The Life and Fights of Muhammad Ali: A Ballet of Stubbornness

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by The Courier-Journal-USA TODAY Sports

How can I hope to relate the significance of Muhammad Ali to you? I never saw myself having to write this. Yet here I sit at my desk trying to make peace with the news that has been hinted at for years and finally come: Ali is dead. But then the best measure of Ali's life is that I do not have to relate his significance. You already know him. There are children in Africa who have no idea who the president of the United States is but can recognize a picture of Muhammad Ali. I only have to focus on one side of the story. I'm not here to pretend that Ali was a god or a prophet, he wasn't. There were times when he was just an awful person like the rest of us, and he was marked for death from the beginning like everyone else but that is what made Ali's tale so special. That he was human and he was fragile, just flesh and bone. He got old and fell apart, do not doubt for a moment that fighting aided that along, but he branded his image on the world in spite of it. Ali's life was navigated and often thrown off course by the most admirable and destructive human quality: Ali's story is one of stubbornness.

The Old Man and the Greengrocer

When the kid known as Cassius Clay had won an Olympic gold medal and was working towards a professional career, his backers brought him to Archie Moore to learn the real craft of fighting. “Ageless Archie” was considered an all time great and had knocked out more men for money than anyone who had ever lived. Moore was an eccentric who cut weight for fights by ordering any meal he wanted and a second plate to spit it onto once he had chewed all the flavor from it, and who either wasn't sure of his own age or lied about it each time he was asked. A force well into his forties and a natural light heavyweight who still decked true heavies even while he hid his grey hair with shoe polish. But Moore and Clay clashed heads on everything. Outside of the ring, Moore believed that Clay should help with chores around the camp but Clay was bone idle, between the ropes Moore insisted that Clay knock off his energy-consuming dance and flick style and instead learn to sit down on his blows, conserve himself and cover up effectively. These, Moore insisted, were the skills that carried a champion on when he was old or exhausted. The sitcom-like arrangement soon came to an end and Clay was sent down to Miami to work at the fifth street gym with Angelo Dundee.

Dundee applied a hands-off approach to coaching Clay. The young man made a thousand errors by choice: pulling back from punches, crossing his feet, dropping his hands, firing from his chest but Dundee let him play with it. Clay took drubbings in the gym from seasoned vets but never adopted a more orthodox style. Apparently, through force of will and religious practice of the wrong methods, it all started to come together. Clay amassed a series of pro wins from 1961 to 1962 before he found himself face to face with Moore again, this time in the prize ring. It was Clay's sixteenth fight but it was Moore's two hundred and fifteenth on record. Moore adopted his deep crouch, bent at the waist and utilized his legendary cross guard. Clay, committing yet another of boxing's cardinal sins, punched down on Moore. When a tall fighter punches down on a crouched man the periods when his guard is up shorten so that as soon as the crouching fighter jumps up with a left hook he can catch the taller fighter with his hands down. But Moore was an undersized old man who made up for it with guile, Clay was a beautifully proportioned heavyweight who still moved quicker than anyone Moore had ever fought. The upstart bounced in and out with chopping blows and was never around long enough for the old man to catch him. Clay could never have known at the time just how Moore's philosophies would continue to impact his life. 

After a win over Doug Jones, Clay was on his way to a shot at the world title. In June of 1963, Clay was matched against England's top heavyweight, Henry Cooper. Cooper was a greengrocer by day and a passable technician in the ring but what set Cooper apart was what the public called 'enry's 'ammer. Cooper's left hook was the sharpest to bless the division since Floyd Patterson's. When they met in the ring Clay danced and jabbed, and leapt in with power punches from the outside and attempted to hold. Comparing Clay's clinch to the work of Muhammad Ali in his later years it was loose and distant. Cooper had room to hit Clay even as Clay held on. But Cooper had one big mark against him: his skin was tissue paper and he bled like a stuck pig in even his best fights. The bout turned into a seminar on the Clay jab. While the champion, Sonny Liston was though to have the best jab in heavyweight history because it was so lengthy and powerful, Clay focused on backhanded accuracy. Where most fighter's jabs if thrown straight would mark up their opponent's right eye more easily, Clay's jab came from low and was often thrown backhanded. In this way he was able to shoot across his body and open his opponent's left eye more easily. This was helped along by powerful right straights to the same eye. By the end of round one “Our 'enry's” left eye was already seeping claret.

