TORONTO, ON, Mar 26, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Believe it or not, professional boxing was once a mainstream sport. While some were repelled by its brutality and seamy underside, big fights still attracted wide general interest. And when it came to engaging public attention, no post-war fighter rivalled Muhammad Ali, the man who won his first world heavyweight championship just over 50 years ago.
Thanks to the Dublin papers picking-up on his exploits at the 1960 Rome Olympics, I first became aware of Ali when he was still Cassius Clay. From the get-go, a game plan was evident. He would turn professional and set his ultimate sights on the world heavyweight title.
Coincidentally, the reigning champion, Floyd Patterson, was himself an Olympic alumnus from eight years earlier. And having just become the first man to ever regain the title, he was at the pinnacle of his fame, all of which made the prospect of a contest between them seem almost serendipitous.
As for the young Cassius, opinions varied. Some loved him and others couldn’t stand him. However, there was no gainsaying his flair for grabbing headlines and generating box office. Even when he was just starting his professional career in Louisville and Miami Beach, the international sports pages paid attention.
And there were no political vibes whatsoever back then. The fissure in opinion was essentially generational and attitudinal.
To detractors, he was a show-off. To admirers, he was a crafty showman, a guy whose boastful antics were intended to entertain and sell tickets. And what an older generation perceived as a distasteful tooting of his own horn, a younger generation saw as an irreverent self-confidence attuned to the emerging 1960s zeitgeist.
Then there was the fact that he didn’t resemble anyone’s preconception of a prize-fighter. Tall and handsome, he was blessed with the kind of unblemished good looks normally associated with movie stars. My father compared him to Jack Doyle – the 1930s Irish wannabe contender who briefly prospered as the Gorgeous Gael.
However, unlike Doyle, Clay could actually fight. Although traditionalists deplored aspects of his style – including his tendency to carry his hands low – the results spoke for themselves. He was big, fleet of hand and foot, and capable of potently stringing together what the American boxing fraternity called combinations.
Still, in the lead-up to his February 1964 championship bout, very few people gave him a serious chance. Since the benign Patterson was no longer the defending titleholder – having been demolished by the hulking and apparently malevolent ex-convict Sonny Liston – it was hard to imagine a scenario where things would end well.
Instead, the concern was that Liston would administer a severe beating, perhaps one from which young Cassius would never recover. Even those who professed a desire to see him taught some manners didn’t want the lesson to be gratuitously brutal, or at least not overly so.
But if the result seemed a foregone conclusion, it took nothing away from the enormous interest. At home in Dublin, my younger brother and I got up in the early hours to listen on the radio. And my father joined us, something which he said he hadn’t done since Jimmy Braddock fought Joe Louis back in 1937.
By the third round, we sensed that a major upset was in the cards. The ferocious Liston was actually bleeding! By the sixth round, Clay seemed to be hitting him at will. And when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh, it was all over.
For the briefest of moments, the newly crowned champion was universally popular, his critics recognizing a talent they’d previously derided. But within a couple of days, the honeymoon began to sour.
First, there was acknowledgement of his affiliation with the separatist Black Muslims. Then, abandoning what he characterised as his “slave name,” he became Muhammad Ali. Suddenly, he was a controversial political figure, a status that was significantly compounded when he refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967.
No longer just a superb athlete and flamboyant personality, Ali became a symbol. Opponents of the American role in Vietnam considered him a hero; supporters saw him as a draft-dodger.
Eventually, though, time passed and passions cooled. But Ali wasn’t quite done with surprises. Come 1984, he endorsed the re-election of Ronald Reagan, thereby setting the cat among the pigeons again. Perhaps he just liked the feeling.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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