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‘I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was’

Muhammad Ali during an exhibition fight in Tokyo, on July 01, 1976.  

Muhammad Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, passed away on Saturday. He was 74.

Ali suffered for years from Parkinson’s disease, which ravaged his body but could never dim his larger-than-life presence. A towering figure in his prime, he still travelled and made appearances in his later years despite being muted by the thousands of hits he took during his remarkable career.

Ali was a giant of his time a furious and loud fighter whose influence was felt far beyond the ring. He engaged in some of the world’s most iconic fights even though his career was interrupted for more than three years when he refused to be drafted for military service during the Vietnam War.

“I am the greatest,” Ali thundered again and again.

Few would disagree.

Revered and reviled by millions, Ali cut quite a figure in his prime, indeed, complete with an entourage nearly as colourful as he was urging him to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He finished with a record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts and was the first man to win heavyweight titles three times.

The quiet of Ali’s later life was in contrast to the roar of a career that had breathtaking highs as well as terrible lows. He exploded on the public scene in the 1960s with a series of nationally televised fights that gave the public an exciting new champion and entertained millions as he sparred verbally with the likes of bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell in interviews.

Ali promised to shock the world by beating the fearsome Liston in 1964 and he did just that to become heavyweight champion for the first time. He dominated the heavyweight ranks until he was stripped of his right to fight for a living when he refused to be inducted for the draft in 1967.

By the time Ali was able to return to the ring following his enforced layoff, he was bigger than ever. Soon he was in the ring for his first of three epic fights against Frazier, with each fighter guaranteed $2.5 million in boxing’s first megabucks match.

In the first fight, though, Frazier had the upper hand. He relentlessly wore Ali down, knocking him down in the 12th round and winning a decision.

It was the first defeat for Ali, but the boxing world had not seen the last of him and Frazier in the ring. Ali won a second fight, and then came the “Thrilla in Manila” on Oct. 1, 1975, in the Philippines, a brutal bout that Ali said afterward was “the closest thing to dying” he had experienced.

Ali won that third fight but took a terrific beating from the relentless Frazier before trainer Eddie Futch kept Frazier from answering the bell for the 15th round. It was, most in boxing agreed, Ali’s last great performance, though he would come back to win the heavyweight title from Leon Spinks to make history by winning the heavyweight title for the third time.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 9:56:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/%E2%80%98I-am-the-greatest-I-said-that-even-before-I-knew-I-was%E2%80%99/article14384489.ece

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