The Enduring Influence of Muhammad Ali (Part Two)
By Teodoro Medina Reynoso
Sat, 21 Jan 2023
Though Muhammad Ali is rarely mentioned or referred to today in professional boxing, there is no gainsaying that many of the changes and reforms in the fight sport which have benefited many modern boxers and athletes for that matter are thought of and instituted because of him and his extraordinary exploits inside and outside of the ring.
Ali could be likened to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell combined in basketball. Chamberlain because he was the first boxer of his size, 6 foot 3 and weighing between a low of just over 200 lbs to a high of 230 lbs who could fight and move around the ring the way he did. Russell because despite the fact that there were other heavyweights who were taller and bigger than him, he always proved to them that he was the boss inside the ring.
Perhaps, no boxer or athlete before and after him had been the subject of very powerful combined pressure of both the state and society, white dominated at that time, to tame or break him.
His classification as originally unfit for military service in 1962 was changed drastically in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War draft and the state used his refusal in 1967 on account of religious conviction as reason to destroy him both as a person and a boxer.
He was forced to go on an exile and long inactivity or semi retirement as a pro boxer thereby affecting his livelihood.
His enemies thought that his absence from sport would lead people to forget him.
How wrong they were.
As the Vietnam War and the US involvement in it became more unpopular even for many whites, Ali became one of the icons of a growing American counter culture that opposed the war and advocated for black inclusion in the mainstream of US society and body politics.
As early as the first year of his exile from boxing, fans and people were already clamoring to see him again inside the ring even in a computer staged fight with Rocky Marciano, by then long retired from boxing and already deceased.
By virtue of this, it could be said that Ali is the inspiration in what would later be known as fantasy fights. It was also to Ali that the term People's Champion was famously labelled in recognition of the fact that he never lost his world heavyweight championship inside the ring. (The same would be labelled to Manny Pacquiao who beat Marco Antonio Barrera for the world featherweight title in 1983 but would not be recognized by the WBC, only by the Ring Magazine.)
But what would become a landmark in American jurisprudence was his appeal being upheld by no less than the US Supreme Court in 1971 ruling that he was right in refusing the military draft on account of his religious belief and moral conviction. That decision also allowed Ali to return to and resume his boxing career.
Returning to boxing, Ali could also be credited with starting the practice of networks covering and airing live or on delayed basis even non championship fights that the fans also started to lap up thereby ensuring handsome returns for the networks and bigger purses for the boxers.
In the Philippines, we started to declare an Ali Day, pun for holiday whenever Ali fought which we used as excuse for cutting or skipping our high school classes.
On August 11, 1970, with his case still in appeal, Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission. Leroy Johnson, Jesse Hill Jr. and Harry Pett had used their local political influence and set up the company House of Sports to organize the fight, underlining the influential power of Georgia's black politics in Ali' s comeback. Ali's first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after Quarry was severely cut.
A month earlier, a victory in federal court forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali's license. He fought Argentine toughie Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December, a inspiring performance that ended in a dramatic technical knockout of Bonavena in the 15th round. Bonavena was downed three times and it was the first time the Argentine was stopped. The win left Ali as a top contender against heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
The first Ali-Frazier fight marked the first high stake and high paying bout in boxing with both fighters being guaranteed then unheard of five million dollars purse each.
Ali and Frazier's first fight, held at the Garden on March 8, 1971, was billed the "Fight of the Century", due to the tremendous excitement surrounding a bout between two undefeated fighters, each with a legitimate claim to be heavyweight champion. Veteran US boxing writer John Condon called it "the greatest event I've ever worked on in my life." The bout was broadcast to 36 countries; promoters granted 760 press passes.
Adding to the atmosphere were the considerable pre-fight theatrics and name calling. Before the fight Frazier called Ali, "Cassius Clay", this angered Ali and he portrayed Frazier as a "dumb tool of the white establishment." "Frazier is too ugly to be champ", Ali said. "Frazier is too dumb to be champ." Ali also frequently called Frazier an "Uncle Tom".
Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier's camp, recalled that, "Ali was saying 'the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I'm fighting for the little man in the ghetto.' Joe was sitting there, smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, 'What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?'"
Frazier scored a late round knockdown to win the fight but it was he who had to stay overnight in a hospital and was forced to stay out of boxing for the rest of the year while Ali fought three more times, winning all fights, two by knockout.
To be continued
Click here for Part One of this series.
The author Teodoro Medina Reynoso is a veteran boxing radio talk show host living in the Philippines. He can be reached at email@example.com and by phone 09215309477.
Click here to view a list of other articles written by Teodoro Medina Reynoso.
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