As the world continues to mourn Muhammad Ali, here are some of the reasons that made the former world heavyweight champion truly the greatest of all time.
1) Takes up boxing after his bike is stolen (1954)
If it wasn’t for the lure of free food, Muhammad Ali may never have boxed. As the 12-year-old Cassius Clay he pedalled on his red and white Schwinn bike to the Louisville Home Show, an exhibition for black businesses, for the free popcorn, hot dogs and candy. But when he left, his bike was gone. A stranger suggested he speak to a policeman, Joe Martin, at the nearby Columbia gym. As Ali later related in his autobiography, The Greatest: “I ran downstairs crying but the sights and sounds and smell of boxing excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike.” As Clay left, Martin tapped him on the shoulder. “By the way, we got boxing every night, Monday through Friday, from six to eight. Here’s an application in case you want to join.”
2) Gold at the Rome Olympics (1960)
Clay nearly didn’t travel to the Olympics because he was so afraid of flying, and he even bought a parachute from an army surplus store to wear on the plane. After comfortable victories in his opening three bouts, Clay found the 1956 bronze medallist Zbigniew Pietrzykowski harder to fathom in the final, struggling with his opponent’s southpaw stance before winning a unanimous verdict. Later, in his autobiography, he claimed to have thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River, saying: “A few minutes earlier I had fought a man almost to death because he had wanted to take it from me … now I had thrown it in the river. And I felt no pain and regret. Only relief, and a new strength.” It was fiction. The truth was more mundane: he lost the medal.
3) The Fight of the Century (1971)
By the time Ali came out of exile the public’s mood had shifted. As the boxing historian Jim Jacobs put it: “The exile … showed people that Ali was sincere. It made him an underdog. He became a symbol to people who had never been interested in boxing.” But it had eroded his skills. At Madison Square Garden, Ali and the new champion Joe Frazier threw everything at each other. But Ali was not quite as elusive or sharp, and increasingly Frazier caught up with him, before a left hook putting Ali on his pants in 15th round. It was the moment, as Norman Mailer put it, that Ali was “dumped into 50,000 newspaper photographs … singing to the siren in the mistiest fogs of Queer Street.” He got up but lost a unanimous decision.