By Springs Toledo
They keep saying Muhammad Ali is dead.
The sound of it settles hollow in the chest, like the loss of a friend or the end of a love affair. Ali—dead? Where’s the poetry in that? Where are the heroics? Ali-Liston, Ali-Frazier, and Ali-Foreman roll off the tongue like homegrown haiku and fill the chest. But this, this echoes in a new void no one was prepared for.
It sends me hurtling backward to a February morning about a week after the Blizzard of ‘78. My mother is driving to a house in a Boston suburb that she cleaned to make ends meet and I’m in the backseat, watching sunlight blink between walls of snow. Voices on the radio keep saying Leon Spinks had taken the heavyweight title the night before. They keep saying it’s the “end of Ali.” Ma, who had a long-standing crush on him, says “Oh no!” and damn-near drives off the road. Ali lost a fight? She couldn’t believe it; neither could I. I was seven.
Ali—dead? No child of the 1970s who got up early for Saturday morning cartoons can believe it. They might as well have told us Superman will be buried in his red cape in Kansas.
“I ain’t Superman,” the contender known as Cassius Marcellus Clay said after failing to fulfill his prediction to knock out Doug Jones in 1963. He was a heel then, taking cues from professional wrestling’s Gorgeous George, and the crowd howled in derision. Sonny Liston watched the fight on closed-circuit television in Miami Beach. Afterward he quipped that he’d be locked up for murder if they were ever matched.
Liston had already been locked up for armed robbery and assaulting a police officer. Word on the street said he was a strike-breaker and debt collector for the mob in the 1950s, though according to a few associates he was worse than that. There were rumors that he raped a maid in Boston and intended to do the same after impersonating a police officer and pulling over a woman in 1961. After he was in his grave, it was whispered that he committed a number of sexual assaults while in an alcoholic haze, even during his reign as heavyweight champion. Police officers in three states had no doubt about him, Liston was a menace —“a monster,” according to a chief in Denver.
In the weeks leading up to their fight, Clay predicted that he would stop the monster in eight rounds, and to the shock of everyone, he was on his way to do exactly that when the monster quit on his stool. Clay had just turned twenty-two years old.
If it wasn’t Superman who single-handedly defeated Liston, then someone with the same dimensions was trying on the cape.
Muhammad Ali was a profile in courage before he even became Muhammad Ali, and no one, not even those who gave the stink-eye to his decision to throw in with the Black Muslims and refuse induction into military service, could deny it. Throughout the tumultuous 1960s, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his lieutenants exerted unfortunate influence over his world view; but they had nothing to do with his courage.
Joe Frazier, on the other hand, had much to do with it.
Ali, stripped of the title that defined him, emerged from his exile the year I was born and immediately set out to reclaim what had been taken from him. Despite forty-three months of ring rust, he wasted no time on soft touches. He faced The Ring’s number-one contender in Jerry Quarry in October 1970, stopped him in three rounds, and became the number-one contender himself. When he signed to face Oscar Bonavena, Bonavena was ranked second behind him. Ali knocked him down three times in the fifteenth round to clear a path to the heavyweight king who had succeeded him.
The king was short and stocky, had a left arm crooked into a permanent hook, and was far more dangerous than Ali ever dreamed. From the opening bell Frazier bobbed like a buoy on stormy seas while stalking forward, forward. Ali stood statuesque and moved to a jazz rhythm on a sliding scale, strafing the champion with blurring punches, talking trash (“Don’t-You-Know-I’m-God,” he reportedly said between punches, to which Frazier responded, “Well, God, you gonna get whipped tonight!”). The “Fight of the Century” was a clash of contrasting styles that would see a winner and a clash of wills that would not.
“All through the fight,” said Ali, “I kept thinking my, I just got hit with the left hook again.” He got hit with exactly one hundred ninety of them (I counted). The one hundred seventy-fifth landed in the fifteenth round and sent him crashing down with enough force to send his feet flying in the air. And then, for just a moment, his head began lowering to the canvas—
It’s not uncommon when a fighter falls, this gesture that says “Lemme just relax, mull this over, and see if it’s worth getting up.” Many decide to take the full count.
Ali did not quite let his head touch the canvas and now you know why. He hoisted himself forward, rolled onto a knee, and got up.
He got up and lost anyway, but so what; he showed America that the real ‘man of steel’ is a six-feet-three-inch black man in red trunks.
