Muhammad Ali: The First and Greatest Global Sports Hero

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In 1967, before Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Marcellus Clay), the most effortlessly successful heavyweight champion the world had seen, was banned from boxing for his rightful opposition to the horrific Vietnam War, he likely thought that he would one day retire from the sweet science young, "pretty" and virtually unscathed. After all, the trash-talking poet-heavyweight who made braggadocio popular long before Twitter pugilist Donald Trump - though long after equally controversial black boxer Jack Johnson -- was so uncharacteristically fast on his feet and with his hands, and possessed such a long reach (76 inches), he won most fights barely being hit at all.

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Nevertheless, it was whispered in boxing circles that that Ali had a glass jaw. That wasn't it. "The Louisville Lip" -- who made a habit of mocking his opponents in rhyme -- was just preternaturally better than his competition.

However, in 1967, with the U.S. mired in a pointless and catastrophic civil war on foreign soil (not that we learned anything from Vietnam by the time the deceitfully sold Iraq War came around), Ali was convicted for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. armed forces. As Ali famously noted at the time, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."

Though he never served time in prison, Ali was taken off the world stage in his fleet-footed prime, and forced to give up his boxing titles, boxing license, and passport (so he couldn't box abroad), all because he was a conscientious objector.

Nevertheless, despite initial anger from many whites, and even some blacks, for his "uppity" racial and anti-war views, Ali's popularity only grew. So, when he returned to boxing in 1971 after having his five-year sentence reduced on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court, Ali was on the precipice of mythic status in the global brain.

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It didn't matter if you liked sports, let alone boxing, you knew who Ali was and what he represented: not just a smart, talented, and infectiously entertaining man, but also a civil rights pioneer who, like Martin Luther King before him, boldly called out injustice when he saw it.

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Much was made at the time of Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam, a virulent -- some would say racist and sexist -- brand of Black Nationalist separatism espoused by the late Elijah Muhammad (nee Elijah Robert Poole). I was only a grade schooler, so I pooh-poohed those concerns. Ali's religion did not matter to me. He could have been Zoroastrian or Quaker for all I cared.

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What mattered to me, and what mattered to those of all faiths and races around the world, was that here was a man who was willing to forego worldly fame and fortune and give up the sport he loved for a cause greater than himself. What religion propelled him to this transcendent place was largely incidental to most of Ali's fans.

In fearlessly taking his stand against the Vietnam War, Ali was standing in solidarity with millions of American draft resisters, of all races and creeds, and of far less stature and wealth, who took the same courageous stance, often risking their lives in the process.

Unfortunately, Ali paid a deep and lasting price for his social activism. After being allowed to return to boxing in late 1970, he furiously fought to regain his titles at a time when he should have been thinking, for his own long-term safety, of retirement. As a result, Ali took risks with his body that he might not otherwise have taken.

Rather than the dancing, taunting "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" Ali, he occasionally used a slower, more personally damaging strategy he eventually dubbed "Rope-a-Dope," wherein Ali hunkered down against the ropes and took all the damage that his opponent could inflict until that opponent wore himself out.

Ali eventually regained the titles stripped from him in 1967 by dint of two immortal fights. The October 30, 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) pitted the 32-year-old Ali against the young, formidable George Foreman (whom Ali dubbed "The Big Bad Monster" and "The Mummy"). Whether out of early round awareness of Foreman's frightening strength or as a thought-out plan, Ali deployed Rope-a-Dope, taking insanely violent blows for half the fight before coming off the ropes for a few seconds near the end of round eight and dropping Foreman to the canvas with one quick right punch. The shock of Ali's sudden and brilliant victory, and the delirium that ensued in Africa and abroad, prompted most boxing historians to call this the greatest fight of all time.

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The October 1, 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" (Quezon City to be precise) was Ali's final bout against his arch nemesis -- and first to defeat Ali back in 1971 -- "Smokin'" Joe Frazier (whom Foreman had previously knocked out in 1973 in a fight that featured announcer Howard Cosell's memorable line, "Down goes Frazier!"). This exhausting and epic bout in 120 degree heat, which Ali miraculously won when Frazier's trainer forbid his fighter to enter round 15 because Frazier's battered eyes were closed shut - just as Ali himself was ready to throw in the towel - promoted Ali to say, "This is the closest to death I have ever been."

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However, as noted by George Plympton and Norman Mailer -- two literary giants who were ringside at the Zaire fight -- in the stunning 1996 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, the head trauma that Ali endured from these two fights and especially from the seven years of unnecessary fights after beating Frazier for good in 1975, hastened Ali's diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in 1984, only three years after retiring from the sport at the age of 39.

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Sadly, those born after 1974 only experienced the severely shaken and shaking Ali, ridden with this cruel disease until at last he could not speak at all. However, those of us given the gift of Ali in his prime witnessed a taste of immortality. And we are better for it.

Rest in peace, Champ.

- James Marshall Crotty
www.jamescrotty.com