Muhammad Ali's Words Echo Down The Ages
If you’re going to talk the talk, you better be able to walk the walk.
And no one did both better than Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest", born on this day in 1942.
Every lippy boxer can be traced back to Ali. All their posturing second-rate karaoke versions of Ali at his magnificent oratory best.
For Ali, fights were often won in the pre-bout press conferences. Mind games, a cliché in modern sports, were second nature to the “Louisville Lip”.
On February 25, 1964 the then Cassius Clay shocked the world beating the most brutal fighter in boxing history at the time, Sonny Liston. Before the fight, as experts feared for his life, Clay had dismissed the man he called “the bear” with this timeless classic, one he would tweak for other fighters throughout his career.
“Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there's not enough room,
It's a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Liston is disappearing from view, the crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up, somewhere over the Atlantic.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can't start counting till Sonny goes down.
Who would have thought when they came to the fight?
That they'd witness the launching of a human satellite.
Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money,
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny”
Smart, funny and original. Some even see Ali’s machine-gun freestyle as the pre-curser to rap, which would emerge as an urban art form from the streets of New York over a decade later.
To be clear, Ali was cruel to his victims. He called Floyd Patterson, once the youngest Heavyweight champion ever, “the rabbit” after he froze in a particularly devastating defeat by Liston.
He taunted George Foreman as an establishment figure, calling him an “Uncle Tom”, as derogatory a term as an African American can be called. And then went out and beat him in arguably sport's most famous moment, the “Rumble in Jungle” in Zaire.
But he saved his most savage comments for “Smokin” Joe Frazier.
"Joe’s gonna come out smoking, but I ain’t gonna be jokin’, I’ll be pickin’ and pokin’, pouring water on his smokin’. This might shock and amaze ya, but I’m gonna destroy Joe Frazier,” was humorous enough.
But he also called Frazier “ugly”, often. Frazier rarely had any responses to the onslaught from Ali.
Ahead of their legendary third fight - “The Thrilla in Manila” on October 1, 1975 - he took to calling Frazier “the gorilla”.
“It’ll be a killa,
And a chilla,
And a thrilla,
When I get the gorilla,
Ali won - his second to Frazier’s one - in a fight he said was the “closest thing to dyin' that I know of”.
With the gloves off, and hype machine switched off, Ali lit slip the mask and revealed his true feelings.
“Joe Frazier is one hell of a man. If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me." he said magnanimous, though for some a little too late. Ali’s verbal jibes, for years, hurt Frazier far more than his physical ones.
He was particularly merciless to those who dared to insult his name or religion.
Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his old name - “I met you as Cassius Clay. I’ll leave you as Cassius Clay” - would live to regret his hubris.
Ali humiliated Terrell over 15 rounds, refusing to knock him out, his jabs increasingly accompanied by the now famous “what’s my name?” refrain.
He was above all the first activist sportsman, paving the way for others, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, to Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49s who took to kneeling during the national anthem and consequently paid a heavy price for his beliefs.
In 1967, Ali, already hated by many in America for converting to Islam, and having famously refused to fight in the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”), was found guilty of draft-dodging, but refused to compromise on his principals.
In arguably his most memorable words ever, he pointed the finger back at the establishment.
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home."
Ali’s message still stands. They’ll hail you if you win in their name and keep your mouth shut. Speak up for yourself, or your people, and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Ali eventually overcame the hate to become one of America’s, not to mention the rest of the world’s, most popular sportsmen ever. And he did it living by his own words.