The Greatest

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Having completed the third installment of Ken Burns’ most recent four-part documentary, “Muhammad Ali: Bigger Than Boxing; Larger Than Life” on Public Broadcast Service (the fourth and final installment is Wednesday, 8 p.m.), I find myself in complete awe – absolute awe. All over again.

From the time I was in the first grade and his name was Cassius Clay, I remain true to Muhammad Ali, who died five years ago at the age of 74.

He was a thing of beauty — as beautiful and as pretty as he said he was. Whether you liked him or not, you couldn’t take your eyes off him — the way he boxed, the way he moved, the way he talked, the way he lived. He was a poet. He was a fighter, but a man of peace. He was The Greatest — every bit as great as he said he was.

Vince Lombardi said he would have made the greatest tight end in football history. Ali settled for being the greatest boxer of all time.

He was the most recognizable person in the world, and that’s fact. Millions everywhere loved Ali and flocked to him. Others hated and resented him for the choices he made and the stances he took. Yet even millions more loved him for those choices and admired him for those stances.

After beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and joined the Black Muslims. In 1967, he refused induction into the U.S. Army due to his religious convictions, claiming, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.”

He was subsequently stripped of his WBA title and his license to fight. A Kentucky court found him guilty of draft evasion, fined him $10,000, and sentenced him to five years in prison. He remained free, pending numerous appeals, but he was still barred from fighting.

He was able to return to the ring in 1970 to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, because there was no boxing commission in Georgia. Three months after losing to Joe Frazier in March 1971 in what was legitimately billed as the Fight of the Century, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, reversing the 1967 draft-evasion conviction.

Ali treated Frazier with great cruelty during the buildup and the promotion to that fight. Frazier, though, a good and decent man who deserved better, treated Ali with even more cruelty – with deeds, not hateful words – to physically defeat Ali in the first of what would be three of the epic heavyweight battles in boxing history.

Hunter S. Thompson called Ali’s first defeat “a proper end to the ‘60s.” Both men spent time in the hospital immediately following the bout.

Ali’s might took its toll on Frazier as well, as we would soon witness when Frazier lost his title in brutal fashion to a youngster by the name of George Foreman.

Everybody knows the Ali timeline from there — the Ali boxing and the Ali cultural history, though his best days in the ring were left in the three-year suspension. Ali would go on to defeat Frazier in the rematch, then regained the heavyweight title in 1974 using his “rope-a-dope” strategy for a brilliant and shocking knockout of George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.

He beat Frazier a second time in the “Thrilla in Manila,” one of the most savage fights of all time. The closest he ever felt to death is how Ali described it, but he retained his belt when Frazier couldn’t come out for the 15th round.

He lost his title to Leon Spinks in 1978, which ended up being more unfortunate for Spinks than it did for Ali, who regained the title seven months later in a rematch with Spinks, becoming the first three-time heavyweight champion in history. He retired in 1979, unwisely returned in 1980 to lose bouts to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and Trevor Burbock, then retired for good with a professional record of 56-5.

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

All of this is part of who Muhammad Ali was; yet not the biggest part.

He was far from being the only person in the world who believed he was the greatest boxer of all time, but for those of us who can still remember where we were for every one of his fights, the enormity of what he meant to the sport when it still mattered cannot be measured. The enormity of his life was even larger.

He believed we should love each other and stand by our principles, and he used his celebrity to devote more of his being to those principles and beliefs than he ever did for boxing. Yet, just as the rest of us are, he was flawed, having succumbed to many temptations along the way.

He was viewed and received in the same conflicting spirit of his ring mantra, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He was the champ; he was a draft dodger. He was a hero; he was a coward. He was admired; he was reviled. He was loved; he was hated. Mostly he was loved — everywhere, but not by everybody.

Muhammad Ali was a powerful force, having provided a universal presence that no man in his lifetime could ever approach and never will.

He influenced you when you didn’t realize he was.

Ali was not perfect. He was merely The Greatest.

Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@wvradio.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT