(Author's Note: I have written approximately 75 articles over the past last year and a half for my site, UltimateSportsRankings.com, and is my opinion, this is my best article. It is also my most personal and perhaps that helped.
It is not just about boxing and Ali; but also about race, prejudice, society, history, image, perceptions, redemption, and objectivity. Plus, it is about my relationship with my deceased father and how his intelligent guidance and his incredible objectiveness (perhaps his best quality) shaped my views in sports and life.
I think anyone who watched and discussed sports with their dad, or are currently a sports nut partly because of him, can relate to the article even if you are not a boxing or Ali fan.
I hope you enjoy this article as much as the member of my site told me that they did. Enjoy.)
If we put a young reader of this article (or any young Muhammad Ali fan) into a time machine and zapped him back 40 or so years ago, two things concerning Ali would become obvious to the youngster: 1) He really was as fast, quick, and as great as he had heard; and 2) he was a very unpopular sports figure.
The first should not come as much of a surprise to him or her, given the availability of VHS tapes, DVDs, and now, YouTube.
But, the second observation may shock him or her. As hard as it is to believe about someone who is now as beloved and popular as any sports figure worldwide, Muhammad Ali was at one time not liked, well, actually hated by many people (whether they were sports fans or not).
Much of the hatred was not justified, of course, but bigotry and ignorance never are. He was also loved by his fans—a true love or hate him celebrity if there was one.
(Before I go on I should give you my perspective: I was born in 1959, I am white, and before Michael Jordan came around, Muhammad Ali was my favorite athlete. Yes, as they say, this one is personal.)
To be fair and balanced, Ali brought some of the dislike for him upon himself. Right after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, which was often called the Black Muslims at the time.
The Black Muslims were in some ways (for lack of a better term) anti-white. Ali's religious beliefs at the time included viewing the white man as the "devil" and white people as not "righteous."
He also claimed that white people hated black people. All of these things were somewhat understandable, given how poorly many whites treated blacks (although rarely called blacks back then) at that time.
However, fairly or not, joining the Black Muslims was not going to make "white society" warm up to him. Also, Ali was boastful: "I am the greatest", "I'm pretty", "I can't possibly be beat", "I shook up the world", I "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" (my personal favorite sports quote of all time) and early in his career, even predicted in what round he would knock out his opponents (with amazing accuracy).
He was seen as a loudmouth who was both cocky and conceited. He was the most controversial athlete in the U.S. (maybe the world) AND then in 1967, he refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, saying that the war was against his religion.
Most of the country was still behind the war in 1967 (however, this would soon change), so this was obviously not a popular move, and at least for the short term, increased the dislike towards him. It was at this time that his popularity hit an all-time low while his controversial image hit an all-time high.
When Ali told the public that he had joined the Nation of Islam he also announced that he had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He said that "Clay" was a symbol of his ancestors' enslavement, explaining that it was a name given to his slave ancestors by the white man.
I do not know if this name change affected his popularity, however, it should be noted that only a few journalists (notably Howard Cosell and boxing announcer Don Donphy) in the U.S. accepted it at this time.
(Personally, I think Cassius Clay is one of the coolest and catchiest sports names I have ever heard, however, when thousands of people chant "Ali", "Ali", "Ali" it does have a nice "ring" to it (pun intended).)
One boxer, Ernie Terrell, refused to acknowledge Ali's name change and was punished brutally by Ali throughout their 15-round bout. This fight would be Ali's second to last fight before he was stripped of his title by the professional boxing commission.
He was also stripped of his boxing license near the end of 1967 for refusing to enter the U.S. Army. He was sentenced to five years in prison for his refusing induction into the U.S. Army. Ali appealed the conviction and was out on bail during his appeal.
Before he was stripped of his title in 1967, Ali had nine successful title defenses (including a rematch with Liston and a convincing win against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson) and had built up his record to 29-0 with 25 wins by knockouts (including TKOs).
The boxing world had never seen so perfect a boxer. Or, so I thought. Ali's refusal to enter into the U.S. Army was big news and immediately made me a boxing fan.
My father, a fan of both Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, explained to this sports-nut eight-year-old the best he could about Ali's legacy and talents up to this point. He explained to me that some white people did not like Ali because he was so loud and brash and did not toe-the-line as Joe Louis had.
Also, that some white people did not like him simply because he was black.
He explained that the government went after Ali for these reasons. (In 1964 Ali failed the Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and and spelling skills were sub par.
The tests were revised in 1966, and "somehow" Ali was reclassified as 1A.) Soon after this, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I now learned the full meaning of the words bigotry and prejudice. Even an eight-year-old (with the proper guidance) could see that Ali, while not perfect, was not being treated fairly.
I became a Muhammad Ali fan even though I had never seen him fight! Every chance I had over the next few years I would at look at boxing magazines and boxing books at newsstands, magazine stores, and libraries.
The articles (including ones in Ring Magazine, called the "bible of boxing") that interested me the most were the ones where the so-called boxing experts (who I suspect were all older white guys at that time) would rate the greatest fighters of all time (yes, there was an important point to this story), and specifically, the greatest heavyweights of all time.
Routinely, Ali did not even make the lists of greatest fighters (pound-for-pound) and on the lists for greatest heavyweights of all time he was much lower than I expected, usually sixth-10th and sometimes not even in the top 10 (Nat Fleischer's list in "Ring")!
My father had told me he thought Ali and Louis were the two greatest heavyweights ever, so imagine my surprise.
Was my father wrong (I was confident he was not), or were the boxing "experts" underrating him because they did not like him and/or because they were prejudiced? Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, all white, were always rated higher than Ali.
(Dempsey, I would later learn, refused to fight any of the black heavyweight fighters of his time. How could a neutral person (say a person with green skin) not rate him lower just because he ducked at least half the good and/or great heavyweights of his time?)
These lists made me so mad that to this day I look at any athletes' rankings with a jaundiced eye, especially when it is from a very small sample of people. Think about the reaction of our imaginary young Ali fan if he or she saw these lists! (I am sure this is surprising to a lot of readers, which is part of the reason that I decided to write this article.)
The boxing experts (and I use that term as loosely as humanly possible) said that while Ali was fast (how is that for an understatement?), he had little or no power (what drugs were they on?).
They also said he had poor technique on defense, mainly because he would often avoid punches by leaning his head straight back. (This was, at the time, considered poor technique because the fighter would be off-balance and if he got got caught with a punch, it would accentuate the force of that punch and, of course, increase the chance of a knockdown or knockout.)
Some writers even suggested he did not take a punch well (hello, is anybody out there?).
They suggested both of his victories over Liston were fixed (with no proof) and that Liston suddenly was not as great as they thought he was before he fought Ali (Ali was a 7-1 underdog when they fought for the title, and Liston was considered "invincible" before the fight).
My favorite was the implication that Ali's first victory over Liston was not that impressive because Liston got "old in the ring"—a phenomenon that logically does not exist (as you know, people age gradually over time, not in an instant), but creative nonetheless.
They had other lame reasons (I cannot remember them anymore) for rating this super fast and unbelievably talented undefeated fighter so low.
I suppose I could go and explain why all these criticisms are not true, (I will save that for my article, "The 10 Greatest Heavyweight Boxers of All Time") but that is not the point of this article.
The point that I am making, is that while Ali is a very popular figure right now and considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight of all time (some experts would pick Joe Louis) and one of the two greatest fighters all time ("pound for pound"—along with Sugar Ray Robinson—I give the edge to Ali), neither of these things were close to being that way in 1967.
The question is: How and why did he magically transform himself to how he is viewed currently?
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