He came into the world as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky., the son of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a handsome, loquacious sign painter, and his wife, Odessa Grady Clay, a church-going woman who tried to instill into her two sons the virtues of hard work, humility and respect for their elders.
He departed this mortal coil in a Phoenix hospital on Friday as Muhammad Ali, 74, arguably the foremost heavyweight champion ever, and the most widely known human being in the second half of the 20th century. And while the self-proclaimed GOAT (“Greatest of All Time”) retained some of the traits of his birth parents – the good looks and braggadocio of his father, to be sure, and, just as surely, the diligence of his mother, a household domestic – everything else he would become might seem to be a hodgepodge of other influences: an unidentified bicycle thief, a preening wrestler named Gorgeous George, Sugar Ray Robinson, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Nelson Mandela, maybe even a touch of Mother Teresa.
But although some would argue otherwise, the most defining element of Muhammad Ali, and the cornerstone of his legend, is quite likely something he found within himself as he reached out to touch the brightest stars in the constellation and somehow became one himself.
“Who made me is me,” he always insisted. On other occasions, he noted that “My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am … I am the greatest, and I said that even before I knew I was.”
The vainglorious side of a boxer who transcended boxing was off-putting to many, and drew the admiration of countless others, but Ali forever understood that the fastest way to draw attention to himself, apart from his luminescent talent in the ring, was to, well, call attention to himself.
“Silence is golden,” he observed, “but only when you can’t think of a good answer.”
Ironically, Ali, whose rise to the top of his brutal profession launched a tidal wave of nicknames, not all of which were complimentary (at various times he was labeled the “Louisville Lip,” “Cash the Brash,” “Mighty Mouth” and “Gaseous Cassius”) had been all but silenced over the past two decades by the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s syndrome, a neurological affliction doctors attributed to the accumulation of blows to the head that affected his speech and motor skills. At the time of his death, Ali had not driven a car for 23-plus years, and it was left to his attentive and protective fourth wife, Lonnie, whom he married in 1986, to serve as the interpreter of his almost-inaudible raspings, or perhaps even to pronounce in her own words what she thought he would have said, if only he were still able to say it.
Not that any of that mattered. Even as he became a shell of his once-robust physical self, virtually voiceless and unable to walk without assistance, there were those who took it upon themselves to speak out on his behalf. Where once there had been an indisputably magnificent boxer and just as indisputably a polarizing figure during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, there now stood (or, more likely, sat) a beloved philanthropist and humanitarian, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2012. Derided in some quarters as a draft-dodger for refusing induction into the Army in 1967, and for his denouncement of white people as “devils,” Ali in his dotage had become a universally sympathetic figure in large part because of such good works as his various missions to deliver food and medical supplies to developing countries, and as a fundraiser for Special Olympics and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Research Center in Phoenix.
When Ali’s selection as the Liberty Medal recipient for 2012 was announced, former President Bill Clinton gushingly said, “Ali embodies the spirit of the Liberty Medal by embracing the ideals of the Constitution – freedom, self-governance, equality and empowerment – and helping spread them across the globe.”
But as was the case with another iconic figure, Elvis Presley, whose career also was neatly divided into two segments – the lithe, rebellious, hip-shaking 1950s rock ’n’ roll idol and the plumper, jumpsuited incarnation playing Vegas in the ’70s – there were two separate and distinct Alis, both in and out of the ring. There was the sleek, pre-exile version (prevented from fighting for 43 months while his conscientious objection to military service was wending its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in his favor), whose balletic movements and blurring hand speed transformed a blood sport into an art form, and the older, heavier model whose ability to absorb frightful punishment and come back firing was no less mesmerizing.
The best of Ali, in Phase 1, probably was on display the night of Nov. 14, 1966, in the Astrodome, in a WBA title defense against the dangerous Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. That Ali disassembled Williams in three rounds, the knockout sequence a rapid-fire combination that had the challenger’s skull vibrating like a bobblehead doll. It was a study of pugilistic perfection, his hands as blurringly quick as the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings.
The Ali who returned to his craft after 3½ years off, although still a superb fighter, was different in Phase 2 – a bit heavier, a smidgen slower, more apt to be on the receiving end but still able to fight through the rough patches he hardly ever had to previously endure. Still, that Ali won two of three classic wars with his fiercest rival, Joe Frazier, and he upset the seemingly invincible George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
“Ali before the layoff was a better fighter than Ali after,” his late trainer, Angelo Dundee, said in 1995. “What a lot of people don’t realize, and it’s sad, is we never saw him at his peak.
“The Ali who fought Cleveland Williams and Zora Foley was the best he could be at that time, but he was getting bigger and stronger and more experienced in the ring. What was he, 25 years old when they made him stop? Those next three years would have been his peak. If he had continued getting better at the rate he was going, God only knows how great he would have been.”
There is a possibility, of course, that Ali’s light would have shone just as brightly had he heeded another calling, but having a genius for something doesn’t necessarily translate to having genius at everything. It took a serendipitous moment when he was just 12 years old – a theft which, at the time, seemed an outrage -- for the then-Cassius Clay Jr. to discover what fate had in store for him. Thus was boxing history eventually written in towering, indelible letters.
It was that bicycle thief who made off with young Cassius’ new ride in the summer of 1954 that set destiny into motion. Clay had pedaled to the Louisville Service Club, where local businessmen were giving away free balloons and ice cream to the kids, but when it was time for him to leave, he discovered his bike was missing. Incensed, he was directed to a Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, who was also the boxing coach at the nearby Columbia Gym.
