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

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 24, 2009

This fight, more than any other, helped persuade Ali's critics that they were wrong about his overall abilities as a boxer (whether they actually admit it or not—I am doing it for them).

The rest of his career, except for his third fights with Norton and Frazier (the "Thrilla in Manila"), are fairly inconsequential to our discussion. 

He beat Norton in a close fight to gain a 2-1 career edge against him (Norton would eventually win a portion of the heavyweight crown after Ali retired). Before the third fight with Frazier, Ali called Frazier a "gorilla" while punching a play gorilla as if it were Frazier during the promotion of the fight. 

Joke or no joke, all things considered, for Ali to call another black man a gorilla was truly a despicable act and his lowest moment as a public figure. (Openly cheating on his second wife around the time of the Foreman fight was not an admirable action either.) 

The fight, however, was another classic, and Ali again showed both his ability to take a punch and a lot of heart. 

In a sometimes brutal back and forth fight, Ali won when Frazier's corner did not allow him to answer the bell for the 15th round because his eyes were closed and he had taken a beating the last couple of rounds. Ali fell to the canvas in exhaustion when he realized he had won. 

Ali now also had a 2-1 career edge against Frazier. Later, Ali would lose his title to an inexperienced Leon Spinks and then win it back six months later to become the first fighter to win the heavyweight title three times.

In 1998, Ring Magazine ranked Ali as the No. 1 heavyweight boxer of all time (finally!).  Ring Magazine also did a ranking of the 80 greatest boxers in 80 years in 2002, and Ali was first among heavyweights and third overall (Sugar Ray Robinson was first overall, the great Henry Armstrong was second, and Louis was fourth overall, second among heavyweights). 

ESPN recently listed the 50 greatest boxers of all time, and Ali was second overall and first among heavyweights. Five-time middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson was first overall and Joe Louis was second among heavyweights and fourth overall. 

At the end of 1999, ABC voted Ali the "Athlete of the Century" ahead of Jordan, who was second. Also late in 1999, a panel of 46 sports experts voted Ali the third Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century.

Jordan was first (and deservedly so), Joe Louis was 11th, and Sugar Ray Robinson was 24th. Now I ask you again: How and why did Muhammad Ali's magical transformation take place?

His transformation actually happened in two different ways. First, there is his popularity as a public sports figure, and second, the ranking of his boxing skills. I will deal with his boxing skills first. 

When I first started looking at these lists, Ali had only finished the first half of his career. He was, as previously mentioned, 29-0, and in his nine title defenses he looked heads and tails above his opponents.

To get full appreciation of Ali's greatness you have to watch his 10 fights between 1964 and 1967 when he was between the ages of 22 and 25. They are the most incredible display of boxing you will ever see. Blinding speed and quickness, amazing footwork, sharp jabs, and powerful combinations.

He also displayed an amazing ability to avoid getting hit by dancing around his opponents and using his abnormally quick reflexes to avoid their punches. This ability and the speed of his punches and footwork had never been seen before in the history of boxing. 

As for power, I think 25 knockouts (including TKOs), 14 of which were in the first five rounds, in 29 bouts, speaks loudly enough. 

In one fight in particular, against Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams (check it out on YouTube where you can witness the "Ali Shuffle"), he looked so sharp, fast, and powerful, yes powerful, you would have thought we did have that time machine mentioned in the beginning of our story, and that he was an athlete from 200 years into the future! 

Nobody, not even the great Joe Louis, would have stood a chance against Ali that night.  In other words, during his prime, his opponents were completely outclassed—he barely got touched in most of these fights.

(In the Williams fight, for example, (by one count that I read) Ali landed over 100 blows while Williams landed only three!) 

After the lay-off, however, it was a different story, since he lost some of his speed, quickness, and the bounce in his legs, so he could no longer dance around his opponents as he used to for an entire fight.