The backhand of Cassius Clay and the rough house left hook of Henry Cooper.

Near the end of the fourth, Cooper connected a left hook flush on Clay's head. Clay went wild and threw back a right hand. Cooper blocked the shot and returned another left hook which again hit home. Clay adjusted and stepped in once more and a third left hook sent him to the mat as if he had been shot.

The bell sounded to end the round and Clay returned to his corner and it was here that Angelo Dundee bought them time. Some say Dundee tore Clay's glove, Dundee claimed he only enlarged a tear that was already there. Whatever the case once the glove was brought to the referee's attention a new one had to be found. When the round eventually started, Clay's feet were back under him and he went back to work punishing the gaping wound around Cooper's eye. Two minutes into the fifth round the bout was waved off and Clay was head of the queue to fight the champion, Sonny Liston.

Few gave Clay a chance against Liston. It was thought that Liston was both the biggest punching and most scientifically sound heavyweight alive. While only six feet tall, Liston carried a freakish eighty-four inch reach (three inches longer than the 6'3” Ali's and equal with Lennox Lewis') and owned the largest fists in heavyweight history. It made sense on paper, Clay had looked hittable in many of his bouts and Liston was a one punch finisher. Clay shocked the world as he turned Liston constantly, pulling away from power punches and snapping in his own backhanded jab. The fight was called as Liston could not come out for the eighth round. In the rematch Clay dropped Liston early with his classic pull back right hand across the top of Liston's jab. This blow became the focus of media attention—the so called Phantom Punch and then Anchor Punch—and has been responsible for a thousand young fighters jarring their backs in attempts to imitate the counter without the understanding that it was the placement of Clay / Ali's rear foot which was key to his pulling away from blows through the years. The second fight is thought to have been a dive on Liston's part as he had troubles with the mob. It is a theory that holds some water since he later died of a heroin overdose despite a lifelong fear of needles.

Becoming Muhammad Ali

It was after the first Liston fight that Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. His involvement with the Nation of Islam would become a contentious issue and soon threaten his career but from 1964 to 1967 the world was shown some of Ali's best work. In his physical prime, Ali took apart Floyd Patterson and George Chuvalo. He bested Henry Cooper more convincingly in a rematch and showed blistering hand speed in folding Brian London with a flurry of eleven punches in three seconds flat. Ali's best opponent was Ernie Terrell, who had been given the WBA title which rightfully belonged to Ali when Ali had opted to rematch Liston. Terrell's refusal to call Ali by his chosen name led to a harsh drubbing and many felt that Ali could have stopped Terrell but chose to draw out the fight to make a point. Instead Ali shot off combinations and stopped to shout “What's my name?” in Terrell's face. The champ's last bout before it all hit the fan was against Zora Folley, who proved an easy mark for Ali's pulling right hand.

When Ali was called up to take part in the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted, public opinion finally soured. He was portrayed as a traitor and a coward and his boxing license in New York was revoked. Any attempt to fight anywhere else would destroy his chances of competing in New York again and no other governing body was likely to license him due to the public outcry.

Three years later, Ali returned to the ring and he looked nothing like the man who had left. To the writer this is where the Muhammad Ali story really begins. Cassius Clay had been a heavyweight who lucked into all of the gifts a fighter could be blessed with and never met a man with the right skills and gameplan to show up his technical shortcomings. Superman plots do not get interesting until kryptonite has been shoehorned in somehow. Now Muhammad Ali was older, slower and in the mix with a far superior crop of heavyweights than three years earlier.

The start did not inspire confidence in things to come. Ali struggled to get past Joe Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. In the second bout Ali found himself holding on to the unpolished brawler and finally relying on his power to get the knockout with a beautiful left hook, two minutes into the last round of a dismal fight. Moore's words were back to haunt him.

While Ali was in exile the WBA (who were so keen to strip him when he rematched Liston) held a tournament to decide their next heavyweight champion. That eight man invitational was won by Ali's stablemate and friend, Jimmy Ellis. The back stepping right hands and pull counters, the marks of a Dundee fighter and of Ali's influence were in Ellis' performances. Ellis came to the tournament as an underdog and fought the best bouts of his life. The one man invited to the tournament who did not take part was Smokin' Joe Frazier. Though a top heavyweight, Frazier boycotted the WBA's tournament because of their stripping of Ali and decided to take a fight for the New York State Athletic Commission's heavyweight title. He later uses that title to leverage to fight against Ellis. Frazier starched Ellis with his left hook in the fifth round and became the WBC and WBA heavyweight champion.

