By Jason Keidel
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In all endeavors, we like to think that the best of our time were the best of all time. But, by definition, that’s impossible. None of us were around for Ruth; few of us remember Jim Brown; while most of us remember Michael Jordan.
But perhaps the greatest athlete of all time was essentially born 50 years ago Tuesday. And while he’d be the first to tell you he was the best, he was perhaps the lone athlete in history who trumped up his titanic tongue with even larger deeds.
Fifty years ago Tuesday, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, back when the belt was essential, when the man wearing it and bearing it was the baddest man on the planet. Ali didn’t just defeat Liston, he knocked him out. He didn’t just knock him out, he removed his heart. And then Cassius Clay morphed into Muhammad Ali, who then morphed into the lead face on the Mt. Rushmore of American, athletic luminaries.
In 1963, Clay was a fledgling face in boxing who won a gold medal in 1960 as a light heavyweight and had inched up the rankings on the backs of stiffs and washed-up stars, like Tunney Hunsaker and Archie Moore.
Liston, by contrast, had just destroyed Floyd Patterson twice in the first round, and was slowly climbing the rungs as the greatest heavyweight ever. Liston was a prodigious favorite (8 to 1). Indeed, people were so worried about Clay’s health they planned the quickest routes to the local hospital in the likely event Liston pounded Clay unconscious.
Lost in all the hyperbole surrounding Clay/Ali was his boxing brilliance, which was hardly limited to punching. Clay knew that beating Liston, an authentic tough guy, would take more than roadwork and sit-ups. So Clay slowly entered Liston’s head, with his brazen blueprint of stalking of the champion.
As Angelo Dundee so astutely asserted, tough guys like Liston are only bothered by foes they find seriously insane. So Clay obliged, wearing jackets with “Bear Hunting” on the back, driving by Liston’s house after midnight, barking into a megaphone for Liston to come out and take his beating before the actual fight. Every time they saw each other, Clay lunged in some way at the champ, to keep him physically and emotionally off balance.
Clay was so amped up at the weigh-in the doctor almost canceled the fight, citing Clay’s accelerated blood pressure. At every turn, Clay challenged Liston, largely to get Liston off his game, and partly to assure himself that he could indeed beat the bigger, stronger champion.
Time has rewritten his legacy, but there was a time when Liston was considered invincible. Liston literally knocked out opponents just with his jab. There was no more menacing a mosaic than to watch Liston work a heavy bag, with “Night Train” blaring in the background, where he made the 225-pound bag flip like a doll.
(Not coincidentally, Liston is the boxer with whom Mike Tyson is most often compared and the fighter over whom Tyson himself waxes most romantically and poetically.)
Even the bout itself was epic, emblematic of not only a torch being passed, but a way of viewing the world. Clay stunned everyone by taking the fight to Liston from the opening bell, peppering Liston with jabs and lighting rights, hurting the stone-jawed Liston several times in the first three rounds.
Then, at the end of the fourth, Clay started staggering and blinking heavily. He couldn’t see. Liston started pounding Clay’s body with thunderous combinations. Between rounds Clay begged Dundee to rip the off the gloves. He wanted to quit. Dundee, calm as ever, scooped some fluid from Clay’s eye and dabbed his own. And it burned fiercely. It seems someone in Liston’s corner, aware that his man was getting whipped, spread some foul ointment over Liston’s gloves, which rendered the younger, faster, better boxer blind.
Dundee, a master of understatement, just shoved Clay from the corner with a simple instruction — “Run!” Clay obliged, surviving round 5. With the flaming liquid finally free from his eyes, Clay resumed his supremacy in the ring, hammering Liston with combinations. By the end of the sixth round, the fight was over, and Liston knew it. After declaring that he had thrown his left arm out of its socket, Liston refused to enter the ring for round 7.
And that was that. Clay’s iconic “I am the Greatest!” monologue to Joe Louis is considered Ali’s mission statement. That, plus a small switch in religious affiliations and a little name change, and Muhammad Ali would Bogart the bold ink for the next 15 years. There was no dispute that Ali was not only the singular name in sports, but also the most recognizable human on the planet. And it wasn’t even close.
But none of it happens without that fight against Liston. It feels facile now, in retrospect, with his career montage sprawled out before us, but in 1964, Ali was little more than a loquacious newbie who didn’t know his place. Not only was he too mouthy for his age, he was way too disrespectful as a black man, who was supposed to just be happy with his marginal lot in life.
Ali taught the world not only that minorities should have a voice, but that the entire kaleidoscope of colors and genders and religions were part of one unit, as equal or unequal as our talent could take us.
Like millions of boys who struggled through adolescence, I worshipped Ali for his beauty and boldness. His confidence and candor was a siren call to all young men that we could be whatever we wanted, as long as we were willing to work for it. Ali, as much as anyone in sports history, was the quintessential American Dream.
More than 20 years ago, my father was waiting at an airport in Memphis, where he spotted the Champ. He ambled over and asked Ali for an autograph for his son. Ali, whose physical grace and platinum tongue had already been ruined by boxing’s brutal, physical taxation, reached out with a trembling hand and gave my old man a pamphlet on Islam. After begging Ali to sign something, he finally scribbled his name on said pamphlet and kissed my dad on the forehead.
While we all borrow from someone we admire, Ali was an original. When athletes were supposed to run nobly, humbly, head-down through their 15 minutes of celebrity, Ali rewrote the template for the modern athlete. Ali was the first since Ruth to transcend the arena, and became the avatar for the verbose, victorious titan. Many athletes have tried to run in the epic tread marks Ali left behind, but most have fallen woefully short. There can only be one who did it the first time, and often he was the best at it.
There are lowbrow variations of Ali, most notably Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who thinks that clapping stacks of money in front of a camera makes you an American original, when it really just makes you boring. Though he is a wonderful fighter, Mayweather doesn’t have Ali’s wisdom, humor, or humanity.
Not even Ali was entirely original. He admits he stole his shtick from wrestler Gorgeous George. But only Ali had the talent and temerity to stamp his visage on the canvas and then canvass for civil rights.
He may not have always made the right decisions on whom would run his brand, hold his money, or speak on his behalf, but Ali’s heart was almost always in the right place, and that can’t be camouflaged by some hustler who used Ali for more nefarious purposes.
No one should pretend Ali was perfect. The way he abused Joe Frazier was a horror that completely contradicts his cuddly persona. Ali had harems while married. He abandoned Malcolm X when he needed Ali’s support the most.
But if we are a composite of our decisions, Ali is decidedly greater than any athlete who has ever graced our radios, televisions, or magazine covers. You don’t have to be flawless to be great. And Muhammad Ali needn’t be perfect to be the Greatest. And it all started exactly 50 years ago.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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