Ali was simply 'The Greatest'

Of all the moments in the ring for which Muhammad Ali is remembered, from his stunning defeat of Sonny Liston to his heavyweight title victory in 1964 to those three fist-flying wars against Joe Frazier years later, none remains more vivid in the folds of time than Ali's battle against George Foreman in the fall of 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Ali's sublime performance on that surreal dawn in Africa -- against all reasonable odds, in defiance of memory and history, at 4 o'clock on a morning that wept with heat and menace -- defines his legacy as the ultimate warrior-artist in the ring.

Back in those far-off days, long before he grinned and wore an apron to sell his first hamburger grill, Foreman was perhaps the most feared heavyweight champion in history, a scowling beast of a man whose dark countenance and wrecking-ball hands had turned him, in the popular imagination, into a caricature right out of comic-book fiction. He had already knocked Frazier senseless in Jamaica, where he won the title after dropping the champ six times in two rounds. In March 1974, he bludgeoned Ken Norton off his feet in the second round in Caracas, which added to his legend.

Seven months later, Foreman rode his rising wave into Zaire, looking quite as invincible as Moby Dick. An international press corps followed him, fully expecting Foreman to crush Ali as decisively as he had Frazier and Norton.

Muhammad Ali had no chance.

Of the hundreds of writers who descended on the jungle to cover the fight, less than a handful picked Ali to win. Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Tom Callahan recalls one night before the fight, when he was working late in the press center and Ali strolled in alone, looking for company, and spotted the yellow sheet of paper on which the writers, most of them white, had made their picks. It was tacked to a bulletin board. Virtually all of them had picked Foreman to win early by knockout. When Ali saw Callahan's name among the doomsayers, he put his arm around the young writer and walked him outside.

They walked down to the Zaire River. At the water's edge, Ali stopped, turned to Callahan and said, "I'm going to tell you something, Tom, and I don't want you ever to forget it: Black men scare white men more than black men scare black men."

Thousands of people gathered in the arena chanting Ali's name, and he might have been the only soul there -- in fact, the only soul on the entire continent -- who was not afraid of Foreman. At the end of the second round, in which Foreman attacked and launched thunderous rights and lefts to Ali's body and head, most of them missing and having little to no effect, Ali came back to his corner, looked down at Herbert Muhammad, his manager, and said, "Leave him to me!"

Meanwhile, a vocal squad of ringside celebrity writers -- including Norman Mailer and George Plimpton -- who feared for Ali's life were standing up and screaming for the referee to end the mayhem before it was too late. "Stop it!" they yelled repeatedly. "Stop the fight!"

Hearing this, New York Post boxing writer Vic Ziegel turned to Callahan and said, "These guys are idiots."

Veteran boxing writers such as Ziegel could see that Ali, lolling against the ropes and easily slipping and evading Foreman's long-range bombs, was already weaving a spider's web in which Foreman would end up wriggling, tired and helpless, unable to defend himself as Ali moved in for the kill.

Ali saw early on that he had no choice. He sensed at the end of the first round, in which he danced out of harm's way, that he could not dance all night, so he began leaning back against the ropes and covering his head and chin with his forearms and fists. At times, he came out to snap a straight right and left to Foreman's unprotected face, which drew roars from the partisan crowd. By the third round, he had begun peeking through his fists and taunting Foreman mercilessly, even as the champion battered away with both hands: "Hit harder, George! That the best you got?"

Foreman never did hit Ali with a solid shot to the chin -- most blows missed completely or glanced off Ali's head -- and none of those lethal-looking shots to Ali's body did any discernible damage.

The taunts dug into Foreman's mind like those snapping jabs that had raised a reddish welt first below Foreman's right eye and, by the end of the fourth round, above it.

Ali screamed in his face: "They told me you had body punches, but that don't hurt even a little bit! Harder, sucker. Swing harder!"

Foreman began to wilt visibly in the fourth, when Ali truly took control of the fight, and by the fifth round, Ali was snapping rights and lefts off Foreman's face and winking at his friend, football great Jim Brown, who was commentating on the fight at ringside. Ali kept retreating to the ropes, letting a weary Foreman burn himself out, and by Round 7, the champ had nothing left. Finally, mercifully, Ali knocked him out at the end of the eighth with a rising left hook and a perfectly struck right hand to the face that spun George like a top and dropped him on his back.

