Muhammad Ali at 70: Living and dying with the greatest
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing (Jan 16, 2012) Doghouse Boxing
Muhammad Ali
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing: In the early 1960’s, when I was wee whisper of a lad, Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) was the first professional boxer to draw my attention away from more routine matters like cartoons, Moe, Larry, and Curly, and The Adventures of Superman. 

It wasn’t his boxing ability that mesmerized me back then. No, It was quite simply his mouth. He spoke in rhymes which amused me. Boxing wasn’t a pick part of my life just yet. The interest went up after I (I mean my mom) purchased my first Ring Magazine when I was six years old.

By then Cassius Clay had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali. His nickname,“The Louisville Lip” fit like a proverbial boxing glove. He had won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in an improbable upset. A year later, he defeated former champion Floyd Patterson. He fought Liston again and stopped him in the first round with something called an anchor punch. He bragged and made predictions, but I always saw a twinkle in his eye. I had no idea how controversial he was. By 1967, we were living in Oklahoma. I was slowly becoming aware of the hatred Ali inspired. By the end of the summer of 67, my learning curve had improved dramatically, due to an incident that occurred during a neighborhood barbecue.

That late summer day I can remember playing with the neighborhood kids and hearing my name called. I ran over to where four or five of the fathers stood eating catfish and drinking beer while the mothers talked on the other side of the street. I could see my mom but had no idea where my dad was. I stood and waited. One of the fathers put his plate down and asked me if I knew who Cassius Clay was.

I nodded. I saw them glance at each other. Did I admire Clay? I nodded again. They mumbled. One of them told me what a terrible person Clay was. I shook my head. Another said he should be lynched, or shot, or both. They used a word that starts with an N. I felt two hands rest on my shoulders. Then, I heard a voice I knew very well say, “My son can like whoever he likes. I’d appreciate it if you kept that kind of language to yourselves.” The mens' heads nodded ever so slightly.

My dad had saved the day.

A few months later Muhammad Ali lost his boxing license. I had enjoyed reading about how he flattened Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. Nobody was questioning his boxing brilliance.

It would be three long years before he was back in the ring.

When Ali returned from exile in 1970, we moved back to California. He stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds and outlasted Oscar Bonevena. On March 8, 1971, the unthinkable happened. “The Greatest” lost to Smokin Joe Frazier. I was in shock and felt bad for days. When my new Ring Magazine showed up in the mail, I barely glanced at it. He lost to Ken Norton in 1973. A year later he beat both Norton and Frazier in rematches. He was obviously not the same elusive “butterfly’ of the 1960’s. He was lucky or cursed to have such a strong chin. That chin sustained many shots, including George Foreman’s in September of 74. I had watched Foreman train a few months before. His powerful punches put a dent in the heavy bag. The boxing experts said he would do the same thing to the 32-year-old Ali. Instead, Ali regained the heavyweight championship with a stunning 8th round knockout of the invincible Foreman. My fifteen-old year lungs were in full force that night.  

When Leon Spinks took Ali’s crown in 1977, I felt sick. When Ali decisively won the rematch, I wanted to sing. Ali was an old 36. His war’s with Frazier and others had taken their toll. He could still dance, but his reflexes had dulled. Still, nobody talked about it. He was now the people’s champion. I'd watch his appearances and feel pain in my stomach.

Something was different. His speech pattern had slowed. In 1980, he came back to take on defending champion Larry Holmes. Ali could still talk the talk, (to a degree) but he couldn’t walk the walk.

It was over.

As the years progressed his condition worsened. He couldn’t talk and would shake uncontrollably.

The irony was impossible to ignore. The greatest showman that boxing ever knew was now as silent as a stone. There would be no more rhymes or rhythms, only memories. A disease tied to boxing had finally silenced him, not an opponents fists.

Joe Frazier’s death shocked the boxing world. Ali’s frail condition at the funeral brought tears to my eyes. I guess I never thought the most extraordinary athlete I’ve ever seen would end up so vulnerable.

This week (Jan. 17) Muhammad Ali is celebrating his 70th year on this earth. 

I'd like to wish the champion of all champions a very happy birthday.

Recent work from Raspanti:
"The Last Great Prizefight", by Steven Frederick - A Review John J. Raspanti
David Rodriguez: "I thank God I’m alive" - "The blood was squirting out like a sprinkler" John J. Raspanti

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