Muhammad Ali will go down in history as one of the most famous athletes of all time. At 6 foot 3 inches, he was very much a force to be reckoned with; but why was that?
One of the reasons that Ali was so successful is because of the drive and determination he had to be the best. This started early on in his life, with his upbringing and the society in which he lived. He was born Cassius Clay Junior in Louisville, Kentucky, on 17th January 1942. Growing up in a middle-class black neighbourhood, he witnessed the segregation of his community, where black people were not permitted to use many of the same facilities as their white neighbours. For his 12th birthday, Ali received a bike that was later stolen. When reporting his missing birthday present to the local policeman, Joe Martin, Ali made threats to the thief that had taken his bike. Martin suggested boxing. He was an amateur boxing instructor and taught Ali how to fight.
Ali’s passion for boxing took him to the 1960 Rome Olympics aged just 18, winning gold as a light-heavyweight. Still, when he returned home, he was refused service in a whites-only diner; segregation still permeated his life, Olympic Champion or not. In the ring, Ali proved that the colour of your skin makes no difference to your success. Instead what matters is raw talent, willpower, hard work and training. He declared: “colour doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count.” The bike that was stolen from him acted as the first step in triggering his ambition to be the best which made him such a formidable opponent.
What Ali is perhaps best known for is his unique style and revolutionary technique in the ring. Ali had immense confidence in his speed and agility; he would leave his guard down and lean back to avoid punches, using his quick footwork to outpace his opponents. During his rise to become champion, one of his favourite phrases became known around the world” “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Ali’s sting-like punches were exemplified during a match against world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Liston was knocked out by Ali in the first round with just one punch.
Ali also used the technique ‘rope-a-dope’, unveiled in his match against Foreman. Leaning back against the ropes, he avoided most punches to the head and absorbed punishing body blows before counter-attacking with straight right hands. Ali faced some tough opponents including Henry Cooper and Michael Spinks, but his strength led him to be almost unbeatable, taking numerous heavyweight titles.
Ali’s charisma almost certainly played a part in his success. Whilst he was great for the cameras and world media, he was in a frame of mind that allowed him to have confidence in himself and intimidate his opponent. In Rome, he charmed the world and was popular among other athletes, his showmanship was evident. He dazzled media and fans with his bravado and predicted the round in which his fights would end. His famous fans included Elvis, Bertrand Russell and Nelson Mandela and he quickly became a modern icon. Opponents feared him and success followed.
Ali was the ultimate fighter. Mentally and physically he was simply the best out there and his charisma is what helps us remember how incredible he was.
Original Illustration by Izzie Hurst