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“WHAT’S wrong with me going to jail for something I believe in? Boys are dying in Vietnam for something they don’t believe.”
This defiant statement, made during an interview with “The Black Scholar” magazine in June 1970, encapsulates the greatness of Muhammad Ali more than any performance in the ring ever did before or would thereafter.
Surveying the arid topography of today’s boxing landscape, you cannot but be struck — when you compare and contrast — by the lack of any current elite level fighter who enters the ring in the name of anything more than self and personal wealth. And, after all, it’s not as if today there aren’t causes to be fought and fought for.
The continuing structural oppression of the Palestinians, the climate emergency, global poverty, war and conflict — there are currently an abundance of ills afflicting our world that demand serious attention and action.
When Ali made the statement at the top of this column, he was into the final year of his enforced exile from the ring over his stance on Vietnam and getting ready to face tough heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry in what was one of the most anticipated fights in the history of boxing.
By this point Ali had been entirely vindicated over his defiant stand in opposition to the war and had gone from public pariah to national hero as a result.
Ali: “Everything they did backfired on them. I’m supposed to be a has been by now. Three years after the title’s gone, and I haven’t made a dollar yet in boxing. And they had me about broke when I started, because the draft was always hitting me, trying to get justice in the courts.”
In his comeback fight after three years of inaction, Ali stopped Jerry Quarry in just three rounds.
Ali: “Quarry was tricky, he hit hard and if it wasn’t for my speed it wouldn’t have ended the way it did.
“I managed to miss just a few punches – he didn’t hit me but about once or twice, and that was to the body (and) not in the face. I’m a little stronger now than I was the day I retired, and I think I’m a much better fighter now.”
Ali’s comeback continued against the hard hitting Argentinian, Oscar Bonavena, two months later at Madison Square Garden in New York. Prior to the fight, Bonavena taunted Ali by continually referring to him by his birth name “Clay” and calling him a “chicken” for refusing to go into the army.
The fight was a vicious 15-round affair, during which Bonavana displayed adamantine determination in the way he kept bulling forward, eating countless jabs on the way in to Ali’s body.
If any fight proved that Ali’s style had morphed from dancing and sticking at range into taking punishment and letting his opponents tire themselves out prior to closing the show, this was it.
Ali: “I have done what Joe Frazier couldn’t do: knocked out Oscar Bonavena. Now where is he? I want Joe Frazier!”
Joe Frazier was world heavyweight champion and in his prime. Without fanfare, he had provided Ali with financial assistance during the wilderness years of his exile from the ring, and had helped to keep his name alive through various publicity appearances and stunts with Ali, supporting his efforts to have his ban lifted. Now they were rivals and in March 1971, Ali’s wish for a shot at regaining his crown against Frazier came true.
Billed as the “Fight of the Century,” they met at Madison Square Garden in front of a packed audience that included a who’s who of film and television celebrities.
Co-commentating on the fight was Burt Lancaster, while Frank Sinatra got a ringside seat by getting himself assigned as a photographer for Life magazine.
The fight lived up to the hype. Back and forth it went over the 15-round distance, with Frazier finding repeated success with his legendary left hook, which he threw from a crouch inside Ali’s jab to exploit the latter’s habit of holding his right hand down by his waist to thus expose himself to that very punch.
Frazier was ahead on each of the judges’ scorecards when he dropped Ali with a searing left hook in the last round. Though Ali immediately sprung back to his feet, the fight was over, with Frazier winning to retain his title by unanimous decision.
Ali: “Not glad I lost, but in a way I am. I didn’t wanna lose, but since I have you just have to make the best of it.”
Famed novelist Norman Mailer observed after the fight: “The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture, and he could stand.”
It was now, experiencing his first ever defeat, Ali realised that greatness in the ring was earned rather than bestowed. History shows that his determination to regain his title and mantle not only as a heavyweight boxing champ, but also a renowned world figure, would come at the price of his health.
If his three-year enforced absence from the ring taught him anything, it was the fickleness of a society that had in his time gone from pro-war and pro-authority to anti-war and anti-establishment.
This seminal year of his comeback, between 1970 and 1971, was also a seminal year in US society and politics.
It was a time in which, for millions across the country, illusions about the country gave way to the reality, a time when civil unrest and rebellion became fashionable and for a short period US society entered a revolutionary period.
Muhammad Ali was back then one of the most potent symbols of both.
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