muslim group Nation of Islam in 1964) had his re-match with Liston. This had been delayed when Ali had to go to hospital with a hernia. The re-match lasted 2 minutes 12 seconds as the young champion dispatched his opponent. “Fix!” they cried. 

The best-known boxer in history had won his first two major events in suspicious circumstances. 

Looking back after Ali’s ensuing achievements, sports writers and pundits agreed this was unfair criticism but in 1964-65 it was unthinkable that this loud-mouthed tall kid, who danced in the ring could whup a fighter like Sonny Liston.

What these writers had not considered was they were watching a changing of the times in America and ultimately the world. Michael Carbet in Boxiana summed it up more than 50 years later:  

 “What the hell is going on? And the answer is the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. is changing. Big time. It’s 1964. Some odd music act called “The Beatles” is on the radio all day, and the Soviets are putting rockets into space, while shameless “Ya-Ya girls” are going around in miniskirts, and there’s all this talk about desegregating schools, and just a few months ago the President of the United States was shot and killed in broad daylight. And now this: some big mouth freak who can’t shut up and calls himself ‘The Greatest’ is the heavyweight champion of the world.”

But the greatest was still to come. Muhammad Ali would lose his title for political reasons and regain it; lose to another great, Joe Frazier, and then regain it fighting another fearsome champion, George Foreman. 

He also became the greatest symbol of America’s changing face when he defied his government and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War (1965-73 –US troop involvement).

“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” he said outside court when he gave up some of the best sporting years of his life, his title and high-dollar purses to prefer jail to fighting for his country. It split the nation because the older generation believed in service due to their time in World War II (1942-45 – US troop involvement) and their ancestors’ sacrifice in the Great War (1917-18 – US troop involvement). 

Many of the younger generation thought their country was involved in a war they had no right to be part of. Government policy was being challenged by youth and the highest-profile sporting youth in the country was willing to go to prison for his belief.

To me, that is Ali’s greatest legacy. He felt the winds of change, hell, he may even have blown them, and he became a leader from that moment.

It took an 11th hour rewriting of a Supreme Court justice decision to clear Ali of wrong doing. His career though magnificent took its toll physically. Though seriously afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he was selected to light the Olympic Games flame in Los Angeles in 1984. Shaking visibly it was a poignant moment and one not lost on those who had watched his life unfold.


When he beat Liston in 1964, the young fighter ran at the ropes to the side of the ring where the press sat. “I am the greatest,” he shouted at them. “I shook up the world.”

For me: he was and he did. 

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