Ali did not have to be back long before The Fight was put together. Billed as The Fight of the Century, the champion who never lost met the undefeated current holder of the crown. It was then that the walls closed in on Ali. If he had told himself that the Quarry and Bonavena fights were just ring rust, Joe Frazier punched that illusion from him. Under the eye of Eddie Futch, Frazier used the rule that Ali had broken against Moore all those years ago to his advantage. You never, ever punch down.

Here an aged Cus D'amato foreshadows Ali's bout with Frazier.

Frazier had spades for hands and dug to the body until there was nothing of his opponent left. When he did this to Ali, Ali punched back. Without fail when he was given a hurting blow, Ali would fight to show that it didn't hurt. As Frazier put in the body work along the ropes, Ali would throw hooks and uppercuts. Angelo Dundee would scream to stop 'hooking with a hooker' as Ali was clubbed around the head again by a shorter, snappier left hook that cut inside his longer levers. Two years earlier Ali had appeared in Sports Illustrated demonstrating his innovations in a feature entitled The Art of Ali. In that article Ali showed off his uppercut from his hands low stance, Ali claimed that because it started low he had a shorter line to the target and it couldn't be seen coming. Eddie Futch had picked up on it though. When a fighter throws his right uppercut his right jawline is exposed for a longer period than on most right handed punches and typically he is much closer in to attempt it. The left hook has always been the perfect foil for the right uppercut and so Frazier invited Ali to show him the uppercut, meeting him with the left hook every time. Bruised, wobbled, dropped, Ali came away from the fight with no claim to the title and no way to fool himself that he was the same man who danced circles around opponents four years earlier.

That was the watershed. Ali stopped trying to be the same Cassius Clay who was exiled. His legs were slowing so he stopped dancing as much. He mastered the clinch. He'd dance for a round and then he'd hold for a round. He found himself looking to hit his opponents harder between these lazy rounds. Ali rebounded with a victory over his friend Jimmy Ellis to take the NABF world title and went on a ten fight streak against good competition. In this time he bested Floyd Patterson again and secured a TKO against Jerry Quarry. Ali's next great test came against Ken Norton in 1973. An awkward boxer who fought from an almost completely side on stance, Norton would prove to give Ali fits through all three of their bouts across the next three years.

A nice lead uppercut from the second Quarry fight.

Norton was another charge of Eddie Futch and Futch again proved to be one of the best trainers in the game. Frazier and Norton could not have been more different and yet Futch wrote a plan for each to best Ali. Norton's relied on jabbing whenever Ali jabbed. This was because Ali's free hand was always down by his waist our out like a fencer's as he stepped in. The classical method of jabbing is to have your right hand up to catch the opponent's jab in your palm. Ali demonstrated this flaw in trading jabs with Henry Cooper. So Norton snapped Ali's head back each time the NABF champ stepped in. Early in the bout Norton dropped down behind a jab and came up with a left hook which broke Ali's jaw. As the bout progressed Ali's jaw visibly swelled into a grotesque new shape and Ali lost by a split decision. After threatening retirement for a brief spell, Ali returned to take a split decision win over Norton and then put ideas of a rubber match with the wily marine on the shelf for a couple of years.

Ali demonstrating his flawed jab against Cooper.

Ken Norton getting Ali's timing down.

A Black Colossus

As Ali came to rely on hitting power, the clinch, covering up and stealing rounds he grew to fulfill the prophecy of Archie Moore. As stubborn as Ali was his desire to win was stronger. Perhaps it ate him up to lose that decades-old argument with Moore, perhaps he considered it part of his maturation. What Ali could not have predicted was how his old foe would return to his life on the biggest stage in the fight world. While Ali defended his second rate NABF belt, a new heavyweight had taken the world by storm and in the shadows of George Foreman's hulking form stood Archie Moore. Between Moore, Sandy Saddler, Dick Saddler, and his old sparring partner Sonny Liston, George Foreman had learned at the feet of the greats. Perhaps the hardest hitter in heavyweight history, Foreman was being rigorously drilled in the craft to go with it. He would check and smother his opponents' hands as Sandy Saddler had, he had the stiffest jab in the division, and he was fast learning to cut the ring with on best of them.

