The Magical Transformation of Muhammad Ali (Part Two of Three)

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 24, 2009

In order to answer this question, we have to finish the story (both mine and Ali's).  Ali's last title defense was in March 1967 against Zora Folley, and the next time he that he was able to fight was in October 1970 against Jerry Quarry, a top contender for the heavyweight crown. 

Ali was no longer the official champion, even though he had never lost a fight (how fair does this seem?). 

For the Quarry fight, Ali was able to get a boxing license through the help of Georgia state senator, because Georgia was the only state in America without a boxing commission. Ali won in three rounds when the fight was stopped because of a cut to Quarry's face. Although rusty, Ali was clearly better than Quarry. Sadly, though, Ali was not the same fighter as before.  Ali had lost some of his speed, quickness, bounce, and sharpness because of the three-year, seven-month lay-off. 

Ali was 25-year-and-two-months old when he last fought and was now 28-years-and-nine-months old.  Even sadder was when the realization sank in that the sports world had missed seeing the greatest and most exciting boxer in history fight during his best prime years.  (On a personal note, this made me even angrier than those moronic all time heavyweight rankings lists.) 

Soon after the Quarry fight, Ali was able to get a boxing license in New York, when the New York Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license.

After obtainin his license, he fought in Madison Square Garden against another top contender, Oscar Bonavena.  Ali, who was ahead on all three of the judges' scoring cards, knocked down Bonavena three times in the 15th round, which ultimately caused an automatic stoppage of the fight.

Soon after that, Ali finally got a shot at the heavyweight title with a fight against the current "champion",  Joe Frazier (who also happened to be undefeated at 26-0). 

Never before in the history of boxing had two undefeated fighters, both with legitimate claims to the heavyweight crown, fought for the heavyweight championship. It was the most anticipated fight in boxing history and was billed, appropriately, as "The Fight of the Century." 

I remember Quarry, who also fought and lost to Frazier (a TKO—again a cut to Quarry's face) shortly before he fought Ali, predicted Ali would win because he was too fast for Frazier. 

Who better than Quarry would know?  On March 8th, 1971, a now 11-year-old boy's sports hero was finally going to get the title back that was unjustly taken from him.  Or, so I thought. 

I was helping my brother with a morning paper route at the time, and I woke up at 5:30 on the morning after the fight and literally ran down the steps to see the morning paper. 

I grabbed the paper, and I still remember the headlines in huge capital letters (biggest headline I ever saw) "IT'S FRAZIER." 

My heart sank as low as a heart could sink. I am surprised anyone got their papers that morning. Sometimes life is just not fair, I thought. Then I imagined how Ali must have felt that morning.  And, how low was Ali going to be on those stupid lists now?

The fight was very close and Frazier fought a great fight (his best performance ever) and even knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook in the final round (the 15th). At the time, there was no "10-point-must scoring system", so whoever won the round got one point. I have since watched the fight three times and I scored it 8-7 all three times, with Ali winning each time. You can watch the fight and make your own decision.  

All three judges had Frazier winning:  8-6-1, 9-6, 11-4 (what fight was he watching?). Both fighters spent time in the hospital after the fight, with Frazier spending more time there.  Hmm.  But, as far as the record books go, Ali had lost his biggest fight (so far, at least).

Soon after the fight, on June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous 8-0 (with one abstention—no—Antonin Scalia was not on the bench at that time) decision, reversed Ali's conviction for refusing to enter the U.S. Army.  Finally, some good news for Ali and his fans.

With the conviction and the five-year jail sentence no longer hanging over his head, Ali, like a man possessed (and with good reason), fought and won an amazing 10 times in 17 months against top heavyweight opposition between July, 1971 and February, 1973. It seemed as if Ali was trying to make up for lost time, get all the rust off, and force a rematch with Frazier.

Unfortunately, Frazier defended his title against hard-punching and also undefeated (37-0) George Foreman in January, 1973, and in somewhat of a surprise, lost his title when he was destroyed by Foreman. Foreman knocked Frazier down (as Cosell famously screamed "down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier") an astonishing six times in just two rounds before the fight was stopped.

In March of 1974, Ali lost to an excellent fighter, Ken Norton (29-1), when Norton broke Ali's jaw and won a close decision. Six months later, Ali won the rematch against Norton in another close decision.

In January, 1974, Ali finally got his rematch against Frazier, although this time it was not for the heavyweight crown.  Foreman had agreed (at least unofficially), however, to fight the winner for a shot at his heavyweight crown. 

