55 years ago, the sporting world, indeed the world in general, was getting over the enormous shock 8/1 underdog Cassius Clay had caused by beating “invincible” heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. But an even bigger shock was soon to come. With things seeming to move in blurring speed, Clay, a passionate member of The Nation of Islam, announced after his massive win how he was no longer a “slave,” and that he should no longer be referred to by his slave name: Cassius Clay was no more and Muhammad Ali was born.
Today it’s all but impossible to appreciate or understand the enormity of Clay’s/Ali’s actions. These days, fans have grown accustomed to a celebrity, from the sporting world and elsewhere, changing their name. But when Ali became Ali, the suddenly globally famous 22 year old was making front page headlines more so than he was featured on the sports pages of newspapers. But the new champion was no flash in the pan, no here today gone tomorrow figure; he was here to stay.
And we fight fans of the present age owe Ali an enormous debt of gratitude; even if we either don’t know it or are unwilling to say that we do. There was a superb feature in Ring Magazine back in the 1987, written around the time of Ali going into The Hall of Fame, that asked the question, how much would YOU care about the sport of boxing if there had been no Ali?
The article surmised things would have gone something like this: Liston would have remained as champ for pretty much as long as he wanted – until he died of old age, as another writer put it – then Joe Frazier would have come along and enjoyed a long reign, then George Foreman would have rubbed Joe out and, like his hero before him, ruled until age or boredom got the better of him, then maybe a Joe Bugner type would have generated a bit of interest in the UK by becoming champ for a brief spell, then Larry Holmes would have ruled for almost a decade, then Mike Tyson would have brought the excitement that he brought.
But by this time, how much would YOU have really cared about boxing, about the heavyweight division in particular? There would have been no epic Fight of The Century between Ali and Frazier, no Rumble in The Jungle, no Thrilla in Manila, no boxing history made at The Superdome in New Orleans……and on and on.
Ali, far more than a controversial servant of Elijah Muhammad (or a man manipulated by Elijah and his powerful group if you prefer) was a born fighter, a great fighter – THE greatest heavyweight of all time. And at no other time than Ali’s peak did the sport thrive so beautifully. All these years after the name he became universally recognised and respected as first appeared, this should not be forgotten. How could Ali and his simply heroic ring achievements ever be forgotten? Not a chance, Ali means too much to us.
He really did “shake up the world,” – more than once.