A Tribute To...Muhammad Ali

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A Tribute To...Muhammad Ali

Barney Corkhill's 'A Tribute To...' series moves to boxing. In this series, I'll look at the true greats and legends of various sports.

Today's tribute is to the man who revolutionised boxing. He was, and still is, the most well-known boxer ever, and he is one of the most popular as well. His combination of speed and power made him a fearsome competitor, and his charm, wit, and confidence only added to his legend.

I speak, of course, of the great Muhammad Ali.

On January 17, 1942, Odessa Grady Clay and Cassius Clay Sr. celebrated the birth of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who would later become known as Muhammad Ali.

He was brought up in Louisville, Kentucky, and from a young age, it became evident that he was something special. His speed and reactions were such that he often challenged his younger brother, Rudy, to throw rocks at him, all of which he dodged.

In October 1954, Clay had his bike stolen. The 12-year-old found a police officer, Joe Martin, who decided to re-direct Clay's anger at losing his bike, and desire to gain retribution, into the boxing ring.

Martin trained young boxers at a local gym and invited Clay to come along. It wasn't long before Clay was in the ring, and he was immediately found winning ways, beating his first ever opponent, Ronnie O'Keefe, by a split decision.

While Martin was still training Clay, he soon found himself another, more experienced trainer, while still working with Martin. He did this to improve his boxing skills, but also to keep the $4 a fight he was earning from Martin.

In 1956, Cassius Clay Jr. was becoming a very effective light-heavyweight. He won the novice Golden Gloves Championship in that year. In 1959, after more years of climbing up the ranks, Clay won the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champion, and the National AAU light-heavyweight championship.

Clay was becoming a major name in amateur boxing. In 1960, he was confirmed as part of the USA team for the Olympics. Still fighting at light-heavyweight, Clay only just got to Rome.

His fear of flying almost prevented him going to the Olympics, but he was eventually persuaded. He still wasn't 100 percent sure, however, and actually brought a parachute onto the plane with him.

It proved to be well worth it. He won gold in Rome, beating Polish fighter Zbigniew Pietrzkowski in the final. His personality was beginning to get noticed as well. His dominant persona and confidence earned him the nickname "The Mayor of the Olympic Village," despite being 18-years old.

Despite this, however, Clay was refused service in a segregated restaurant back in USA, and so he reportedly threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river.

Not to be deterred by this, Clay soon turned professional and won his first pro bout against police chief Tunney Hunsaker.

Clay was beginning to get noticed, due to his unorthodox fighting style, which relied on quick feet to avoid punches rather than good defence to block them. As he fought a few more bouts, he was beginning to get noticed for his mouth as much as his hands.

He often made up rhymes about his opponents or fights, and sometimes, including in his first ever overseas fight against Henry Cooper, he predicted not only that he was going to knock his opponent out, but said what round he was going to do it. He was rarely wrong.

By 1964, Clay has amassed a record of 19-0 and was set to face the dangerous Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship.

Before the fight, a war of words emerged between the two. This led Cassius Clay to say the now immortal phrase "I will float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see".

Clay won the fight after Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

It was after this fight that Cassius Clay announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. This caused controversy around the champion, as Americans viewed the Nation of Islam with suspicion.

In 1966, the U.S. Army revised the tests needed to conscript people into the army. These revision made Muhammad Ali eligible for the Army, whereas before he wasn't. Ali, however, claimed that, being a member of the Nation of Islam, he wasn't allowed to fight in the ongoing Vietnam War.

He continued to fight in the ring, and continued to win, beating Americans, British, and Germans along the way. His fight against Cleveland Williams in 1966 has been described as Ali's greatest performance.

In 1967, the prematch war of words turned ugly when Ali's opponent Terrell called him "Clay." The resulting fight was a brutal punishment, summed up in the words of Tex Maule "It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty."

After being ordered to attend an induction ceremony for the U.S. Army, Ali refused to step forward when his name was called. He did this a further two times, committing a felony punishable by five years imprisonment. Ali didn't move.

As a direct result, Ali was stripped of his championship and banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years. He was originally sentenced to five years in prison as well, but after numerous appeals, that decision was overturned.

Three years after his ban, Muhammad Ali made his much anticipated comeback against Jerry Quarry. Ali knocked him out in three rounds. Oscar Bonavena followed for Ali, and he stopped him in the 15th round.

That paved the way for a super-fight against the undefeated champion Joe Frazier. It was dubbed "The Fight of the Century". Both were undefeated, and both felt they deserved the title.

It was Joe Frazier who ultimately came out on top, winning on a unanimous decision, and, in the process, dealing Ali his first ever professional loss. Still, he bagged a record $2.5 million for the fight, which exceeded even the hype that surrounded it.

He didn't give up after that loss, however. In fact, he came back stronger, winning his next 10 fights before he faced Ken Norton. In something of a surprise result, Norton beat Ali, to inflict his second professional defeat. Ali bounced back again, however, beating Norton in a re-match just a few months later.

In 1974, Ali faced Joe Frazier in a re-match of the Fight of the Century. Frazier was no longer the champion, having been beaten by George Foreman. Ali v Frazier II wasn't quite as big as their first one, but for Ali it provided some revenge, as he triumphed on a points decision.

Next came the fight against George Foreman. Foreman was the clear favourite going into the fight, having knocked out both Frazier and Norton, the two men who had beaten Ali, within two rounds. The fight was dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle."

Foreman was a notorious big hitter and was younger than Ali. Few gave the self-proclaimed "Greatest" a chance. However, Ali shocked the world again. His tactics were perfect, as he first attacked Foreman, then used his "rope-a-dope" tactics to tire Foreman out physically and mentally.

Against all the odds, Muhammad Ali had climbed back to the top of the mountain. Many challengers wanted to knock him down, but none could.

Eventually, he came back up against Joe Frazier. It was a much anticipated battle between two of the all-time great heavyweights. Ali v Frazier III (dubbed "The Thrilla in Manilla"), was one of the best battles in the history of the sport.

Ali had expected an easy fight, but Frazier gave him everything. The fight eventually ended when Frazier didn't answer the bell for the 15th round, as his eyes were swollen shut, giving Ali the win.

Over the next few years, Ali continued to fight, amid growing speculation and concerns about his welfare and health. People were worried what the long-term effects of continuing to box would have on Ali.

But he kept on fighting, and won his next six fights after the Frazier fight, including the third of a trilogy against Ken Norton.

In 1978, Ali took on a young Leon Spinks. It was a veteran against a relative newcomer, but Ali lost through a split decision. Still refusing to quit, Ali took on Spinks again seven months later, this time winning, in the process becoming the first ever three-time heavyweight champion.

In June 1979, Muhammad Ali retired.

Despite continued fears over his health, Ali returned to the ring in 1980 to face Larry Holmes. The result was hard to watch for anyone who remembered Ali in his prime. Holmes destroyed Ali in a one sided fight, and it was described as an "execution, not a fight."

He still wasn't done, however, as he took on Trevor Berbick in 1981, again losing. After this fight, he once again retired from boxing, this time for good.

In his illustrious career, Ali was named Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine more than any other fighter, and was involved in more Ring Magazine Fight of the Year than anyone else.

He has been named as the Sportsman of the Century by both Sports Illustrated and the BBC.

His overall career stats are 61 fights, 56 wins (37 by KO), and five losses.

A true great of boxing, and of sport, this has been a tribute to Muhammad Ali.

Click here to see other tributes made by this author.

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