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The Greatest

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

A Tribute to a Childhood Hero

Neil Leifer, Sports Illustrated 1965 -- one of the most iconic images of all time

A History of Inspiration

I remember as a child thinking that Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete in the world. I thought the U.S. President, at the time, Richard Nixon, must be the greatest person simply by virtue of his position and title. I was profoundly wrong about the latter, but you can still make a serious case for the former. I was young.

Of course, this recognition came from Ali’s own pronouncement of his greatness. We all know that Ali was one of the most talented showmen boxing and sport have ever known. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”’ I’m the prettiest, I’m the greatest.” And, about his first fight against reigning champ, Sonny Liston, on February 25, 1964, he said to reporters, “If you want to lose your money/Be a fool and bet on Sonny.” I can still see him verbally sparring with Howard Cosell on ABC.

My memories are dominated by his iconic rope a dope style, strutting backwards glide around the canvas like an incredibly self-aware showboat, his silvery white and black bordered trunks and his infectiously expressive face. My minds eye can still see the blistering speed of his jabs and roundhouse punches, especially when he sensed the end, as he did in his second short fight against Sonny Liston when he knocked out the former champ in the first round. The thing about Ali, he backed up the poetry and showboating. He was a transcendent athlete with incredible gifts of power and speed.

Of course, he could frustrate a young fan. In my youthful view, I remember, that as he “rope a doped” around the ring, especially in his later fights, I wanted to shout at my hero through the rabbit eared T.V. to show George Foreman who ruled the ring, no more clowning around in Zaire! This fight is supposed to be a rumble.

I knew he was biding his time, but his commitment to the “exhaust them until they are right where I want them strategy” hurt to watch for a young boy. I did not know he had taunted Foreman by stating: “They told me you could punch, George” throughout the fight. George Foreman later tells the story that once he clocked Ali with all he had in his jaw, expecting Muhammad to go down like other knock-out victims, “Ali pulled me close and said: ‘Is that all you got, George?’”

When he lost his first fight to Leon Spinks on February 15, 1978 in Las Vegas, I thought the world had ended. It had registered that Ali became the first boxer at any level to regain his title multiple times. But, in my childhood mind that did not mean he had ever lost. He had simply regained his title. Ali was no longer invincible. And, Parkinson’s had not yet arrived.

But, of course, 7 months later, Ali regained the title and became the first man in history to hold the title three different times.

What was lost on me during that period was the animosity Ali endured for his convictions. I was not even a year old when on April 28, 1967 Ali refused induction into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Imagine what he put at risk: the prime of his career, the World Heavyweight Boxing title, adulation from millions of fans, millions of dollars in lost prize money and his freedom! You may remember that on June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He remained free pending appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction on June 28, 1971.

I write vignettes about an eclectic and potentially contradictory group of historical figures that inspire me. Many of them come from standard lists: world leaders (Churchill, JFK, Gandhi) military heroes (Alexander, Patton, King Leonidas), athletes (Babe Didrikson), artists (James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison), Musical Icons (Beethoven) and business tycoons and leaders. At a young age, I became fascinated by the how and the what beyond the legends.

In the case of Ali, I am moved by his courage and the apparent contradictions. I am inspired by his confidence, his ability to predict the future when telling reporters the round he would knock out an opponent, his joyfulness, humor and irrepressible smile. And I appreciate someone who lives by their convictions in the face of enormous potential personal loss. Even simpler still, he was incredibly fun to watch.

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