Far more than being among the greatest upsets in ring history, the fight became the signature moment in Ali's extraordinary career, as close to an act of genius as the sport had ever known. There was much in the man's performance that appealed to those who had come to admire him so steadfastly: the brilliant creative twist that drove him out of harm's way to the ropes, the crisply thrown punches delivered in combination and perfectly timed, and that rarest possession of all in crisis: the sheer bravery, the diamond-like nerve, that had forever been the hallmark of the man in the battle.

Ali had come to Zaire promising a miracle, a resurrection, the rebirth of a man whose career had been sidetracked by the on-rushing train that was the unbeatable Foreman. Just hours after his victory, there he was at his quiet villa, lying on the cushions of his arm chair by the Zaire River, talking to writer Hugh McIlvanney of the Observer of London and reflecting on what he had just done.

"I kicked a lot of asses -- not only George's," he said. "All those writers who said I was washed up. All those people who thought I had nothin' left to offer but my mouth. All them that been against me from the start and waitin' for me to get the biggest beatin' of all times. They thought big, bad George Foreman, the baddest man alive, could do it for them, but they know better now. I done f---ed up a lot of minds."

Like other great athletic feats of derring-do, the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire inspired other prodigies, the foremost among them being the celebrated lead McIlvanney wrote for The Observer following his interview:

"We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it."

Muhammad Ali had come a long, winding road to that clearing in the African jungle. The truest of American originals, bigger than Babe Ruth, bigger than Joe Louis, he was the most singular performer on any sporting stage in modern history. Ali never aimed to be an antiwar activist or civil rights advocate, but he adopted those roles in reaction to the times in which he lived and the circumstances of his very public life. His religious beliefs led him to duck the military draft at the hottest moments of a divisively unpopular war in Vietnam, and that turned him into a national symbol that the antiwar movement needed. He swore off the life of a civil rights demonstrator when someone dumped a bucket of water on his head as he walked a picket line in front of a segregated Louisville, Kentucky, restaurant when he was in high school, but he became a voice for social change following his conversion to Islam and refusal to be drafted.

Through the turbulent 1960s, his stinging references to American slavery, including his "slave name" of Cassius Clay, his fearless denunciations of white racism in America, and his enormous influence on how blacks perceived themselves, emphasizing pride and dignity, and ultimately on how whites perceived blacks all conspired to make Muhammad Ali a uniquely transcendent figure on this whirling planet of war and woe. Ali rose far above the world of boxing and came to represent a figure of unyielding principle on issues of human conflict and social justice. In the end, the better angels of conscience became a force far more enduring than the pop and crunch of Ali's hands.

Of course, to be sure, among the most remarkable aspects of Ali's life was the Odyssean nature of his journey: the life of high adventure that he lived, the chances he took with fame and fortune, and the endless dramas he lived and inspired, both in and out of the ring.

Ali fought for more than two decades, but the world inside the ropes was never really large enough for the man in full. By chapters, Ali's life became so large and brassy, so charged with daring and devilment, so touched by his charm, his existential madness and the play of his mind, that prizefighting served as mere entertainment in the ever-expanding narrative that was his life. He not only was a showman endowed with a high order of charisma and commanding physical gifts, but he also owned a personality that flattered nearly all who met him.

He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, and he began learning how to box at the age of 12, when he visited a local boxing gym run by a Louisville cop. By the time he turned 18, he was widely regarded as the finest amateur boxer in the world, and in 1960, he proved it with a stylish victory over a coffeehouse keeper from Poland, Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, for the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Olympic Games in Rome.

"I can still see him strutting around the Olympic village with his gold medal on," recalled U.S. sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals at those games. "He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one else cherished it the way he did. His peers loved him. Everybody wanted to be near him. Everybody wanted to see him and talk to him. And he talked all the time. I always hung in the background, not knowing what he was going to say."

Or do. Two months after their return from Rome, during a triumphant parade through Louisville, Clay and Rudolph sat together in a bright pink Cadillac convertible. As it crawled through the crowded black section of town, there he was, standing up and yelling, "I am Cassius Clay, and I am the greatest!" Then, pointing down at the shy, young lady sinking demurely in her seat, he kept shouting, "And here's Wilma Rudolph! She is the greatest. Come on, Wilma, stand up!"

Rudolph wanted to escape into the glove compartment, but Clay kept yelling for her to rise, and so finally, reluctantly, she rose for the cheering multitudes who lined the way.

"I saw him at the very beginning," Rudolph said years later. "It was bedlam. I always told him, 'You should be on stage.'"

That, precisely, is where he was for most of his life -- the head driver, clown and lion tamer for the longest-running circus in American sport. A few days after that parade through Louisville, on Oct. 29, 1960, in his first pro fight, Clay took a six-round decision from Tunney Hunsaker, the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. His ego expanded like a weather balloon, into what became and remained a truly exalted sense of self. One of Clay's corner men for the Hunsaker fight was a former amateur bantamweight named George King, and he witnessed the rise from the beginning.