Ali—dead? There were times he came close to it. I remember reading that his wife Belinda went into shock after Ken Norton broke his jaw and handed him his second loss. “Muhammad Ali is dead!” she screamed. “They killed him!” He got up from his hospital bed and consoled her. He told her something that haunts us now:
Never mind what you hear. Never mind what they say. I won’t die.
He was still in the hospital when George Foreman’s manager came in with a proposal worth millions. “I come to tell you don’t let this little setback bother you. You going to get a title fight,” he said. “When your jaw gets well again, don’t take on anyone else. Just wait for George.” Ali wouldn’t hear it, insisting instead on a rematch with Norton before anything else. The manager scratched his head. “We fight this game for money, not revenge. Why take a chance with a fool like Norton a second time?” Ali told him it wasn’t about the money. For that matter, it wasn’t about revenge either. “It’s me,” he said.
Ali would face and defeat Norton six months later and then went after Frazier, evening the score in the second of a three-fight blood feud. That feud would end with a blind Frazier protesting his corner’s decision to stop the fight and a victorious Ali collapsed in the ring. “We was dead, both of us,” Frazier would say.
Foreman was the son of the monster. He bounced Frazier off the canvas six times to take the heavyweight championship as easily as Liston did Floyd Patterson ten years earlier. Foreman went after Norton next; and Norton didn’t last five minutes before being rammed into a state of semi-consciousness. Ali was ringside. “The man looks like Sonny Liston; he fights like Sonny Liston,” he said. “And look what I done to Sonny Liston.” Short-sighted boxing writers gave him no chance to regain the throne and spent the weeks leading up to the “Rumble in the Jungle” chewing their fingernails. Long-sighted Archie Moore, the great light heavyweight, wrote him a letter that began “Ali, George will half kill you.” Eddie Futch, the trainer who was the architect behind both defeats of Ali predicted that “George will corner Muhammad and destroy him . . . I pray for Ali’s life.” Even Howard Cosell, Ali’s biggest fan, was feeling morbid. “The time may have come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali,” he said on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “Because, very honestly, I don’t think he can beat George Foreman.”
Ali was a seven-to-one underdog against Liston. When he faced Foreman, they were still against him at three-to-one. Those odds swirled in his head as he waited in the dressing room in Zaire. A voice said “fifteen minutes; the whole world’s out there,” and Ali watched his seconds “acting as though they were walking behind a coffin. My coffin.”
Midway through the first round, Foreman cornered him and landed a wild left. Ali had been warned by one of the champion’s sparring partners. “He can lift you up off your feet with one punch. If you lay on the ropes, and rest, he’s gonna break your ribs,” said Bossman Jones. “He’ll hit you on your way down or on your way up. By the time the referee gets there, you might be beat to death.” Ali admitted being alarmed at how well Foreman was cutting the ring off and forcing him to move six steps to his two.
And yet, as he sat in his corner after the first round, he winked. You can see it on the film. It looks to me like he was winking at the world because it was the very next round when he began laying on the ropes. It was like Superman had decided to eat kryptonite. Frazier was ringside. “He needs to move!” he said. “He shouldn’t be staying on those ropes!” But Ali was playing a hunch. “I’ve felt the hot breath of The Monster,” he said. “And they do not know what I know.”
At the end of the eighth round, Ali spun off the ropes with a combination that ended with a super-fast right hand on Foreman’s jaw. Foreman pitched and twirled to the canvas and was counted out. Bedlam ensued.
Seven minutes later, Ali had made his way through an adoring crowd of dancing Zairians to the dressing room. He saw a mirror and stood for a moment staring silently at his own reflection. Four minutes after that, he erupted at a TV camera. We hear the echo now. “I told you! I’m the real champion! I told you! I’m the champion of the world! All of you bow! All of my critics crawl! All of you suckers who write The Ring Magazine, Boxing Illustrated, all of you suckers! Bow!”
Heads are bowed now, billions of them. Ali is dead. History itself seems to pause at the dull thud of those words.
I don’t want to believe it. It’s Saturday morning and I’m seven again. I’m looking up at the sky because it’s only a matter of time before he comes back.
“I ain’t Superman” quote from AP 3/14/63; Liston’s darker side derived from Nick Tosches interviews with Foneda Cox and Lowell Powell in The Devil and Sonny Liston. Ali’s comments on Frazier’s left hook from George Plimpton’s Shadow Box, p. 204. Most of Ali’s statements found in The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham.
Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War (Tora, 2014) and In the Cheap Seats (Tora, 2016).