By Blaine Hislop
Updated: October 9, 2004

“Champions aren’t made in gyms.

Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision.

They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will.

But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Muhammad Ali

It is entirely possible that the young Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was the greatest physical specimen ever seen in a prize ring. 6′ 3½” with unusually long limbs, remarkable reflexes, exquisite timing, bewildering stamina and a chin that could take a run-away Mack truck full-on, Ali was about as close to the perfect anatomic and physiological fighting machine as one could ever hope to find. But Ali’s physical gifts were only one small part of what made Ali Ali. Nestled in that chest of his was something that the Roy Jones Jr’s. and Mike Tyson’s of the world can only dream of having – a heart as big as all outdoors.

Once upon a time, such a statement would have been met with ridicule along press row. Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith hated the young Ali’s guts and questioned that he had any; Joe Louis claimed that Ali would quit when hurt and that a good body shot by a world-class foe would fold him like a lawn chair. These weren’t the only critics; they were merely the loudest. Always humming away in the background of Ali’s early career was the whispered chatter that “Clay” was just a loud-mouthed pretty boy who won because nobody could catch him. “Rocky Marciano”, they’d frequently exclaim like overbearing classicists citing Aeschylus, “now there’s a real man”.

And so it went on endlessly. The fact that the young Clay had been able to demystify the feared and fearsome Sonny Liston when Sonny seemed indestructible, mattered not a whit; Clay was a coward who got lucky against an ill-prepared veteran fighter who merely grew old in the ring. The fact that Clay had gotten up off the canvas against Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper (two bangers with terrific left hooks) to whip them both was irrelevant; Banks, they suggested, was just a tough club fighter and Cooper, after all, was just a typical British heavyweight who bled too easily and lacked polish. And the fact that Ali had gone fifteen tough rounds against ironman George Chuvalo was certainly of no consequence; Chuvalo, chimed in the all-knowing grey men of the press corps, was a pug who lacked a killer punch. No matter what Ali did, a great many sportswriters doubted that he was the real deal.

That began to change when Ali returned to boxing in the 1970s. Forty-two months away (during which time Ali invested considerably more energy into cleaning out various bakeries in Harlem than he did in looking after himself) had robbed him of his first and most vital line of defense: his legs. The Ali who stepped back into the ring in 1970 was slower afoot and his reflexes did not appear to be quite as they had been. His hands were still extremely fast and he was stronger than ever, but he was no longer the daunting 220-lb will-o’-the-wisp that had befuddled and overwhelmed Liston, Patterson, Cleveland Williams and the game, intrepid, but hopelessly over-matched Zora Folley. From now until the end of his career, Ali would be required to run a little and rest a little and take a little punishment – and, sometimes, more than a little punishment.

The first Ali-Frazier fight proved conclusively how tough and resourceful Ali really was. He came to the ring that night without his best stuff (Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s longtime physician, always insisted that Ali needed “a few more months” to get his body right for Frazier and that, had he done so, he would have defeated Joe in their first fight), but Muhammad found a way to stay in the fight until the bitter end, and came damn close to winning it. Along the way, he absorbed massive left hooks from Frazier (the kind of hooks that swish cerebral fluid around inside a man’s head and can kill him outright) and clambered to his feet in the fifteenth – after the historic knockdown – despite being scarcely semi-conscious. It was on this night that the grey old men in the press rows – not just the greasy, long-haired, baby boomer ‘idolators’ – acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Ali had balls after all.

“Ali’s Alley”

Ali-Frazier I affirmed Ali’s intestinal fortitude, but it also affirmed the new boxing order into which he found himself thrust. Simply put, the second half of Ali’s career would prove to be infinitely more difficult than the first half of his career had been. Not only were his physical assets diminished, but a new and deadly generation of heavyweights had arrived in force: Frazier, of course, but also George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Oscar Bonavena, the tough and under-appreciated Jerry Quarry, and a magnificently built ex-Marine whose style would prove troublesome for Ali – Ken Norton. The one thing that all of these men would eventually have in common – in addition to their obvious fighting prowess – was the fact that each and every one of them would lose to a past-his-best-before-date Ali. Now that, my friends, is true greatness; the kind of greatness that all of the wanton self-promotion in the world can’t buy (are you listening, Oscar and Roy?

Okay, but seriously, what was it that allowed a more earth-bound Ali to defeat these luminaries? His defense, technically speaking, was not good (for a great athlete with his eye-hand coordination, he was surprisingly abysmal at parrying and blocking punches – no doubt due to the fact that he’d never bothered to learn how to do so when he’d been at his youthful best) and he lacked a killer punch. Moreover, Muhammad tended to punch going straight backwards (thus not only – putatively at any rate – depriving his blows of their full power, but also allowing his foe to seize the initiative at precisely the same time as said foe was not being presented with perplexing angles of any kind). And, on top of his obvious deficiencies as a fighter, the Seventies-model Ali was increasingly distracted by a satyric lifestyle that led to the ugly and very public collapse of his marriage to his second wife, Belinda, and to the scattering of his offspring. By every conceivable notion of common sense, Ali should have been conspicuously vulnerable and all-too mortal at this second stage of his career; yet, remarkably, he kept right on winning until poor health and mismanagement finally stopped the Ali juggernaut at the dawn of the 1980s.

Well, here’s why the older-model Ali won when, on at least a few occasions, he shouldn’t have. To begin with, he was, quite possibly, the most courageous and mentally tough heavyweight champion of all time. In an interview he gave to TBS in the mid-1990s, Pacheco said that the Ali of the Sixties had been a running champion; in the 1970s, his speed diminished, he’d transformed himself into a fighting champion. The Championship Causeway, at least in those days, was rounds ten through fifteen; those were the rounds when fights between world-class fighters at the championship level were won and lost (and that undoubtedly remains true today). Simply put, Ali came to monopolize those painful rounds more than any other fighter of his generation; they were “Ali’s Alley”; it was when he won the fight. And Ali’s Second Coming is replete with instances of this peculiar late-rounds magic.

Let’s start by discussing briefly the last two of Muhammad’s three classic battles with Smokin’ Joe Frazier – a formidable closer in his own right. Joe’s ability to fight with seemingly ever-growing strength as a fight progressed was (and is) legendary (and explains in part why certain high-profile heavyweights – namely Earnie Shavers – found various reasons to avoid grappling with him); but in each of their final two fights, Ali was, at the very least, able to match Joe’s late-round work rate. In his notorious 1976 title fight against a superbly-conditioned and inspired Ken Norton, Ali actually out-hustled his younger foe when the fight hung in the balance.

Kenny could have – and he should have – won that bout, but he allowed Ali to out-work him late with the title on the line (or maybe, Muhammad just wanted it more). One year later, his physical decline now alarming in the extreme, Ali took all that fearsome Earnie Shavers had to give (and, believe me, Earnie always had a lot to give) and came back to beat Shavers into near-submission in the fifteenth and final round (just twenty seconds more, in fact, and Shavers would have been lying flat on his back). And there are other examples: in his May 1975 title fight against Ronnie Lyle, a lethargic Ali was trailing on points heading into the eleventh round. Sensing the danger, Muhammad stepped up the attack and stopped one of the toughest heavies of recent decades. Or, looking back, one could also cite his second fight with Ken Norton when Ali out-willed Ken down the stretch to take a close but unanimous decision. In summation, Ali, more than any other fighter of my lifetime, was at his best in those crucial junctures of a tough fight when intangibles and metaphysical resources separate the quick from the dead.

But wait, there’s more. In addition to his fierce competitiveness, Ali also had a great and basically inextinguishable faith in himself (the two, of course, are intimately linked). At the end of his boxing life, this self-faith would be bad as it would convince him that he belonged in the same ring as the much younger Larry Holmes; but for many years it was good because it gave him a sense of entitlement in the squared circle that was both intimidating for (most of) his foes and a source of sustenance for himself when things got tough. Ali’s faith in who and what he was -and where he rightfully belonged in the boxing firmament – allowed him to bounce back from the devastation of his first loss to Frazier and, later, his unexpected defeat to Ken Norton in March of 1973. But Muhammad’s unshakeable self-faith was most spectacularly evident when he defeated George Foreman in Zaire in October, 1974 to reclaim his long-lost heavyweight belt.

Now, true boxing fans needn’t be reminded by the likes of me of just how awesomely destructive the George Foreman of 1973-74 was; his stunningly comprehensive beat-down of Joe Frazier is still a staple of ESPN Classic programming. But beyond that, George had decimated the man who’d broken Ali’s jaw the previous year – Ken Norton – and had damn near killed Jose Roman in a fight that probably wouldn’t be sanctioned today. When Ali and Foreman stepped into the ring that muggy night in Fourth of May Stadium in Kinshasa, most people expected an execution. Ali expected an execution, too; only it would be Big George’s gargantuan head that would be on the chopping block. Over a period extending a little more than half-an-hour, Ali gave the most famous bully in boxing the spanking he probably deserved as a small child. The young Foreman may have been, as Mark Kram suggests, an extraordinarily violent “semi-homicidal” sociopath (or was it psychopath?) but Ali’s stunning self-assurance and in-ring strategy deconstructed his brain in the same way that a skillful mechanic takes apart a car engine.

In all of my years of watching great fighters fight one another, I have never seen a man so utterly, so uncontestably, whipped by his adversary (even Joe Frazier kept getting up resolutely in his ’73 drubbing at the hands of Big George). When Foreman left the ring that night, he did so with the look of man who’d just been rolled for his last buck by Aliens; it was incredible. Again, Muhammad’s great inner faith (I believe it intimidated Foreman in a way that it never did the much tougher – mentally speaking – Smokin’ Joe) carried him to triumph.

Alright. Over the past several paragraphs I have attempted to illustrate what it was that made Ali, well, Ali. I have, for the most part, assiduously avoided comment on Muhammad’s private conduct – or his sometimes boorish public behavior – because this article is about the fighter, not the man (although I like the man, too). What I hope people take away from this read is the realization that the Greatest Heavyweight Champion of All Time was built from the inside out.

Recent boxing history is filled with notable examples of “great” fighters possessing plenty of physical armaments, but lacking the inner grace to win when adversity unexpectedly rears its ugly head (RJ, I’m talking specifically about you). Because Ali was a rock inside, he was a rock outside (just like his greatest in-ring inquisitor, Joe Frazier). At the end of the day, Muhammad was alone with himself (well, okay, maybe he was sharing his “private time” with more than a few shapely lovelies, but more power to him), and he had to trust in the inner steel of that person in the mirror whenever he stepped into the pit with a Frazier, a Foreman, a Lyle, a Shavers or a Liston. It was that tempered inner steel – quite distinct from his obvious physical abilities – that explains why the Butterfly – until the very end – could always sting back when all appeared hopelessly lost and when his wings seemed in danger of being permanently clipped.

“It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.”

Muhammad Ali

Until next time folks,

Blaine H.