"Where'd you get that name?" Clay asked King. "You ain't big enough to be a king. They ought to call you Johnson or somethin'. There's only one king."

"Who's that?" King asked.

"You're lookin' at him!" Clay said.

They called him "The Louisville Lip," mocking his bravado, but there were two undeniable things about him: No one worked harder than Clay to fine-tune his body and stay in shape; even in high school, he routinely rose at 4 a.m., strapped on his Brogan boots with steel toes and ran 5-10 miles through Louisville's Chickasaw Park. Second, as full of himself as he was, he never failed to back up what he said and always put his money where his lip was.

Sure enough, three years and four months later, on Feb. 25, 1964, he pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, when -- in a precursor to his "Rumble in the Jungle" against Foreman -- he stopped the heavily favored and fearsome Sonny Liston, who didn't answer the bell for the seventh round. With the victory, Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. He had fulfilled his own prophecy. He was indeed the king, the holder of the most prestigious title in sports.

A few days after he dethroned Liston, in as big a shocker as the outcome of the fight itself, the Baptist-born Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam out of Chicago, a radical sect that preached racial separation and was widely viewed with fear and suspicion, not only by the vast majority of whites but also by members of mainstream black society. A week after Clay cut off his Judeo-Christian roots, the leader of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, announced in a radio broadcast that he was changing the fighter's name to Muhammad Ali.

For the next three years, Ali dominated the heavyweight division as it had not been dominated since Louis' heyday. He was a 6-foot-3, 210-pound man who moved with the speed and quickness of a middleweight, and he beat on most of his opponents. The fights occasionally got ugly. On those who insisted upon calling him "Clay," such as Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson, he inflicted especially cruel punishment. He toyed with them as a cat would with a wounded mouse and taunted them with shouts of, "What's my name?!"

Fulfilling the hoary white stereotype of the "uppity" black, acting brash and arrogant, mocking and challenging the establishment, thumbing his nose at mainstream America, Ali soon became the fighter most everyone wanted to see lying flat on his back. Despite the animus he felt from many quarters, Ali became that incomparable superstar in the most socially turbulent era of 20th-century America. Civil rights battles were buffeting the nation while the Vietnam War was driving angry students to the barricades. In the midst of all this, Ali became a symbol of the nation's unrest, first by speaking to the subject of racism in America -- the struggles of blacks in a white society -- and then by doing what Louis never did: risking it all by refusing induction into the U.S. Army.

In refusing on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister, he famously proclaimed, "I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong." In a memorable reference to what it was like to grow up in segregated Louisville, where he could not eat in all-white restaurants, he said, "No Viet Cong ever called me n-----!"

Between rejecting Christianity, rubbing the white man's nose in his racism and refusing the draft, Ali openly courted the enmity of Middle America. Along the way, he became an antiwar hero to a generation of young people -- even more so when the so-called patriots who ran boxing took his title away for refusing induction. All this happened just as Ali reached the zenith of his powers as a fighter. Of his last fight before he was stripped -- a masterful, seven-round knockout of Zora Folley -- Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, said, "That was Muhammad at his very best: a great heavyweight at the very top of his game."

At age 25, in the heart of his prime, Ali began three and a half years of forced exile from which he would never fully recover. The ban divided his boxing life in two. In the first half, against the likes of Liston and Folley, he never paid for failing to learn the most fundamental of boxing skills. He was so quick and his reflexes so sharp that rather than bobbing under hooks and slipping straight punches, the correct defensive moves, he dodged blows by moving or leaning back, sins for which lesser mortals always paid dearly.

By the time the courts vindicated him, clearing the way for his return, Ali's idleness had blunted his reflexes and speed. That left him a slower, more vulnerable target who did not have the technical skills to defend himself. It was only then that he started to get hit, often and hard.

The great irony of Ali's career is that he fought his three greatest fights after his return -- after the exile had diminished him -- beginning when Joe Frazier beat him in their epic battle in 1971. Frazier dropped him in the 15th round with a left hook that traveled north and connected with Ali's jaw. The finest of all hours came three and a half years later, when Ali climbed into the ring against Foreman, spun the idea of the rope-a-dope out of the African stars and became just the second man in history to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.