Notice how active Foreman's hands are, both constantly checking his opponent's. This is the style that Sandy Saddler pioneered and used to beat Willie Pep.

The world was enamored with Foreman. The quiet heavyweight entered a title bout against Joe Frazier having fought no one of real note and was a significant underdog. As Foreman checked Frazier's hands and pushed him off each time he came close, Moore shouted from Foreman's corner “Under! Underneath!” Foreman threw an uppercut and caught Frazier ducking. Frazier's style of head movement did not rely on bobbing at the knees but on bending at the waist. This made it difficult for Frazier to close the distance while evading and made him a mark for the uppercut even if poor uppercuts played well into his counter left hook. As Frazier ate uppercuts he was thrown into confusion, he couldn't stop bobbing at the waist because that was his entire style.

When he bobbed he ate the uppercut, when he stopped he ate the left hook. Frazier was sent to the canvas six times before the bout was stopped. When Frazier met Ali a year later he proved as tricky for Ali as ever and Ali relied on holding Frazier to take a dull decision victory. In the meantime Foreman cut the ring on Ken Norton and destroyed him inside of two rounds.

A beautiful shifting right hook out to the right side as Norton circles out starts this one off.

The fight the people wanted was Ali versus Foreman for the world title. The story goes that Don King promised each five million dollars and got them to agree to it on a cocktail napkin at a charity event. King went at it every way he could until he found Zaire's president Mobutu. The despot loved the idea of putting Zaire on the map with the spectacle of the biggest fight in the world and the build up to the fight was as impressive as it was bizarre. A music festival celebrating black musicians was organized in Zaire and the performers and press were all present in the one hotel in Kinshasa for the weeks up to the fight. Writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer milled around the lobby with musicians like James Brown and B. B. King while Archie Moore looked for marks to hustle on the ping pong table.

The bout was arguably the greatest of Ali's career and many accounts of Ali's life will use this as the happy conclusion with the rest reading as an epilogue. Foreman was stronger than Ali, his footwork was every bit as good as the slowing legend's, and in many regards his technique as a boxer was better. He also proved in the early going to have a chin that would stand up to Ali's best shots as the challenger dashed out of his corner and tried to take Foreman's head off with a lead right. Ali's stubbornness manifested itself in its best way: he turned the fight ugly and won it in probably the only way he could have. Going to the ropes Ali covered up against Foreman's wide swings and snapped back short one-twos. While Foreman was considered the stronger fighter, Ali tied him up and wrestled him around throughout the bout.

The classic Ali clinch was on full display as Ali's left hand hung on the back of Foreman's neck with the elbow tight to his side, while his right hand cupped over Foreman's left biceps and squeezed his triceps. Ali used this position to shut down the left hooks from the clinch that he ate against Frazier and Cooper. His left elbow shielded his body, his left forearm could be pushed into the opponent to stifle right hands, and his left shoulder could come up to deflect from his head. As effective as this proved fight to fight, this position did see Ali hit in the kidneys repeatedly through his bouts as it was one of the only obvious targets. When Ferdie Pacheco left Ali's camp in later years it was apparently because he had been shown evidence of extreme damage to Ali's kidneys through fighting.

Ali fails to tie up Cooper's arms and simply expects the bout to be halted for a break.

Notice how Ali keeps his right glove high until he feels the left hook, then traps Frazier's left hand to his side behind the elbow.

But by the eighth round Foreman was spent. Ali snapped his head back with a couple more straights off of the ropes before Foreman leaned in on him. Ali took this opportunity to turn off the ropes and blast Foreman with a right hand and a left hook as he turned. Foreman spiraled to the mat and was counted out in one of the great upsets in heavyweight history.

After a tune up bout against Chuck Wepner, Ali struggled with Ron Lyle. Lyle was known as a banger but touched Ali up with left hooks off of jabs and jabs off of left hooks. Ali was going to the ropes more and more in his fights and slapping on his clinch when his opponent opened up with the right hand. Taking breaks for rounds at a time, Ali seemed to be dropping points to opponents who were thought far below him. But then that round of action would come and Ali's feet would come to life again. As the eleventh round opened on the British broadcast the commentator asked what Ali had left and whether it was acting or if Ali couldn't “go the pace any more”. Just as he said that, Ali landed a jolting right hand which shook Lyle to his boots. Ali followed Lyle to the ropes and kept the pressure on, sneaking enough blows through to secure the stoppage in a fight which was making him look vulnerable.

