Muhammad Ali 1942 – 2016
Long before he was “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali was a champion braggart.
During his early career, he mercilessly ridiculed his opponents, labelling New Yorker Doug Jones “an ugly little man” and rechristening heavyweight champion Sonny “The Big Bear” Liston “the big ugly bear…after I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.”
Yet for all his braggadocio, vaingloriousness and showboating, there was the sense that Ali wasn’t merely trying to “psyche out” his opponents – jabbing at them until they lost their composure – he was trying to psyche himself up, will himself into greatness.
It was the same inside the ring. Ali was all razzle-dazzle, quick on his feet, given to flights of fancy. He promised to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and with his balletic footwork, plus a few lightening right hooks, he delivered.
But he always had a way of surprising you. Facing certain defeat against the hulking George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, he wisely reverted to the “rope-a-dope strategy,” which involves laying on the ropes in a defensive stance and allowing your opponent to punch himself out.
In this Feb. 18, 1964, file photo, The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison, take a fake blow from Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, while visiting the heavyweight contender at his training camp in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/File)
Through sheer invention, Ali triumphantly transcended his physical limitations. With his outsized personality, pronounced commitment to the civil rights movement, and principled objection to the Vietnam War draft – costing him three years of his athletic prime – he even managed to transcend his profession, earning him the title of “The People’s Champ.”
Shortly after retiring from the sport aged 37, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but insisted he didn’t want pity. Despite worsening health, he kept his famous wit, goading Fresh Prince star Will Smith, who did a stellar job portraying the legendary boxer in the less-than-stellar 2001 biopic of his life: “Man, you’re almost pretty enough to play me.”
Muhammad Ali died Friday at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, having been admitted the previous day with an undisclosed respiratory issue. His phenomenal gift for trash talking aside, Ali’s winning appeal is encompassed by – forgive me – this poem (thought to be the shortest in the English language), written by the great man himself: “Me, We”