This man’s career was well-established at the beginning of the 1970s, someone who had gone to the Olympics and won a gold medal, fought for the right to be a war objector and stirred up controversy when he embraced Islam and changed his name during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
At the beginning of the decade, Ali was not allowed to fight, having been stripped of his boxing liscense four years earlier when he lost his court case to prevent his being drafted by the army to be sent to Vietnam.
But in 1970, a US senator took up his cause and he battled back, started to fight again and to gain back his title. He got the right to fight back in the courts, and then planned to go up against the reigning champion, Joe Frazier, in 1971.
Dubbed The Fight of the Century, Ali vs Frazier was the first time Ali felt defeat, losing to Joe Frazier. In 1973, Ali went up against Ken Norton and lost the fight in a split decision, and had his jaw broken. Later that year, he fought Norton again, won by split decision and then decided to fight Joe Frazier again, even though he had lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman. Ali won a unanimous decision after 12 rounds.
In 1974, Ali was considered an underdog, with Norton, Frazier and Foreman ahead of him in the lineup as heavyweight champions. Foreman took the challenge from Ali and so came The Rumble in the Jungle as Foreman agreed to fight Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire for the heavyweight boxing title. Due to Ali’s recent past, long-time fan Howard Cosell even discounted him, believing Foreman the better fighter. Ali won the fight, outlasting Foreman and preventing being knocked out by a technique now called rope-a-dope, using the ropes and his body to absorb the body blows.
But Ali wasn’t done – Joe Frazier wanted another chance at the title, and so the Thrilla in Manila came to be – with Ali versus Frazier. Ali’s infamous quote was “…it will be a killa….and a chilla…and a thrilla..when I get the gorilla in Manila.” Trash talk ruled the airways, as Ali prepared to outlast the strong blows of Frazier. Despite the 100F temperature, the fighters went 14 rounds, with the fight called at the beginning of the 15th round, as Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut, and Ali declared the winner.
In those years, before boxing became the exclusive domain of promoters, it was a sport watched by millions around the world. I remember my Dad talking about the fights, a huge fan of Ali. From the Fight of the Century to The Rumble in the Jungle to the Thrilla in Manila, my father heard and watched Muhammad Ali, as a fan who was proud to have survived the racism of his past and watch his hero come back to win, and win again.
Ali kept defending the title, winning several fights, losing once to Leon Spinks but battling back to win against him in late 1978. In 1979, Ali retired, having won the heavyweight title three times. He went on to fight again in the early 1980s, but soon realized he was done his career as a boxer. Ali ended his career with a 56-5 record, and was one of three boxers chosen as Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
As someone who stood up for his beliefs and became one of the most recognized athletes in the world, Muhammad Ali made the sport of boxing the talk of the town, when sports fans trumped gambling to see the kings of the ring. He is the greatest of all time.