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All Points West: Ali was ‘The Greatest’
June 10, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Boxer Muhammad Ali died in a Phoenix, Arizona, hospital on June 3, 2016, at the age of 74.

He was the most widely regarded sports figure in the 20th century.

He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., in Louisville, Kentucky, and began training when he was 12 years old. At 22, he beat Sonny Liston in an upset in 1964, winning the world heavyweight championship. A short time later, Clay converted to Islam, changed his “slave” name to Ali, and sounded the drum beat for African American pride, and resistance to white domination during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

In 1966, he was imprisoned, after refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, citing religion and opposition to the war in Vietnam. The boxing establishment stripped him of his boxing titles. After his appeals, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.

Considered to be the “greatest” fighter, he won the heavyweight title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. He won several fights in 1964 when professional bouts had a poetic ring to them – the “Fight of the Century,” the “Super Fight II,” and the “Thrilla in Manila.” All three fights were against Smokin’ Joe Frazier, probably his fiercest rival, and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman.

After the Fight of the Century against Frazier – the first of three fights between the pair who were both undefeated with legitimate claims to being world champion, Ali was 31-0 and 25 KOs; and Frazier 26-0, 23 KOs – Ali and Frazier appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and just as bold as ever, rattled off several rhyming answers in a racially tinted response to Cavett’s needling questions about how the fighters got along, and a possible next fight. Ali said, “When he (Frazier) hears the bell, he will be in trouble. … This has been the history of America.
You love to see two colored men beat up each other. … We don’t get along, so we’re going to get it on. He thinks he’s the best, so he’s going to jump in my chest. So, you don’t have to agitate and try to push it on no farther, unless you want us to start now, and you get hit in the middle.” In playful jest, both fighters easily lifted the lithe talk show host into the air, Ali then saying that even black men who opposed to each other at times must unite.

Ali possessed an imposing physique. He was 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds at his heaviest when fighting, making an impression on his foes and the rest of the world, how a giant man could be so light on his feet, and landing such devastating punches. He described his pugilistic style of floating like a butterfly, but stinging like a bee, as unbeatable. He retired from boxing in 1981, after 61 bouts, 56 wins, 37 of those by knockout, and only five losses.

In the end, he was hospitalized in Phoenix, Arizona, with a respiratory problem. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease since the 1980s.

A funeral was to take place June 10, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported tickets would be sold because of limited seating.

The CJ, the Telegraph in Great Britain, and many other world newspapers printed details of the service. Ali’s spokesman Bob Gunnell said, after a 30-minute Islamic service led by Muslim scholar Zaid Shakir on June 9 in Freedom Hall, where Ali once fought, 15,500 people will gather on June 10 at the KFC Yum! Center, a 22,000 seat basketball arena in Louisville, and along with millions around the world to watch an interfaith service live at noon (central time) on the internet. The procession will begin at 7 a.m. (central time).

Speakers will include Lonnie Ali, his oldest child Maryum Ali, former President Bill Clinton, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and comedian Billy Crystal, and representatives of the Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and Mormon faiths. Talk about being a unifying influence.

Atallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, will give a poetry reading.

On July 19, 1996, I and millions of others watched the televised images of Ali lighting the cauldron at the Atlanta Olympic Opening Ceremony.

He was the final bearer, receiving the torch from swimmer Janet Evans, who watched him slowed by Parkinson’s, trembling. He lit the small rocket that carried the flame to the cauldron. Evans told reporters, “to stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.”

These are but a few accomplishments of a man who was highly revered, not just in the sports world. About at least a half dozen news programs on this past Sunday’s talk shows that aired eulogized the boxer telling their parents’ stories. Like my journalism contemporaries, a lot of us were just kids at the time.

Ali was not just a fighter in the ring, but he was a fighter for justice, and social equality. He made an impact on the most powerful political and religious circles as well because of his contentious, but authentic beliefs and actions.

As a young kid watching on a grainy black-and-white television some of the bouts he fought, not so much interested in two men beating on each other, or listening to both the criticism and praise for Ali’s flamboyant outspoken manner, I stopped to watch the style in which he did it. Added to the words he spoke – a braggadocio showman using humor to quell the edgy moments, and the eloquent phrasing of tasteful pre-era Rap – he was an example to us all.

The tragedy at this time is that I cannot fit all the rich stories of how he touched people over his lifetime into this column. I encourage you to take the time to read more about him. Maybe there’s something important future generations will remember about him.

There are sports heroes in this world. Then, there is Ali.
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