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Boxing legend Muhammad Ali in critical condition

19 January, 2007

KARACHI: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the world’s most admired sporting icon and the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, who turned 65 on Wednesday, is losing his long battle against the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and is now in a critical condition.

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KARACHI: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the world’s most admired sporting icon and the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, who turned 65 on Wednesday, is losing his long battle against the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and is now in a critical condition.

His millions of fans will be saddened by the news that his health has deteriorated so rapidly in recent weeks that one of his closest friends was quoted as saying on Tuesday night: “Although he will now qualify for Medicare, he doesn’t need it — what he needs is our prayers.”

Gene Milroy, also 65, who has known Ali for more than 40 years and was his business manager for most of the former heavyweight champion’s 61-fight professional career, was quoted by Britain’s Independent newspaper as saying: “When I see him now I want to cry. He looks like he is wasting away and is getting frailer by the day.”

The paper added: “Distressingly, the famous Ali shuffle has long ceased to be a dazzling quickstep and is a painfully slow wobble. Yet Ali remains the most recognisable human being on earth, and still the best-loved, most charismatic sports figure of all time — the one and only true Lord of the Rings.”

It is the cruelest irony that the greatest boxer the world has ever known, the man who danced around the ring, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, has been reduced to a shadow of his former self because of the debilitating condition from which his house painter father died.

Like other fans that have followed his professional career ever since he took the world heavyweight title from Sonny Listen in 1964, I prefer to remember Ali as the dazzling boxer he once was. He was the supreme craftsman, the ultimate technician, not a slugger like Listen or Rocky Marciano.

In 1999, Ali was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated, America’s leading sports magazine. That same year, he made Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest personalities of the twentieth century. He won the world heavyweight crown three times, the only man in history to do so.

Before he turned professional in October 1960, Ali fought as an amateur in the light heavyweight division, winning the North American Boxing Federation championship and a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, Ali was named Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., after his father Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. (who was named for the 19th century abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay). Ali changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after joining the black American “Nation of Islam” movement. He subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975.

Ali burst on the scene at a time when professional boxing in America was largely controlled by the Mob and had fallen into disrepute. The heavyweight division, in particular, which had once boasted of such great fighters as Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, had become the preserve of thugs like Liston, an ex-convict. Ali rescued the sport from the gutter into which it had sunk and took it to new heights of glory.

As the well-known American writer and sports buff George Plimpton observed in an article in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time magazine, “Floating, stinging, punching, prophesying, Ali transformed his sport and became the world’s most admired athlete.”

Wrote Plimpton, “Boxing. in the early ‘60s, was in a moribund state until Muhaamad Ali — Cassius Clay in those days — appeared on the scene.”

Standing 6’ 3”, Ali had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. Rather than the normal boxing style of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he instead relied on his ability to avoid a punch. He was he the fastest heavyweight in history and had the unique ability of being able to move backward in the ring as fast as he moved forward. His lightning left jab was once timed at 120 mph.

He could sense a punch coming almost before it was launched, allowing him to back away very fast and softening the impact of the blow. This ability left Ali’s handsome face virtually unmarked throughout his career. When he said, “Ain’t I pretty?” he wasn’t kidding.

Nicknamed “the Louisville Lip” because of his penchant for hurling taunting jibes at his opponents and his amusing quips inside and outside the ring, Ali became the top contender for Liston’s heavyweight title in early 1964.

In spite of Ali’s impressive record after he turned professional, boxing pundits did not expect him to beat the champ. The fight was to be held on February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida. During the weigh-in the previous day, the ever-vociferous Ali — who frequently taunted Liston during the build-up by dubbing him “the big ugly bear” — declared that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, and in summarising his strategy for avoiding Liston’s assaults, said, “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

Ali responded to Liston’s early-rounds’ assault with a flurry of left jab-right cross combinations near the end of the fifth round. By the sixth he was looking for a finish and dominated Liston. Then Liston shocked the world when he didn’t come out for the seventh round to continue the fight. That gave Ali the title by a technical knockout. He beat Liston again in a rematch seven months later. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ali’s decision to join the “Nation of Islam” and give up what he called his “slave name” of Cassius Clay did not sit well with America’s boxing establishment. Nor did they approve of his poetry (his ability to compose self-promotional rhymes on the run) or his quips (“If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up!”).

In early 1966, at a time when the United States still had a mandatory military service draft, Ali refused to serve in the US army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, saying, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an... I’m not trying to dodge the draft.” Ali also famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong” and “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

Following his refusal to serve in the army, the American boxing authorities illegally stripped him of his title and essentially banned him from fighting in the United States, forcing him to accept non-title bouts abroad for most of 1966.

But Ali had the last laugh. In 1970, he was finally able to get a boxing licence. With the help of a State Senator, he was granted a licence to box in Georgia because it was the only state in America without a boxing commission. In October 1970, he began his comeback with a third-round win against Jerry Quarry.

Shortly after the Quarry fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Ali was unjustly denied a boxing licence. Once again able to fight, he fought Argentine heavyweight Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December 1970. After a tough 14 rounds, Ali stopped Bonavena in the 15th, paving the way for a title match against “Smokin’Joe” Frazier.

Ali and Frazier fought each other on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. The fight, known as “The Fight of the Century” was one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time. It featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had reasonable claims to the heavyweight crown. Frazier floored Ali with a hard left hook in the 15th and final round and won a unanimous decision on points.

After the fight, however, it was Frazier who had to be taken to hospital for treatment (he was bed-ridden for three weeks), while Ali — the ostensible loser — went off to enjoy a post-fight steak dinner at a New York restaurant.

A few months later, newly-crowned champ Joe Frazier fought challenger George Foreman for the heavyweight title in Kingston, Jamaica. Foreman, an even more fearsome slugger than Liston, floored Frazier six times in the first two rounds, winning the fight by a knockout.

After the fight, boxing pundits said Foreman was “invincible” and would make “mincemeat” of Ali when the two met. But the pundits were again proved wrong and ended up with egg on their faces when Ali knocked out Foreman in the 8th round in Kinshasa, Zaire — in a title match billed as the Rumble in the Jungle.

After the fight (which, incidentally was the first international sporting event to be telecast live via satellite in Pakistan), Ali was justifiably euphoric at winning back a title which had been illegally stripped from him in 1966.

As he was being led back to his dressing room after the fight surrounded by a throng of jubilant supporters, Ali told the pursuing TV camera crews: “If you want to know about boxing, don’t go to no Jimmy the Greek, don’t go to no New York bookies. Come to me — ‘cause I’m the man!”

And he really was the man — a wondrous practitioner of the art of pugilism and the best heavyweight boxer of all time. We shall not see his like again.

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