The G.O.A.T. Not a Goat: Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

The G.O.A.T. Not a Goat: Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

June 14, 2016 0 By phoenixgenesis®

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

In the outpouring of tributes to Muhammad Ali in the days following his death on June 3, 2016, it was the man himself who summed up his impact best. Like the quote above, which summed up his fighting style, Ali was a showman unlike any the sporting world has seen before or since. A master of promoting his bouts, Ali often resorted to rhyming to announce the round he would finish off his latest opponent. Not only is his position in history as one of the greatest boxers secure, he also appears now as a godfather to rappers everywhere. Although he mastered trash-talking, Ali understood it’s ok if you can back it up. He could.

I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

The most important element of this singular man to remember is how unpopular he once was. He even had trouble getting people to say his name. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, the young man chafed at racism. He found an answer in his boxing skills. Once he won the gold medal in the heavyweight class at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the young man came back to an uncertain feature. Not to him, though; despite being considered too small to keep up with other heavyweights, he worked his way up to a 1964 title fight against the champ, Sonny Liston. An overpowering puncher with few moves, Liston looked unbeatable. Not to the challenger: he defeated Liston in the round he had predicted.

Already derided as “The Louisville Lip” for his braggadocio, the new champ found a different way to alienate people the next day. He did it with religion: he announced his joining of the Nation of Islam. Today it’s difficult to remember how mainstream (white) American saw this religion 50 years ago. Many considered them almost as terrorists. This view extended to the boxer; many (including some opponents) continued to call him Clay instead of his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. Fighting for his own name, Ali took the world on on his own terms.

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.

In 1967 a new challenger stepped into the ring against the champ: the United States government. Ali was drafted that year. He would have to serve a year in the Army. Most people expected him to pass his service much as Joe Louis did during World War II, by fighting exhibition fights on different bases. Not for Ali; declaring “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong,” he refused induction. Seeing the North Vietnamese as being little different in the eyes of white America than his fellow blacks, he would not fight them. He was stripped of his title and could not fight during the three years he appealed his conviction for evading the draft. These years would have been much of the prime of his career.

I’m the greatest thing that ever lived! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.

Finally Ali stepped back into the ring. Despite the missed time his greatest fights were still ahead. Bouts so memorable they got their own names: the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila. He also fought his greatest opponents in Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He would win the title again, lose it, then finally win it a third time before retiring. This did not suit him and he came back in 1980, at age 38. Like all other athletes, Ali had gotten old and lost both fights after his last return. He retired for good.

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.

The boxer was gone but Ali did not disappear. He did some acting (notably playing himself in the movie version of his autobiography, The Greatest). A new enemy presented itself, one the old champ could not defeat: Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who watched Ali light the flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his hand shaking as he held the torch, could understand how much he had lost. Ali never felt sorry for himself. In his view, this was God’s way of showing he was still just a man like any other.

The world did not agree. He became a roving ambassador, helping to end conflicts. American presidents sent him on goodwill missions to the Third World. At the end, robbed even of the ability to speak, Ali could enter a room and still leave star athletes and powerful politicians in awe. No one argued with his name, his religion or his words anymore. He had become the world’s most famous and popular man largely by the strength not in his fists but in his personality.

I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.

Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis

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