So, Ali had to find other ways to win.  He also had to take punishment, something that was not tested much in the first half of his career. It turns out that his ability to take a punch might have been his biggest strength, but we did not know it till after 1969. 

So, while he did not look as good overall in the second half of his career, he did display two important qualities in a fighter which he had not displayed before: 1) An amazing ability to take a punch and punishment; and 2) An ability to find other ways to win, such as "ring smarts." 

So, to be fair to the so-called boxing experts in the late 1960's and 1970's, the evaluation of his boxing skills should have gone up, but not by that much.  Which means that some of them had grossly underestimated his abilities. This includes Ring Magazine. 

Ring Magazine has actually changed ownership and publishers (a couple of times), so I suspect that none of the people who did the rankings 25-40 years ago were the same ones who did the rankings in 1998.

I also suspect that, unlike now, the people doing the rankings (all the rankings I saw—not just Ring's) were ALL middle-aged or, more likely, older white guys. 

These so-called boxing experts were not going to give a brash, loudmouth, flamboyant, anti-establishment black male his due and rate him higher than their childhood heroes, whether they were white boxers or a toe-the-line black boxer like Joe Louis. 

(Ironically, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), has always been somewhat underrated for the same reason.) 

My father, a very liberal, intelligent man, was apparently able to look past Ali's skin color and in-your-face personality and just evaluate only what he saw in the ring; these so-called boxers apparently could not. 

There is just no other explanation for the disparities in the rankings.  Sometimes sports can teach you an important lesson in life.  I know I learned one from all of this.

But, this only tells half the story.  As mentioned in the beginning of this article, lots of people, sports fans or otherwise, just did not like Ali's personality; other people loved it. 

I mentioned many "negative" parts to his personality, however, I have yet to mentioned any likable parts to Ali's personality (pretty good restraint for an Ali fan). Ali was funny, quick-witted, intelligent, an entertaining poet, charismatic, and at times, classy and kind-hearted. 

So, why do people now see his positive qualities and overlook the negative qualities and actions of Ali?  You almost never hear anything negative about Ali anymore.

When he was the final Olympic Torchbearer in Atlanta in the 1996 Olympics, in listening to the announcers and the fans' reception, you would have thought he had been elevated to a God-like status.  

How did this part of Ali's magical transformation take place? Well, first, people have changed. While admittedly a slow process, each generation of people is less prejudiced than the one before. 

Second, soon after Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, the Vietnam War started to become very unpopular.  Instead of being seen as a draft dodger, Ali was now being seen as a hero for standing up to an unjust war and draft.

Plus, he did this at a great personal, sacrifice, losing three-and-a-half of his prime years, with very little complaint.

Third, he lost.  An individual's popularity, sports or otherwise, goes up whenever they have a setback and bounce back from it. Fourth, in his three fights with Frazier, Ali showed he had lots of heart (so did Frazier). 

Fifth, redemption.  Ali gained his "rightful" title back seven years after it was unjustly taken away. Plus, he did it with a feat that can only be described as sheer athletic brilliance, while absorbing great punishment against what appeared to be an unbeatable Goliath. 

Sixth, sympathy. The punishment that Ali took in the ring resulted in his now having Parkinson's syndrome.  It is sad to see such a quick-witted, fast-talking, brilliant athlete, struggle to talk and control the shaking of his hands. As a result, people do feel sorry for him.

It would be interesting to see how Ali is viewed 100 years from now. I am sure, thanks to his magical transformation that has taken place over the last 40 years, it will be better than it was in 1967.  And as a life-long Ali fan, this makes the little boy inside of me happy.

It is also nice to know that my father did not steer me wrong in all of this and that the so-called boxing experts were flat-out wrong (which is only fitting since they underrated Ali for the wrong reasons). 

In addition, this taught me an important lesson:  Never let your personal bias or views about someone affect how you rate someone's abilities, in sports or in other areas of life.  I told you in the beginning—this one is personal.