In the second round, Ali had Frazier in trouble on the ropes and it appeared he might knock Frazier out when the referee stopped the fight because he said he thought he heard the bell signifying the end of the round.  There was, however, still almost 30 seconds left in the round. 

Frazier was able to recover and the fight ended up going the distance (12 rounds).  Ali clearly won a unanimous decision with the judges scoring it, 8-4, 7-4-1, 6-5-1 for Ali. 

Even though Ali was three years older than he was in the 1st fight, he somehow looked a little sharper than in the 1st fight.  It appeared that any rust that could possibly be knocked off was fully knocked off now, even though he was never the same fighter after the lay-off. 

Ali finally had another shot at the heavyweight crown, but as they say, "be careful what you wish for." 

Meanwhile, Foreman fought Norton two months later and pulverized him with three knockdowns in two  rounds before the fight was stopped.  Foreman had won his last eight fights with 1st or 2nd round knockouts. He was an impressive 40-0 with 37 knockouts (including TKOs), 30 of which occurred in the first three rounds! He also was just hitting his prime at age 25. 

Ali was now 44-2 and past his prime at age 32. 

Boxing experts were saying that Foreman had the hardest punch of anyone in the history of boxing (this time the boxing experts knew what they were talking about -- go watch the the Frazier and Norton fights if you have any doubt). 

It looked to me at the time that Foreman had a shot at going down in history as being the greatest heavyweight ever.  He looked more invincible and powerful than Liston did before he fought Ali the first time.  In addition, Foreman was younger than Liston (age 32) when Liston fought Ali in 1964, and Ali was now older. 

Plus, Foreman had destroyed Frazier and Norton while Ali had four close decisions with them, winning two and losing two.  Foreman was heavily favored (5-1 odds) and even Ali's longtime supporter, Cosell, did not think Ali had a chance of winning. 

How come Ali and his now 15-year-old supporter cannot get a break? 

I actually thought Ali would find a way to win a 15 round decision by winning the later rounds as Foreman got tired. But I do not know if I actually believed it, since I always thought Ali would win (excluding his two fights when he was old—38 and almost 40-years-old). 

My father agreed, but neither one of us was confident enough to make it sound like a real prediction.  After all, Foreman looked awesome and fought as if he had only one goal in mind when he was in the ring—to knock the other fighter senseless and Ali was going to be no exception.

Interestingly, Ali actually gave away part (but only part) of his strategy by making fun of Foreman's slow, long, deliberate punches (one of the funniest moments in sports history) and mentioning the fact that Foreman had only fought past the 8th round (remember that round) three times in his career.

Ali said that Foreman would get tired, and I believed him, because it made sense to me logically.  Provided that a 32-year-old Ali, who was slower now and no longer capable of dancing for 15 rounds, could avoid getting knocked out. This was a tall order against the likes of Foreman.

The fight finally took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire and was billed as "The Rumble in the Jungle."  Ali, who usually started slowly in the second half of his career, surprisingly came right at Foreman and caught him several times with punches to his head. 

While Foreman looked imposing in the ring, it was clear after the end of the first round that Ali was faster, quicker, and most importantly, by far the better "boxer". 

While none of this was surprising, seeing this gave Ali fans hope. 

Then in the second round, Ali unveiled the other half of his strategy—the half he did not tell anyone about.  For most of the next seven rounds, Ali sat on the ropes and let Foreman hit him with all his might. Ali absorbed the punches with his arms and fists and also threw in some well-timed counter punches.

Ali even taunted Foreman in an effort to tire him both mentally and physically.  Each round Foreman grew more and more tired and, as a result, he threw his punches with decreasing force and effectiveness. 

Near the end of the 8th round, Ali caught an exhausted Foreman in a counter punching combination, and Foreman spun around and fell mightily to the canvas.  Goliath was slain with a combination of brains and brawn, and seven long years after his title was unjustly stripped from him, Ali was again the "rightful" heavyweight champion. 

And a 15-year-old sports nut thought to himself:

Can my sport's hero finally get some respect from the so-called boxing experts? Do you still think he cannot take a punch? 

Did you see that explosive, powerful combination at the end of the fight? Did you notice that poor defensive technique now known as the "rope-a-dope?" 

Was this fight fixed also? Will we ever see a heavyweight as fast and quick as Ali?  Will Foreman suddenly and magically be considered overrated just like Liston? 

And, did a 25-year-old Foreman get "old in the ring" too?



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