If Zaire showed Ali's resolve in its best light, Manila showed that doggedness at its worst. In a rubber match against Joe Frazier, Ali found himself being denied the clinch which had kept him safe against Frazier in their second bout. With a referee under public scrutiny to break the clinches and Frazier getting a late career second wind, Ali was in the fight of his life. Going to the ropes, which had worked so well against Foreman and many others, didn't work against Frazier. That was how Smokin' Joe had built his career, getting his head below his opponent's or on their sternum and hammering away with piston like blows to the midriff. Inside the elbows, under the elbows, around the elbows, low blowing if he felt he could get away with it, Frazier was at his most diabolical in the area of the fight which an ageing Ali had been using to catch his breath. And so when Ali was trapped on the ropes he went back into that old tactic from his youth—when under fire, throw back.

The two men beat each other senseless, Ali hit hard combinations on the way to the ropes and Frazier pounded him once they got there. The bout fell into a repetitive dynamic but became more brutal as it progressed. Frazier took the middle rounds but as his eyes began to close he found himself caught out in the open. Effectively blind in one eye coming into the bout (something which only he and Eddie Futch knew), the moment Frazier's other eye closed he was trying to fight on feeling alone. You can infight blind, but you can't fight out in the open unless you can see what you're doing. The bout ended in controversy as Frazier's corner threw in the towel before the fifteenth round. Frazier was heartbroken while Ali collapsed to the canvas in the other corner, leading to forty years of speculation over 'The Lost Round' and what would have happened if Futch had allowed his man to go out completely blind for the fifteenth. Futch never regretted his decision, however, and many feel that he might have saved Frazier's life.

Ali fought good men after Manila and he beat a few of them but that bout took the rest of Ali's best. Ali beat Earnie Shavers, later saying that Shavers was the hardest hitter that he ever fought. At thirty-six years old and with fifty six fights under his belt, Ali looked slow. He ate flush right hands time and time again from a fighter who had nothing like the craft of Ali's previous opponents. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's long time doctor and friend quit Ali's camp after this bout because of the discomfort of watching Ali continue to take damage while his body was clearly giving out on him. Many consider it to be one of Ali's greatest showings for the fact that his physical gifts had almost completely deserted him while Shavers was at the peak of his powers.

It was as Drew 'Bundini' Brown screamed encouragement through tears that the realization sunk home for the reluctant few: Ali was done. Standing on the ropes in front of Larry Holmes in the tenth round, his face purpled with bruising and his hands low from exhaustion and not choice. Bundini begged the champion to get off the ropes, to work the jab, to do anything. Ali survived the round and the stool swept in underneath him. He collapsed upon it as if he had been desperate to fall for the last minute. Ali sat looking at the floor, dejected as Angelo Dundee explained that he was going to stop the fight. Bundini grabbed a hold of the towel in Dundee's hands and pleaded for just another round. As the referee came over Dundee shouted “No, no no. The game's over. I'm the chief second, I've stopped the fight!”

We understand that everyone loses and that each fighter has an athletic prime but if a fighter is just remarkable enough he can suspend that cynicism. He will carry on too long and even though the signs are there no one will be able to accept the idea that he is hurting himself as long as the wins keep appearing on his record. Ali was a heavyweight champion in three decades, it seemed to some as though it would just go on forever or at least until he rode off into the sunset.

A fighter's art used to exist for just one night, and from then only in the exaggerated retelling of those present. We benefit from the fact that the work of Ali was committed almost entirely to celluloid and now lasts a lifetime. But Ali was as much the subject as he was the artist: an entire life played out on film in moments of both triumph and duress. There were nights when he seemed untouchable, then there were the nights where he just got by, and then there were the nights where his bullheaded will was the only thing that held him up. There were times when Ali was cruel, or stupid, or unpleasant and there were times when he was an inspiration as he matured from child to man and finally on to an old man on the television screen. Ali's later life saw him struggle with poor health and finances and the man who could be seen touring the world in the last few years seemed nothing like the picture of vitality of the 1960s or the wily veteran of the 1970s. They say that in a fighter the last thing to leave him is his power but I wouldn't be surprised if in Ali—as a person just as a fighter—the last thing to go was that stubbornness.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.


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