“If I find out who stole my bike, I’m gonna whup him,” Clay told Martin.
Replied Martin: “You better learn to fight before you start fighting.”
So Clay arrived the next afternoon at the Columbia Gym, where he became enthralled with the rat-tat-tat sound of other kids hitting the speed bags, the thud of their punches on the heavy bags, the grace of their rope-skipping. He continued to come back every day, each visit helping to formulate his plan for what he could and would do to make his mark in the world.
He was very good, but not quite unbeatable in the early stages of his boxing development, winning 100 of 108 amateur bouts. Along the way he won amassed six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves titles, an AAU national title and an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960, beating Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final. His natural effervescence was such that he became known as the “Mayor of the Olympic Village,” a chatterbox who talked up everyone, regardless of race or nationality, his preferred topic of conversation being his absolute certainty that he would someday become the best that ever was.
“I can still see him strutting around the Olympic Village with his gold medal on,” the late Wilma Rudolph, the great Olympic sprinter on whom Clay had developed a crush, once said. “He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one else cherished it the way he did.”
It came as a shock to some, then, when Clay, who by then had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, claimed that he had taken that gold medal and flung it off a bridge in Louisville in reaction to the racism he encountered upon his return from the Olympics. But as a child growing up in the Jim Crow South, hadn’t he previously been exposed to racism? A contrary opinion, expressed by some who knew him then, suggests that he had simply lost the gold medal, and told the tale of throwing it into the Ohio River because it furthered an agenda that suited his purposes.
By any measure, however, his professional ascendance as a fighter was rapid, as was his decision to cast himself as a chest-thumping narcissist in the mold of one of his early role models, Gorgeous George.
“A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth,” the blond-tressed wrestler told Clay. “So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”
It was that Clay who, heading into his Feb. 25, 1964, title bout with the menacing champion, Sonny Liston, in Miami Beach, came across as a hyperventilating, out-of-control and seemingly terrified young man of 22. Ninety-three percent of boxing writers in one poll picked Liston, a 7-to-1 favorite, to zip the Louisville Lip, perhaps permanently. And that perception wasn’t entirely incorrect. Clay’s public confidence did in fact mask a private fear.
“That’s the only time I was ever scared in the ring,” Ali later told David Remnick, one of his several biographers. “Sonny Liston. First time. First round. Said he was gonna kill me.”
But the first round came and went with no hint of impending disaster, and Clay – who had pronounced that “I’m gonna put that ugly bear (Liston) on the floor” – almost did just that, so bedazzling and battering the champion that he declined to come out for the sixth round of a bout in which he had fallen almost hopelessly behind on points. There suddenly was a new king of boxing, a heavyweight who moved like a lightweight, spoke loud and proud, and had the unmarked, striking visage of a matinee idol.
The next day, Cassius Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, commonly known as the Black Muslims, and had had taken a new name, Cassius X. That would again change, as he demanded to be called Muhammad Ali for the May 25, 1965, rematch with Liston in Lewiston, Maine, a bout which Ali won on a controversial first-round knockout.
From then on, he was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, every nuanced difference in or out of the ring confounding those who sought to analyze and dissect him as if he were a laboratory test animal. He was at once a proponent of black supremacy who would not dismiss the white members (Dundee, Ferdie Pacheco, Gene Kilroy) of his support team, despite the insistence of his Nation of Islam brothers, and who gleefully signed autographs and performed magic tricks for kids of all colors and creeds. He was praised for being a thought-provoking activist for social change, a man of deep convictions and beliefs, despite his academic shortcomings (he finished 376th out of 391 students in his graduating class at all-black Central High) and lack of specifics on some of the issues he espoused.
Lionized in any number of books, essays and film treatments, the more positive aspects of Muhammad Ali have been called into question by a few dissidents, the most notable perhaps being the late Mark Kram, who authored “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” which forwards the notion that the deification of Ali could not have occurred without the unfair diminishment of Smokin’ Joe.
“Current hagiographers have tied themselves into knots trying to elevate Ali into a heroic, defiant catalyst of the anti-war movement, a beacon of black independence,” wrote Kram, who covered Ali during 11 years at Sports Illustrated. “It’s a legacy that evolves from the intellectually loose ’60s, from those who were in school then and now write romance history … Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived – by the right and the left.”
But whether Ali fully understood what he had achieved even while he was in the process of achieving it is hardly the issue. The end result, as is the case in a boxing match or while grappling with life’s more intricate mysteries, is usually all that matters. Some historical figures remain relevant centuries after the fact, and there is a better than good chance that school children in the 22nd century and beyond will be writing term papers on Muhammad Ali that will contain little or no mention of stolen bicycles, trite poetry or the Rope-a-Dope. Whether he set out to do it or not, Ali, a three-time heavyweight champion, changed the culture of America at a time when it was ripe for change.
It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there have been many boxers – Greg Page and Larry Donald are among those who come to mind – who thought they could tear a page or two out of the Muhammad Ali playbook and somehow be just like the original. There are street-corner shouters with bullhorns (Al Sharpton, maybe?) who make the same mistake, to their detriment. Copycats, no matter what their intent, always embark on a fool’s mission.
Muhammad Ali was one of a kind, and his passing leaves a void that can’t and won’t be filled any time soon.