As I arrived to a work luncheon inside the broad recreation room of the community center on Saturday, June 3, my co-worker alerted me to the passing of one of my heroes: Muhammad Ali. As a young adult, I idolized Ali and wanted to emulate him as a martial artist and amateur boxer.  I witnessed him age, and light the torch in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA.  One of my dreams was to travel and see him in person; he said that he would never turn a fan away.   

Muhammad Ali, named Cassius Clay at birth, was born on January 17, 1942 and died June 3, 2016.  He lived a glorious life from prized athlete to folk hero to civil rights activist – on a more mundane level, he was a prankster, a competitor, a loyal friend, a charlatan, and a womanizer.  So who was Muhammad Ali?   I can only try to scratch the surface from the perspective of a boxing fan, an admirer, and a person who considers him to be a hero and visionary.

Finding Ali

I am just your average American born Chinese boy raised in the suburbs that was taught to be studious, well-behaved, and ambitious.  I was born in 1980; I totally missed the civil rights movement and I did not see Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier in Madison Square on January 28, 1974 in the “Fight of the Century.”  

I was first turned on to boxing in the early 90s when I saw the Summer Olympics on television.  I asked my mother if I could box and she said “no.”  About two years later I started Kung Fu, and admired Muhammad Ali at a distance.  As in many Chinese households, we did not have cable: no cable means no boxing or pay-per-view fights or ESPN or HBO channels.  

I became more intrigued with Ali around 1998, the year I graduated from high school.  My friends tolerated my making them watch the documentary When We Were Kings, which was about Ali’s famed match against George Foreman.  This match had many narratives: a David vs. Goliath fight (Ali being David), young vs. old (Foreman was a recent Olympic gold medalist and a new champion).  On the other hand, on October 30, 1974, Ali was about 7 years past his prime and had just come off his first loss in his career to Smokin’ Joe Frazier in a thrilling 15 round match.  The film documented the buildup to this monumental match, how the fight was almost cancelled, and the intense atmosphere and climax of the fight.

Before the time of YouTube, boxing matches (old and new) were almost impossible to watch.  I did not see a single Muhammad Ali fight until age 20 when I ordered a VHS from that new website Amazon; the video tape featured the first and third fight between Ali and Frazier.  Next, I was lucky to find a Muhammad Ali DVD on sale at Best Buy for $9.99 – the DVD featured Ali’s fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman.  I looked up to Ali’s brash and confident personality and his witty charm.

What made him the Greatest?

In the sport of boxing, most of the greatest champions came from the poorest corners of the world: Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and various cities in the United States (Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.).  Muhammad Ali grew up in the suburbs with both parents and started boxing around age 12 when his bicycle was stolen – he felt he needed a way to defend himself if it happened again. Perhaps it was his work ethic and will to win that separated him from the pack (in addition to his physical gifts). In 1964, just four years after he earned a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics, at age 22 he became the youngest boxer to ever win the World Heavyweight Championship.  

At the time, most boxers had styles characterized as either “bruisers” or “technicians” – bruisers got by on their physical strength and technicians depended on their technical skill and intelligence.  Ali had some characteristics of a technician, but he was also blazingly fast with his hands and gazelle-like on his feet.  Most fighters were relatively methodical, plodding, and somewhat stationary – many probably paced themselves as boxing matches lasted 15 rounds. But Ali was a ball of motion. Ali also had an iron chin that could take a heavy punch, which he needed later in his career – early on his foot work and head movements were simply too fast for his contemporaries.  

Using his athletic gifts, Muhammad Ali was able to break several conventional rules in the boxing ring: he fought with his hands down at his waist, he had a habit of pulling his head straight back to avoid punches as opposed to side to side  (another “no-no” as pulling back only gives the opponent more room to attack), and later in his career when his feet were no longer lightning quick, he resorted to such tactics as the “rope-a-dope” and playing possum (laying on the ropes and letting his opponent tire himself out, or pretending to be hurt to fool the opponent).  Technicians rarely laid on the ropes in boxing, as a stationary opponent standing against the ropes can be a sitting duck.  Ali used this tactic as well playing possum in order to tire his opponents physically and psychologically – this worked wonders against a prime George Foreman, who was a monster, but tired out and got knocked out by Ali in round 8.  

Other unconventional qualities of his style included his tendency to “head hunt”, or only punch at the head while ignoring the body (against the boxers’ adage of “hit the body and the head will go” as body punches weaken an opponent), and he mainly utilized straight punches instead of hooks and uppercuts.  Ali also had an uncanny ability to move so swiftly around the ring on his back foot (moving backwards and laterally across the squared jungle) while still being able to throw powerful punches and swift punch combinations.  In his prime, Ali depended as much on his physical gifts of speed and agility as much as his finesse approach to fighting: he did not focus on overpowering his opponents with aggression but used speed, intelligence, and skillful counter punching win matches (all elements of what boxing aficionados like to call the “Sweet Science”: to hit and not get hit).  Lastly, Ali was considered the greatest not only through his own great self-promotion, but because he faced the best fighters in his generation – former Olympic gold medalists (Leon Spinks) and future hall of famers (Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, and Foreman).  This attribute separated him from many modern pugilists who pick and choose their competitors in order to earn the most money with minimal risk; Ali wanted to fight the best to prove he was a champion.   

Another defining quality outside the ring was his skill as a performer and public speaker.  Early in his career, Ali was called “The Louisville Lip” by some members of the media.  He had a tendency to perform antics leading up to fights, taunting his opponents and declaring psychological warfare.  Perhaps Ali was not the first to use mind games to steer his opponents away from their game plan, but he mastered the skill.  Ali was also one of the first boxers to use the media to promote himself and the fight. He would declare his opponent as the antagonist by mocking their physical appearance, style of fighting, even using racial epithets to demean them (especially members of his own race), or create disparaging narratives such as their being a “Great White Hope.”  He made up clever rhymes about himself or his opponent, and coined names for his fights such as “The Thrilla in Manilla” and “The Rumble in the Jungle” – his promotional skills would later be mimicked by Hall of Fame boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.  

While Ali was brash with his speeches, much of white America and the media wanted a quieter, humbler champion such as former heavyweight champion Joe Louis (“The Brown Bomber”).  Louis would let his fists do the speaking but was usually shy and passive in public.  However, as brash as Ali was for his times, he was nowhere near as flamboyant as Jack Johnson, who was the first African American heavyweight champion in the early 1900s.  Ali’s charismatic persona helped him to be the highest grossing boxer of all time up to date.  His trash talking and pre-fight media hype has helped pave the way for such superstars as Roy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. – all these boxers used similar promotional and trash talking tactics.

 I have read many accounts from reporters about Muhammad Ali behind the scenes: he was personable and genuine, but also a prankster.  He went out of his way to joke with those around him including his faux attempt at removing famed sportscaster Howard Cosell’s toupee on live television.   We should also not forget that Ali was a womanizer and had several wives. Despite being dyslexic and not having attended college, he displayed a fine intellect, an acute sense of poetry, and a keen awareness of his environment. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his: “Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick, I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”  

Transcending the sport

There will always be great athletes, but the ones that become immortal are those that transcend the sport: Ali fought for more than himself. Beyond boxing prowess, his next level of greatness was as a civil rights activist, militant Black Muslim, and people’s champion. After Ali won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1964, he went public with his membership in the Nation of Islam, declared his name Cassius X, and shortly after was given the name Muhammad Ali; he cited his birth name Cassius Clay as his “slave name.”  He made this point to pay homage to his ancestry in Africa and to criticize the institution of slavery and other injustices.  He resisted the military draft to serve in Vietnam citing his religious beliefs as his reason and was quoted: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong…no Vietcong ever called me n___.” He went to jail for that reason. Ali would frequently note that he fought on behalf of all the poor, impoverished, and marginalized people around the world and that when he won his fights that they would be victories for all poor black neighborhoods across the country.  

Muhammad Ali may not have been the best boxer to ever live, but he may have been the greatest human to have boxed. He earned such accolades as Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Century Award, United Nations Messenger of Peace Award, and Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  Ali performed international work such as helping to negotiate the release of captives from Lebanon and Iraq, and meeting Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison.  Ali donated his time and money to various charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and he opened the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix, AZ and the Muhammad Ali Center (an education center and museum) in Louisville, KY.  “I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer,” he once said. “More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”  Ali’s life was remembered June 9 with a Muslim prayer service. Let’s ring the bell fifteen times to commemorate the fallen champ.

Photo: Muhammad Ali dodging a punch from his rival Joe Frazier.  |  (CC)