We don’t do video tributes often but when we do, we go the whole hog. With Muhammad Ali turning 70 on Tuesday, Emmet Ryan has delved through YouTube to tell the story of the ‘Greatest of All Time’*. With full fights, interviews, and documentaries, here’s everything you need to know about Ali’s lengthy career in the ring
Muhammad Ali first hit the world scene in the Light Heavyweight competition at the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome. Still known as Cassius Marcellus Clay, the 18 year old took on Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland. Ali won gold but would later claim he threw the medal in the Ohio river after being denied service at a whites’ only restaurant. We’ll get back to that later but first here are some highlights from that final in Rome.
The Olympic champion amassed a 19-0 record at the start of his professional career, en route to a world title shot against Sonny Liston. In his last fight before that first tilt with Liston, Cassius Clay was given a fright by Henry Cooper. In the fourth Cooper floored his wise-cracking opponent with a punch that would become knowns as Henry’s Hammer but Clay got off his feet to stop the Briton on cuts in the next round.
World champion and a controversial follow up
In his last fight with the moniker Cassius Clay, Ali won the World Heavyweight title. The 1964 clash with Sonny Liston can be seen in full here and was named Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine. Here’s the climax to that initial contest.
The next year Ali met Liston in a much awaited rematch. The famous phantom punch that ended the fight remains a source of controversy to this day.
Exile, return, and the long road to reclaiming the title
Unbeaten through 1967, Ali was kept out of the ring for three years due to his refusal to participate in the Vietnam war. After winning his first two fights upon his return, Ali would take on Joe Frazier in a bid to reclaim his crown. The first fight in their three bout trilogy would go the way of Smokin’ Joe. Here’s the opening bout from their three fight war.
Ali in Ireland
Without a world title, albeit the NABF champion, Ali was lured to fight in Croke Park in 1972 to fight Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis. In his only fight in Ireland Ali stopped Lewis by TKO in the 11th. Here’s the full fight.
Ali’s presence in Ireland was no small occasion for the Emerald Isle and he took part in a memorable interview with Cathal O’Shannon and here’s that RTE interview in full.
Norton and Frazier eventually conquered
After winning 10 fights straight, Ali suffered his second career loss when he battled Ken Norton in 1973 where he surrendered the NABF crown in a split decision loss. With time not on his side, revenge needed to be swift. Ali and Norton would square off again 6 months later with Ali this time taking the split decision win.
Now firmly back on the road to a shot at the title, Ali met Frazier for a second time. Four years after his first fight with Frazier, Ali won an undisputed decision and set up a title shot.
Rumble in the Jungle
This fight is so famous that it was Taylor Hackford directed an Oscar winning documentary about it and it forms the climax of Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic of Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman also proved to be the fight that brought Don King to prominence. Kinshasa in what was then Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo proved the venue for a bout that still fascinates today.
Thrilla in Manila
This was a turning point in Ali’s career. A third meeting with Frazier saw Ali secure the edge in their trilogy but neither man was the same after this fight. A brutal war in the ring, Ali would eventually outlast Smokin’ Joe.
Spinks, decline, and Holmes
A third career loss came in Ali’s 1978 title defence against Leon Spinks, another Fight of the Year winner. By reclaiming the title in their re-match 7 months later Ali became the first man to win the championship on three different occasions.
Having initially retired after that re-match with Spinks, Ali stepped back into the ring for a poorly judged fight with new champion Larry Holmes. In 1980, a solid 20 years after Ali had made his name in Rome, time caught up with the three-time champion. Rather than show the full fight, I’ve linked to ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the contest.
A loss in 1981 to Trevor Berbick would eventually force Ali to hang up his gloves permanently. Despite ending on a sour note, Ali amassed a phenomenal body of work over his career. There was just one issue that needed amending.
About that gold medal
Despite battling Parkinson’s, Muhammad Ali stepped into the limelight at the 1996 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee held a ceremony to provide Ali with a replacement for the medal he discarded nearly 40 years earlier. The real shining moment for the Greatest was at the opening ceremony when he surprised everyone by being the final torch bearer and lighting the Olympic Cauldron, the flame to start the games.
*I’m going to get killed for this but having discussed this with Greg Bowler amongst others over the years, it’s hard to stand over saying Ali was the greatest heavyweight ever. Not least because era comparisons can’t account for the radical differences in physique and the evolution of the sport. Jack Johnson would have been killed by Joe Louis, who would in turn have been mauled by Ali and he would surely have been destroyed by Lennox Lewis. Indeed Lewis may have been king in a weak era but he redefined attacking Boxing in such a way as to find it hard to look past him when having a serious debate on the matter.
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