Monday, March 22, 2010

When Ali Was in His Prime ...

It probably goes without saying that Muhammad Ali was a controversial figure — both inside the ring and out.

He was brash and cocky, unorthodox in his style, earning the derisive nickname "The Louisville Lip" for his prefight poems, some of which predicted the round in which his opponent would fall. But even his critics had to admit that he backed up his boasts. After winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics, he compiled a professional record of 56–5, including wins over the most respected fighters of his time. And he became the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times — the first while he was still fighting under his birth name of Cassius Clay — a name he gave up when he converted to Islam.

Ali was barely 22 when he beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion for the first time in February 1964. At the time, he was the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, and he held that designation for more than 20 years — until Mike Tyson won the title in 1986.

After beating Liston, he announced that was a member of the Nation of Islam, which was frequently called the Black Muslims in those days. That caused quite a backlash in America, and it is fair to say that Ali, who had already polarized many boxing fans and journalists, became even more of a lightning rod.

He was in his prime as a fighter, and he went on to successfully defend his title nine times in the next three years, winning all but two by knockout or technical knockout — including a rematch with Liston, who was still widely regarded as the most fearsome fighter on the planet.

Then, about a month after he defeated Zora Folley on this day in 1967, Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the military and fight in the Vietnam War. I've heard — but I can't positively confirm — that he said, "No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger" to justify his opposition to the war. He didn't box again until 1970.

He was a different fighter when he returned to the ring — he was nearly 29 when he fought Jerry Quarry in the first of two warmup fights for the "Fight of the Century" against the champ, Joe Frazier, in March 1971.

He was still talented, but he was past his prime, and he had to depend on his wits more than he did before he was stripped of his title. He lost to Frazier, but he won the rematch before pulling off an amazing upset of George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" to reclaim the crown in 1974.

After regaining the championship, Ali brought boxing back to the masses. Instead of having his fights carried only on closed–circuit TV — the pay–per–view of his time — Ali defended his title nearly a dozen times after defeating Foreman, and most of those title defenses were carried on network television.

In February 1978, at the age of 36, he lost the title in the ring to 24–year–old Leon Spinks, then won it for a third time with a unanimous 15–round decision over Spinks later that year. It was Ali's last victory.

But on this day in 1967, against Folley, Ali was still a young boxer in his prime.

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