Sunday, May 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Sporting History: Muhammad Ali

Whether it be the Ancient Greeks and the Olympics, the Romans and the coliseum, Kamakura Japan and sumo wrestling, medieval jousting or football and the ‘hooligans’ in the terraces, sport has had a key role to play in how society has developed.

From the roles it plays in the economy, politics and media coverage and more, sport has always had an impact on day to day life. This new recurring feature will look at different sporting events or sporting figures that helped shape their sport for the better, or the worse in some cases.

So, where, or who, else would be better to start off with than “The Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali? More specifically, his first title defence against Sonny Liston. The fight dubbed ‘First Round, First Minute’ was the eagerly anticipated rematch of their bout almost fifteen months earlier.

Both fights will go down as two of the most eagerly awaited match-ups in boxing history with the second going down as one of the most controversial too! On May 25, 1965 Sonny Liston would look to avenge his sixth round defeat to the young champion.

Or would he? The fight was originally scheduled to take place six months earlier but a training injury to Ali pushed it back. Many feared that Liston would not be able to peak physically again due to the delay.

It could be argued that Liston knew this himself as he was knocked out by the now-famous ‘Phantom Punch’ 114 seconds into the fight – ‘Phantom’ because even to this day no one is truly sure whether the punch, which Ali would go on to call the ‘Anchor Punch,’ connected with Liston or whether he took a dive.

Even Ali, the man who threw the decisive punch, wasn’t utterly convinced at the time as he stood over the fallen challenger shouting “Get up and fight, sucker!” A clear indication he felt he didn’t truly connect! He even refused to go to a neutral corner, delaying the referee’s mandatory ten-count when a boxer hits the canvas.
After twenty seconds of confusion, the referee called for the bell, declaring Ali the winner by TKO.

Even though his first title defence was marred in controversy and conspiracy theories, the youngest man to win the title at the time would go on to dominate the heavyweight division for years to come.

During his Hall of Fame career, the three-time Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World also had fights with Henry Cooper, George Forman and a classic trilogy of bouts with Joe Frazier which culminated with the slobber-knocker aptly named ‘Thrilla in Manila,’ all of which also had a great impact on the boxing world.

Without the man who “floated like a butterfly, stings like a bee” and “was so fast, that when he turned the light off at night he was back in bed before the lights went out” successfully defending his title at the first attempt, regardless of the circumstances, would “Iron Mike” Mike Tyson have been inspired to go on and break Ali’s record for youngest ever World Champion? Would Lennox Lewis have wanted to emulate “The Greatest” and similarly dominate the boxing world throughout the 1990s and early 2000s?

The list goes on, and will forever go on, as thanks to Ali and the career success he managed to sustain right until the very end of his illustrious career there will forever be young athletes who want to go on and try to be as good as he was.

Ali wasn’t just known as being a great fighter. In 1999 he was named “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC. This was recognition of his charisma, swagger and larger than life personality he portrayed inside the ring and out.

Sadly, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, aged 42. Never the defeatist, the former Olympic Champion, (Gold Medal at the 1960 Rome games in boxing), was an official torch bearer for the 1996 Atlanta games.

To this day Ali, aged 71, remains upbeat about his fight with Parkinson’s.

A true characteristic of a champion is that he never gives up on a fight, and whether it was in a boxing ring or in his fight against Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali is without doubt a champion through and through.

Article: Alex Reilly-Cooper