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Muhammad Ali: Truly the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century

Pravir Rai
17 Jul 2018, 23:54 IST

Ali mocking Liston

The name 'Muhammad Ali' evokes awe, respect, and courage, all at one time. No other athlete evokes such feeling and no one else is regarded as 'Greatest Athlete of the 20th century'.

Born in 1942, as Cassius Clay, he rose to fame after winning a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He started fighting professionally very soon and won all the heavyweight boxing titles.

I had heard his name since my childhood but had not watched his boxing matches, apart from few TV highlights here and there. I started watching his bouts on TV while living in the US and became addicted to it.

I watched his fight with Sonny Liston, the then-heavyweight champion. Ali dominated most of the fight with his punches and hooks, although there were occasional glimpses of brilliance from Liston too. By the end of the 6th round, Liston was bleeding from a cut under his left eye. Clay was declared the winner by a technical knockout (TKO). A rematch happened in which Ali knocked out Liston by a 'phantom punch'.

In 1971, Ali and Joe Frazier fought in what is known as the 'Fight of the Century'. Both were claiming to be heavyweight champions. Initially, Ali took a lot of punches but as the rounds progressed, he deployed a new 'rope-a-dope' strategy.

This was done to take the beating from Frazier and tire him. This did not prove to be successful. Joe knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook in the final round. Although Ali got up on his feet, he lost by unanimous decision.

The second fight against Joe Frazier happened in 1974. Both Ali and Frazier played with caution, but Ali was more offensive with his jabs and hooks. He also kept himself away from Frazier's deadly left hook. In the end, judges awarded Ali a unanimous decision.

Frazier (left) and Ali

Ali's next was with George Foreman in a bout nicknamed 'The Rumble in the Jungle' in 1974. Foreman was savage and one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. Foreman started attacking from the start and Ali again deployed the 'rope-a-dope' strategy to counter his blows.


Few punches landed on Ali, some were deflected and some did not land at all. This demotivated Foreman, who by then was also tired. Ali then started with a flurry of punches. Subsequently, in the 8th round, Foreman was dropped by a combination of a left and right. Ali regained the title by knockout. He defeated every top heavyweight in his era.

His style evolved over the years. It was epitomized by his catchphrase, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee". He would dance and circle opponents for most of the fight before launching an assault. He had the best stamina and an undying ability to take punishment from his rivals. He trash-talked to his opponents to motivate himself, before and during the match.

Ali was a controversial sportsman, but remained a fighter until the end. He took an anti-establishment position and refused to draft himself during the US-Vietnam war. He was afflicted with Parkinson's syndrome in 1984 due to his boxing-related brain injuries. As he once said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

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