“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, so said the entertaining heavy-weight boxer Muhammed Ali. He also professed, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was”.
The man born Cassius Clay would go on to win 56 boxing matches and lose only five before retiring in 1981. Despite his sometimes humorous speeches, often used to intimidate his opponents, Mohammad Ali had an earthiness about him which attracted many followers from around the globe.
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others”, he said.
Ali died in hospital, aged 74, after Parkinson’s disease complicated a respiratory illness which led to septic shock. Born Cassius Clay, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali after he befriended Malcolm X and converted to Islam. Yet, it was not his religion, but his personality and fighting ability which won him millions of fans world-wide.
Soon after Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, his mother reminisced how, as a precocious 18-month old, he swung his hands in the air and accidently knocked-out one of her teeth. Such was the baby built to become the man who would win his first world heavy-weight title against the formidable Sonny Liston in 1964.
His two prized fights, famously known as “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manilla” catapulted his career into the world spotlight. Ali won the fight against George Foreman, or the “Rumble in the Jungle”, by tiring Foreman with the ‘rope-a-dope’ technique before knocking him out (KO) with a left-right combination by the 8th round in 1974. The following year in 1975, Ali fought Joe Frazier in the Philippines for the “Thrilla in Manilla” contest. It was this fight which many people speculated contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, following brutal head-blows in a fight that lasted almost fifteen rounds against Frazier. Muhammad Ali won on a technical knock-out (TKO) when Frazier’s chief-second Eddie Futch called it quits after seeing Frazier nearly blind. Muhammad
Ali tried to intimidate his opponents with witty poems and fast ‘dancing’ feet, tiring them with quick reflexes in the beginning before mowing them down with brutal energy. Though his first trainer Joe Martin said Ali’s secret was his unusually fast eye speed. “It was blinding. The only other athlete I ever saw who had that kind of eye speed was Ted Williams. When he started fighting, Cassius was so fast with his eyes that you could give a guy a screen door and he wouldn’t hit Cassius 15 times with it in 15 rounds” Mr Martin said.
For most people though, it is not easy to watch two grown men punching each other until blood spurts from their noses, eyes and cuts inflicted on each other in the ring. Yet, boxing is a sport with rules, regulations and a culture of self-respect, with fighters often showing even more respect to their opponents outside of the ring. However, it was not always this way. In ancient Greece, opponents would often maul each other to death while wearing steel-studded gloves called cestus. In the late 19th century London established the Queensberry Rules after a few other trial-rule runs. It meant fighters fought for 3 minutes with a 1-minute rest in-between. Hugging, spitting, below-the-belt punches, hair-pulling, and shoes with spikes or springs were banned. A trained referee watched the fighters closely. Those fighters unable to get up within ten seconds were considered out. Fighters were also matched according to their weight.
Though many health professionals today advise against children boxing, Cassius Clay was only twelve when he was first introduced to this brutal sport with all its rules and regulations. After somebody stole his new bicycle, Cassius boasted how he would beat-up the thief if he ever found him. The local policeman Joe Martin, who was supervising the local boxing ring at the time, suggested Cassius learn how to box first before making threats. Thus began a six-year amateur career in boxing under his first trainer Joe Martin.