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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, January 15, 2000

Ali is still ‘the greatest’

IT'S been good to see the great boxer Muhammad Ali back in the public eye. He finished at or near the top of most lists of the century's greatest athletes, along with Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, and his rise to the heavyweight championship was featured in a TV movie this week.

My 20-year-old son, who sees basketball star Jordan as the slam-dunk winner of any greatest-athlete ranking, can't figure out the big deal about Ali. It's difficult to explain to him Ali's importance not only as an athlete, but as an inspiration to a generation.

As a fighter, Ali captured our imagination like few others. He brazenly declared himself "the greatest" and taunted adversaries so outrageously that his detractors ached to see him beat up and shut up. But Ali denied them the satisfaction time and again. He was so talented and elegant in the ring that no opponent could touch him. His audacity and wit charmed young fans.

His boxing legend came from winning the impossible fight -- not once, but twice.

The first was when the young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, beat thuggish ex-con Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Ali had hounded Liston for a match, showing up at his house, his hotels and his fights to taunt him.

Nobody gave Ali a chance when they met in Miami in February 1964. Liston was bigger and stronger and had destroyed the former champion Floyd Patterson twice in first-round knockouts.

I feared for Ali's safety as I listened to the fight on the radio as a high school kid. Reporters claimed a petrified Ali had been seen at the airport trying to skip town. They said he was so scared at the weigh-in that his blood pressure hit dangerous levels.

But Ali showed up and coolly did exactly what you're supposed to do to a bully: Hit him back. The psyched-out Liston couldn't catch Ali and became so frustrated that he refused to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Ali's second impossible win was against George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974. He had been out of boxing for refusing to be drafted into the Army and had been unimpressive in his comeback, losing to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. The powerful Foreman, by contrast, had delivered punishing knockouts to Frazier in two rounds and Norton in one. Ali's fans again feared he would be seriously hurt.

He came out leading with his right to get Foreman's attention and then retreated to his famous "rope-a-dope" strategy and let Foreman punch himself out with harmless blows until he was so tired that Ali could easily drop him in the eighth round.

Even more impressive were his impossible victories outside the ring. He risked his shot at the championship by embracing Islam and the irrationally feared "Black Muslims." His courage changed the way young black men viewed their world. Ultimately, he forced even hostile whites to respect him.

He went to the Supreme Court to fight his conviction for draft evasion and won by unanimous decision. It forced rule changes that enabled me and thousands of others to win conscientious objector status.

Perhaps Ali's most enduring legacy is his indomitable spirit. After he lost to Frazier, an interviewer asked, "All your life you've been out on a street corner yelling that nobody ever beat you. What will you do now?"

Ali replied, "I'll be back on the street corner tomorrow yelling that nobody ever beat me twice."

Words to live by.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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