Ewart Walters | The Greatest - Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016
This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeedy
Of a muscular punch that's incredibly speedy.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with colour and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans a-runnin' with plenty of cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid's got a left, this kid's got a right,
If he hit you once, you're asleep for the night.
Cassius Clay, before the Heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston.
The Olympic torch was nearing its destination. A crowd of 85,000 was watching the event in person.
Three million five hundred spectators across the globe watched on their television screens. A female runner with the torch approached the familiar looking male figure waiting high up in the Atlanta stadium.
The man took the torch, and his face came into full view when the spotlight fell on him.
The packed stadium, already cheering the excitement of the moment, broke into loud, sustained applause. It was Ali! Ali! Ali! The Greatest! The former three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world! They were transfixed. His job now was to light the Olympic Flame. But the ravages of time and Parkinson's disease were now painfully plain to see, for his movements were very slow. His left hand shook violently. But when he brought both hands into play, they were steady enough to apply the torch. It lit the fuse which formed a fireball that was carried by a pulley to the giant cauldron 143 steps above, where the Olympic flame would burn over the stadium until the closing ceremonies.
All over the world eyes brimmed with tears. Now they knew who it was. Now they remembered the dancing feet of the Ali Shuffle. Now they remembered the dazzling hand speed, stinging like a bee. Now they remembered the majesty of boxing's greatest gladiator, an imposing figure standing six feet three inches tall in the ring. But it was his bewildering speed, never before seen among heavyweights, that was his great asset. His was a blinding, powerful jab followed by combinations no less dazzling.
Now it all flooded back and they remembered more. They remembered 'the Louisville Lip', the man who depicted his opponents as various levels of ugly and of himself boasted, "There's not a mark on my face. I'm as pretty as a girl." The man who embraced poetry in his mission to return heavyweight boxing to its former glory, or surpass in his quest for the stars.
The applause which subsided while he struggled to light the fuse now grew to a roar. For the stunned crowd realised that the honour to light the Olympic cauldron had fallen to the hands of the 1960 Olympic gold medallist in boxing, Muhammad 'the Prophet' Ali, the man whose best years had been stolen from him by the bitterly hateful reaction to his refusal to be conscripted into the United States army. They remembered the dancing master who had charmed the heavyweight division and the world with his ability to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee". But now he was a slow,
shuffling shadow of himself, having fallen prey to Parkinson's disease.
It was a bittersweet moment. For it had not always been this way.
More than any other sportsman in history, Clay-Ali transcended his sport to reach out to the world as a role model and hero. Even before he won the light-heavyweight gold medal, Cassius Clay had proclaimed himself "the Greatest". Returning from the 1960 Rome Olympics at age 18, he turned pro and began predicting accurately the round in which he would knockout opponents. Then in 1964 he took on the most feared and fearsome man in the ring, the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who was rumoured to have connections with the Las Vegas mob. Clay affected disdain.
"Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can't talk. The man can't fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he's gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons."
He did. To almost everyone's surprise, Clay, floating like a butterfly, ran rings around Liston, stopping him when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. And then he did two things that heralded his future path. First, he announced that he had changed his name to Cassius X and joined the Nation of Islam. This ignited a firestorm of hatred, contempt and revulsion from Americans who had not yet emerged from the racism of Jim Crow and segregation. And when reporters questioned him on it, he said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be who I want."
There it was, his declaration of independence, for which he paid a hefty price.
• Ewart Walters is the author of 'We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement
1937-1862', which also chronicles Revivalism, the emergence of Rastafari and the back to Africa movement. The book is distributed in Jamaica by Novelty Trading Company. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.