Finally, in 1975, in a bout more brutal than any two men have ever fought in the modern era, Ali and Frazier went toe-to-toe for 14 rounds in Manila. It was a battle so ferocious that Ali told his fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, after a 10th round in which Frazier whistled hook after hook into Ali's body and head, "This must be what dyin' is like." Ali had a cruel streak to him when it came to dealing with Frazier. At a news conference before the fight, he referred to Joe in a sing-song spiel as "the gorilla in Manila," and he punched at a black doll, a small rubber gorilla, while a fuming Frazier sat there glaring him. This cruelty stung Frazier -- reminding him of when Ali unfairly labeled him an "Uncle Tom" before their first fight in '71 -- so it seemed, in that ring in Manila, that Frazier gave vent to all the repressed fury he felt from those insults. He crashed nearly 440 blows to Ali's head and body during the fight, many of them heat-seeking left hooks.

Never in his life was Ali so physically and mentally tested as he was that night in Manila. In the last four rounds of the fight, after he had appeared beaten in the 10th and Frazier had him howling in pain from each left hook, Ali came back and fought with savagery and precision undimmed by age or time. He drew on reserves that he had no right to have and left Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, in awe. Ali raked Frazier with snapping rights and lefts, turning Frazier's face into a moonscape of misshapen lumps and bruises. By the end of the 13th round, Futch stared at the spectacle in wonder and thought, "Ali has to slow down. He cannot keep this pace -- not into the 14th round!"

Ali fought on into the 14th, firing barrages as fast as he could lock and load, staggering Frazier, stopping him and, finally, almost blinding him. Futch saw deeper into a fighter than he'd ever seen. "Incredible," he thought.

Ali retained his title, but only after Futch informed the ref before the start of the 15th round that Frazier was done. Seeing that a nearly blind Frazier could no longer defend himself, Futch told a protesting Frazier to sit down.

"But Eddie!" Frazier cried.

"Just sit down!" Eddie said. "The fight's over, Joe. The fight's over."

It was the last memorable fight either man fought, and it ended one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports. Ali fought 10 more times over the next six years, including twice against Leon Spinks, the man-child to whom he lost his title in '78 and from whom he won it back seven months later, but nothing remotely approached his performance in the Philippines as a triumph of will over suffering.

It anguished those who had watched Ali over the years, who remembered him when he had it all -- his legs, his speed, his sparkling reflexes -- to see him running on empty in his 1980 fight against champion Larry Holmes. Holmes punched Ali utterly senseless, even as Holmes begged the referee to stop it. As the travesty unfolded, it was like watching some macabre exploitation film produced and promoted by men guilty of a criminal trespass into human decency all for the bags of money. In Ali's final incarnation, one month shy of 40, he lost a decision to journeyman Trevor Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas, as a cowbell was used to toll away his final rounds. In the end, it tolled only for him.

Among Ali's many virtues as a fighter, two of them -- his bravery under fire and the iron-like strength of his chin -- kept him on his feet through all that punishment but finally did him in. In the beginning, before he was stripped of his title, Ali was as quick as a mongoose and nearly as hard to hit, but in his final years, he had slowed so much that everyone could hit him, even a rank amateur such as Spinks, who thumped Ali at will on his way to lifting the title in Las Vegas. On top of it all, Ali often took needless punishment while sparring in the gym, as he leaned back against the ropes and waved his sparring partners to come and belt him as they pleased.

It was no wonder then that, after he took thousands of punches in the latter half of his 21-year career, you could hear Ali slur his words as he sat on the bed in his room before the Berbick fight and the next day, as he did a reprise of the fight in his villa. While a mystery guest with his back to the room scribbled furiously on a yellow legal pad, Ali indulged in his favorite pastime: showing magic tricks. He turned nickels into quarters and pennies into dimes, and at one point, he folded a hankie into quarters, set it on a table and made it levitate as he beseeched it: "Rise, ghost, rise!"

The scribbling man rose from the desk and handed Ali his handwritten letter. It was John Travolta. Ali always attracted celebrities. After the Berbick fight, actor Tony Curtis showed up at the news conference, sticking out like a flamingo in his pink suit. This time, Travolta gave Ali his letter, hugged him and started to leave.

"John!" Ali said. "Let me see you dance."

Travolta was no longer the slim sashayer of "Saturday Night Fever," and he tried to talk Ali out of it by pleading that he was out of shape. But Ali insisted. Travolta did a few spins on the villa rug, crossed his arms, lowered himself and kicked out his legs. As Travolta left the villa, panting heavily, Ali waved and said, "John, I love to see you dance!"

Leaning back on his couch, he said, "I'm tired." And there, 21 years after it all began, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Early one day in December 1991, as he was steering north toward home along a narrow stretch of road in southern Michigan, Ali suddenly slammed on the brakes, pulled a deft U-turn and nosed his 1972 Rolls-Royce back some 200 yards to where three somber-looking college kids peered under the hood of their broken-down car. Ali pulled the aging Rolls to a stop and clambered out. He walked to the trunk of his car and fished out a pair of jumper cables.

The students stared at their good Samaritan in bug-eyed disbelief, as though seeing a ghost. In a way, they were.

Two decades earlier, when Ali was merrily trotting the globe, there were entire nations who couldn't pick Gerald Ford out of a police lineup but instantly recognized the moon-shaped visage of the heavyweight champion of the world. In those far-off days, whole populations from Africa to Southeast Asia to Europe, from Patagonia in the south to the Scottish Highlands in the north, gathered around Ali and chanted his name as he navigated their city streets. Children fought to reach his lap. He shook a hundred thousand hands and kissed as many cheeks.

That day in Michigan came 10 years after I saw Ali in the Bahamas, but his celebrity, like a carriage, still bore him through adoring crowds. When I flew into the South Bend, Indiana, airport that morning, expecting Ali to meet me there, the terminal was nearly deserted. The champ was nowhere to be found. I poked around the terminal for a few minutes, wondering where he might be, until I peered around a corner into a crowded room and saw him in the back, sitting in a chair surrounded by at least a hundred pilgrims waiting in line for his autograph.

The man was then a month shy of 50, and though age and Parkinson's had stolen his panther-like grace and easy banter, his face was still the most familiar on earth, and his charm was as seductive as ever. Never was this more apparent than later that morning, when he pulled off the road in Michigan.

The three students stood, mouths agape, as Ali dug for the cables.

"Isn't that ...?" one female student asked.

I mouthed his name: "Muhammad Ali ..."

One of her male companions nodded.

Then the most cherished of scenes began to unfold. For years, Ali had been the most controversial man in sports, a figure loved and loathed as he stirred 100 tempests in the national teapot, but he had long since made peace with all things past and moved on to a gentler place. As he stood there, trying to untangle the jumper cables, the passing traffic turned into a parade, a celebration. Honking trucks and cars slowed down as drivers spotted him. Brakes screeched. Truckers waved from windows with horns blasting. A voice from a VW sang out his name. Another car skidded to a stop and backed up. Two windows rolled down. Four white faces peered out: "Ali! We love you! You're the greatest!"

Unable to start the car, Ali dropped the hood, threw the cables in his trunk and waved the students into his vehicle. "Where you goin'?" he asked.

They said they were students at Andrews University, a small college just up the road. Ali chauffeured them to campus. As they got out, he pulled his valise from the car, opened it and signed pamphlets on Islam for the two male students. Then came the girl's turn. Ali signed her pamphlet and started to hand it to her. She came forward shyly. As she reached for it, he drew it back. Smiling, he leaned forward, turned his left cheek toward her and touched it with his finger.

The girl leaned toward him and kissed him on the cheek. At once, he threw his arms wildly in the air, leaned back on his Rolls and appeared to faint dead away. The girl squealed and jumped backward.

Ali opened his eyes, all mischief.

"I fooled you," he said. "I fooled you."

Four and a half years later, this scene was among a score that returned to haunt the hour when Ali emerged in the dark of that Atlanta night in 1996 to light the Olympic flame.

I could see him clomping through Chickasaw Park in Louisville in those steel-toed Brogans. I could imagine him walking around the Olympic Village in Rome and showing his gold medal to everyone. I could remember him dancing like a madman around the ring in Miami after beating Liston and telling the astonished world that he was "the baddest man" on the planet.

I could hear him saying that he had no quarrel with those Viet Cong. I could recall him leaning back against Foreman in Zaire as Dundee screamed at him, "Get off the ropes!" I could remember him sprawling on his back, tassels flying in the air, after Frazier dropped him with the mightiest of left hooks at Madison Square Garden in '71.

I could see him sitting in his locker room, looking puffy and drained and beaten after he lost the title to Spinks, with his entourage and handlers, afraid for their jobs, screaming at him that he had let them down because he had not trained.

I could remember him waving at the honking horns with one hand, blowing kisses left and right, while trying to untangle the cables with the other.

And I still recall Ali today, dressed in radiant white, as he bore the Olympic torch that touched the hearts and lit the conscience of a nation still shadowed by its turbulent past.

Today came the journey's end, with one thing made clear: There is no chance we'll ever see his like again.

William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a wide variety of sports and on a wide range of subjects. He is the author of three books, including "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion".