Thursday, June 9, 2016

Muhammad Ali Funeral: Saying Goodbye to the Greatest

Today the world said goodbye to what many believe was the greatest boxer to ever fight in the squared circle, Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali’s funeral was held in Louisville, Kentucky.

The procession started later than scheduled and traveled through Louisville. Crowds gathered along the streets and blanketed the funeral procession with flowers and chats of "Ali, Ali, Ali!" The young, to the old, lined the streets of his hometown, sending off The Champ in a display of love and gratitude that left the observer speechless. Family, friends, and fans gathered at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, which holds 22,000, at 3:00 p.m ET for a memorial service. Billy Crystal, President Bill Clinton, and Bryant Gumbel delivered the eulogies. Lonnie Ali and daughters, Maryum, and Rasheda spoke for the family. There were clergy from many religions who spoke at the very inspirational and stirring memorial to Muhammad. Especially moving was Rabbi Michael Lerner who brought the crowd to their feet with a fiery speech:

"That means us, everyone here and Everyone listening. It’s up to us to continue that Ability to speak truth to power. We must speak out, refuse to Follow a path of conformity to The rules of the game in life. We must refuse to follow the Path of conformity. Tell the 1% who own 80% of the Wealth of this country that it’s Time to share that wealth. Tell the politicians who use Violence worldwide and then Preach nonviolence to the Oppressed that it’s time for Them to end their drone warfare And every other kind of warfare, To close our military bases Around the world, to bring the Troops home. Tell those who invented mass Incarceration that it’s time to Create an — a living income for Everyone in our E.E.O. Tell judges to let out of prison The many African-americans swept Up by racist police and Imprisoned by racist judges."

Read full sermon here:

The collective lesson that can be learned from watching  Muhammad Ali's memorial is that....we all need to be Ali now.

Watch Funeral Procession Here:  

The Beginning

Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.  named after his Father Cassius Marcellus Clay, in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. He grew up in a time of racial segregation. His experience, along with his brother, Rahmon, and other family would shape Muhammad’s controversial life forever. At  12-years-old, the young Clay would have a chance meeting with a man that would change his life forever.

Joe Elsby Martin Sr. was the man who started Muhammad Ali on his path to fame, glory, and as one of the greatest fighters that the ring has ever seen.  Martin was a Louisville, Kentucky police officer who coached amateur boxing at Louisville’s Columbia Gym.  Muhammad Ali’s first encounter with Martin has become legendary. It happened when he was 12 years old and went to Martin to report the theft of his new bicycle.  When Ali (then just Cassius Clay) said that he wanted to “Whup” whoever had stole his bike, Martin suggested that Clay come down to gym and learn how to fight properly. The rest is history. Joe Martin guided Ali’s amateur career all the way to him gaining a gold medal in the 1960 Olympic games. 

Although Angelo Dundee would coach Ali during his professional career, he would stay in contact with Joe Martin for the rest of Martin’s life.
Despite all of his personality and talent, Ali was also blessed to appear at just around the right time to become a star in boxing and the sporting world in general. When he first emerged during the early 1960s boxing, especially the heavyweight division was crying out for a new star; a dash of lightning to light up both the heavyweight division, and the sport itself.  Ali became that star, as he amused, amazed, fascinated, and outraged both the fans and the media in equal measure. Then, after he had been banned from fighting for almost 4 years, due to his refusal to go to Vietnam, Ali came back to the ring in the early 70s to discover a heavyweight division that was enjoying an explosion of talent that was unprecedented in the history of the division.  With the return of Ali, the heavyweight division enjoyed what is fondly referred to as a ‘golden age’ for the rest of the 1970s.
Despite all of his personality and talent, Ali was also blessed to appear at just around the right time to become a star in boxing and the sporting world in general. When he first emerged during the early 1960s boxing, especially the heavyweight division was crying out for a new star; a dash of lightning to light up both the heavyweight division, and the sport itself.  Ali became that star, as he amused, amazed, fascinated, and outraged both the fans and the media in equal measure. Then, after he had been banned from fighting for almost 4 years, due to his refusal to go to Vietnam, Ali came back to the ring in the early 70s to discover a heavyweight division that was enjoying an explosion of talent that was unprecedented in the history of the division.  With the return of Ali, the heavyweight division enjoyed what is fondly referred to as a ‘golden age’ for the rest of the 1970s.

Pro Debut 

On October 29, 1960, Muhammad Ali had his first professional fight. Then known as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali was already on the road that would lead him to become in many peoples eyes, not only the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, but the greatest sportsman, and sports personality of the 20th century. The press was already noticing Ali. He had been a brilliant amateur, and had won the Light-Heavyweight Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympic Games, but he was also gaining attention for his charismatic character, which included reciting his own poetry, and telling anyone who would listen that he was destined for greatness.

Ali’s opponent for his 1st professional contest was a Tunney Hunsaker, a tough 30 year old journeyman who had recently gone the distance with top contenders like Bert Whitehurst, and Ernie Terrell. Hunsaker was chosen as someone who would give Ali some rounds to show what he could do in his debut, without posing too much of a threat for the still only 18 year old Ali. The fight was staged in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at the Freedom Hall State Fairground. Ali got his work out. Weighing 186 pounds to Hunsaker’s 192 pounds, Ali was taken the full 6 rounds by Hunsaker. Ali dazzled spectators with his speed and mobility, as he danced around the ring, and fired combinations that displayed his blazing hand speed. By the end of the 6 rounds, he had bloodied Hunsaker’s nose and cut his eye, which was almost swollen shut. 

“He’s awfully good for an 18 year old and as fast as a middleweight” said the battered Hunsaker after the fight.

It was just the beginning of a long road for Ali, a road which would lead him to becoming a legend. Tunney Hunsaker became the first step upon that road, and his name will forever be part of boxing history because of it.

Tunney Hunsaker did make the national news once more during his boxing career.  In April 1962, just 16 months after he had fought Ali, Hunsaker was knocked out in the 10th round by Joe Shelton, and after being knocked out he collapsed into a coma. This fight took place barely two weeks after the tragic Emile Griffith vs Benny Paret World welterweight title fight, which ended with Paret collapsing into a coma.  Paret had died just 3 days before Hunsaker’s fight with Shelton. For a while, it looked as if Hunsaker would be following Paret. After having a number of operations to remove a blood clot from his brain, and ease the pressure in his head, Hunsaker finally pulled through and began to make full recovery, though his boxing career was now over.

In time, Hunsaker was able to return to his job as a police chief in Fayetteville, West Virginia, and lived a normal productive life until he was struck down with dementia sometime before his death in 2005 at 75 years old.

In later years, Hunsaker would meet up regularly with Ali, when ‘The Greatest’.was in town for personal appearances.  Ali always remembered the first man to cross gloves with him as a professional.

World Heavyweight Championship
When Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston for the World heavyweight championship, and almost over night, changed the whole fabric of the boxing game.  No one had ever seen anything quite like Cassius Clay, as he was known then.  He was brash and arrogant in a manner akin only to the legendary Jack Johnson, the first coloured Heavyweight champion of the world, who reigned from 1908 to 1915. Johnson was somehow lucky enough to avoid assassination along the way, despite the depth of animosity felt towards him by white America.

Cassius Clay was no Joe Louis, who was quiet and thoughtful verbally, careful not to antagonize or put a foot wrong in public.  Clay never stopped talking. Unlike Johnson, Cassius had the gift of making people laugh.  He was able to launch into a diatribe of what he would do to his next opponent and in what round, and yet, say it with a twinkle in his eye and a smile not far from his face.  Then there was the poetry, delivered with a deadpan solemnity, which would have done many a comedian proud.

“The Louisville Lip” could walk the tightrope between outrageous arrogance and ridiculous clowning, while making people both laugh and admire him at the same time. Perhaps most important of all, was that as his professional career progressed this lippy young man showed that he could walk-the-walk along with all of his talk.
Sonny Liston was different and the general opinion within the boxing world was that the former convict, now World Heavyweight Champion, was invincible.  While views on Liston ranged from, a kind of righteous repugnance to outright awe, all agreed that the hulking champion was a human wrecking machine who would reign as World Heavyweight Champion for a long time.  Clay’s own management didn’t believe he could win and only agreed to let him go ahead with the fight at his continued insistence.  Cassius had been floored in previous fights by Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper, so the general consensus was how could he possibly survive the bombs delivered by Sonny’s huge hands?  The same bombs that had blitzed Floyd Patterson twice in the one round!

On fight night, when the forty-six attending sportswriters were polled on whom they picked to win, forty-three picked Sonny.  Considering the atmosphere surrounding the match, perhaps the surprise should be that three writers actually picked Cassius to win.

Clay had tried to get inside the champions head in the run up to their match, constantly taunting and ridiculing Sonny in the manner which would become Muhammad Ali’s trademark in later years.  It was good publicity, but Clay also felt it was good psychology. Clay knew that Liston wasn’t afraid of him, but believed he might be afraid of ‘a nut’. At the medical and weigh-in for the fight, with just hours to go before their clash, Clay worked himself into a frenzy.  His blood pressure when taken was 200 over 100 and his heart rate was 120 per minute.  The doctor examining him declared that the young man was ‘scared to death’. Years later Ali would say that the scene was just another part of his act and a ploy to make Liston believe that he was going into the ring with the most unpredictable of opponents…a crazy man.

When the two men stepped into the ring that night on February 25, 1964, at the Miami Convention Centre, both seemed to be calm and Liston had his normal baleful expressionless look upon his face.  Perhaps after a life often walked upon the dark side it would take more than Clay's comical histrionics to shake Sonny from his solemn belief that he was about to give this upstart the beating of his life.

Over the years many have gained the mistaken belief that Sonny Liston was a lumbering muscle bound plodder of a fighter, with great power but little speed or technique. A fighter who was rendered ridiculous on the night he lost his title to Cassius Clay.  The truth is that Liston was a smooth and fluid mover in the ring and had remarkable hand speed for a fighter of his size and build.  He also had one of the best and most powerful jabs ever seen in the division’s history.  Sonny’s jab was swift and accurate, and numbing.  It was these attributes, allied with his innate strength and power that helped make Liston such a formidable and frightening destroyer in the ring. On this night however, Liston was facing a man with freakish speed for a heavyweight.  Cassius was akin to being a 210 pound Sugar Ray Robinson.  Furthermore, in addition to his speed, Liston would find that Cassius could also match him for strength.

As the dethroned ex-champion sat slouched on his corner stool, the new champion Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, did a victory dance in mid ring. He rushed round from corner to corner, his mouth wide open, proclaiming “I am the greatest, I am the greatest, I shook up the world, I shook up the world!” Cassius Clay proved that night that he was no joke or fraud and gave us the first glimpse of the greatness to come.  He was to be an extraordinary champion who would achieve some of his greatest victories when he was already losing the fantastic speed and reflexes that helped him defeat the ‘invincible’ Sonny Liston.  That night he told us he was great and for the first time, we began to listen.

Rumbled In The Jungle
The world was witness to possibly the most bizarre, fantastic event in the long and colourful history of the sport of boxing. The event took place in a 19- foot ring, set up at the 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, which was surrounded by a crowd of about 62,000. At the center of it all was Muhammad Ali, who inside that 19-foot ring square that morning, at just the break of dawn, performed the most extravagant and outrageous feat of his career, by beating a man whom most had believed would not only defeat him, but destroy him. There had been those, in the run up to Ali’s challenge of George Foreman, who had feared for Ali’s health and his life, against the rampaging destroyer that was George Foreman.

This was the fight that Ali was supposed to lose. Many watching it that night, either in the audience or in one of the numerous closed circuit theatres that were broadcasting the fight all around America and Europe fully expected this to be the last fight of Muhammad Ali’s career. Most people believed he would give it his best show his great heart, and some flashes of his former brilliance. But, then he would tire and Foreman would catch him, or else Foreman might even catch him before he tired, either way, few saw the fight lasting the distance, and that meant only one thing; a punishing knockout or stoppage defeat for “The Greatest.” 

Despite his amazing career up until that point, all expectations were that Ali was heading towards his doom in Zaire.

One of Foreman’s own trainers, Archie Moore, the former World light-heavyweight champion, who had been knocked out in 4 rounds by a young and skinny Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1963, would later say that he had prayed for Ali’s well being before the contest, fearful that he could be killed. Foreman’s physical strength and punching power was such that he was known for wrecking punching bags in the gym, hitting them with such force that they would be torn savagely from their metal moorings.

Even Howard Cosell, the commentator with whom Ali had formed almost a double act with, and who had a genuine affection for The Greatest, gave Ali no chance against Foreman, saying on a pre-fight show that the match represented Ali’s ‘Last supper.’

Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of this contest was the similarity between Foreman and Sonny Liston, who a young Ali had won the world title from in 1964.  Liston had actually been Foreman’s idol and the two had sparred together when Foreman was just starting out on his professional career. Like Liston, Foreman was a brooding character, who built up a fearsome image both inside and out side of the ring. He was a dark force of destruction, just like Liston had been before him, and the media was already calling him unbeatable and invincible.

Yet, the comparisons between Liston and Foreman were not seen as good news for Ali. It had been a decade before when Ali had beaten Liston, with his mercurial speed and skills, when he was a fresh and a hungry 22-year-old. Those ten years included 3 and a half years when he had been banned from the ring for refusing the draft call up for Vietnam. Three and a half years in which he had lost his peak, where time and idleness had rusted up his marvelous speed and skills.

On his return, Ali was still ’great,’ but he was no longer as great as before. Joe Frazier had beaten him in 1971, as Ali struggled to jab and dance for 15 rounds, as he had been able to in the past. The speed and reflexes never came totally back for Ali and at times, he seemed to be almost an imitation of his former fighting self. 

The Greatest had racked up 13 victories in the three years since the Frazier defeat, but there was also the loss to Ken Norton. Although Ali had avenged it six months later, and followed this up with a revenge victory over Frazier, a broken jaw had accompanied the loss to Norton. The man who once had been so hard to hit was getting hit regularly now, and hard.

Ali’s victories over Norton and Frazier were almost workman-like when compared to Foreman’s own performances against the same two men. While Ali had gone 27 rounds with Joe Frazier and 24 rounds with Ken Norton, George Foreman had simply destroyed both men in 2 rounds each. When Foreman had won the world title from Frazier he had floored “Smoking Joe” six times in 2 rounds and he had knocked Norton clear of his senses also in the same time. 

So how could even “The Greatest” prevail against such a fighter! 

Originally scheduled for September 25, 1974, the fight was delayed for over a month when Foreman was cut beside the right eye by the elbow of sparring partner Bill McMurray. The delay just added to the anticipation and tension of the occasion. With people torn between hoping to see something truly special and historic from The Greatest, but fearing that they were about to watch his nadir.

The fight was postponed until October 30th, and Foreman seemed to be getting meaner by the day in training, his habitual beating upon his sparring partners reaching new heights. While Ali was visibly loved and feted wherever he went in Zaire, the brooding champion, Foreman, was a man apart. 

By the night of the fight the atmosphere had entered the surreal. The fighters entered the ring at around 4 am in the morning in order to facilitate American TV coverage.  Both fighters would be receiving 5 million dollars, in a promotion that had been coerced and manipulated from start to finish by Don King, in what was his first major promotional venture. He had even managed to get Zaire’s murderous president Mombuto Secko on board. Seldom has a World heavyweight title fight had a darker host.

Almost from the start of the fight it became clear that Ali was supported by 90% of the crowd. The crowd that was made up of a large portion of native Congolese, and a selection of European and American members of the media, and celebrities who had come along for the ride.

Upon entering the ring, Muhammad Ali seemed to be the most relaxed person in the stadium that night, certainly more relaxed than his stone-faced corner and the blank- eyed world champion, whose unblinking stare spoke volumes for his intentions. 

As the anthems were played before the start of the contest, Ali mocked and taunted Foreman, whose expression never changed. Those watching Ali’s antics wondered if his humour was that of someone with real confidence or the bravery of someone heading towards the gallows.

At the first bell, Ali sprang his first surprise of the night! Instead of running, instead of moving away around the ring, he went right at Foreman, firing a right hand that seemed to surprise the champion, and then spearing Foreman with a flow of lefts that seemed to find the champion’s face with surprising ease. Foreman came forward menacingly; landing to Ali’s body and driving him into the ropes momentarily, but Ali came off the ropes and retook the center of the ring. Instead of running, Ali was taking the fight to Foreman, while moving side-to-side to avoid the punches coming back his way. Between rounds Ali winked across the ring from where he sat in his corner, with the air of a man who was just beginning to enjoy himself. Just before the start of the second round the crowd began to chant ‘Ali Bomaye’ (Ali kill him.) 

In the second round, Ali seemingly abandoned his plan of taking the center ring and allowed himself to be bulled onto the ropes by the champion, where he covered up and leaned back, as Foreman swung furiously with both arms, as if he were trying to chop down a tree.  Now and then Ali would strike back with some sharp jabs and straight right hands that would land flush in Foreman’s face, and then he would go back onto the ropes, as his corner screamed for him to move. By the third round the fight had formed a pattern, despite the exhortations of his corner, Ali was seemingly content to go onto the ropes and cover up, while Foreman belabored him with punch after punch, swing after swing.  Many punches were blocked by Ali’s arms or slipped, as he twisted and leaned back far on the ropes, but some were getting through, and when they landed, with audible thuds, those at ringside gave audible gasps.
Yet, just when things seemed to be getting totally one-sided, Ali would come back with punches of his own, sharp lefts, and heavy lead rights that were catching Foreman flush in the face.

This was the rope-a-dope, something that Ali would later say that he first developed in training when he was tired, laying on the ropes and daring his sparring partners to hit him as much as they could. It was an almost masochistic method of getting himself beat into shap.

The fourth followed the same pattern as the third, with Ali laying on the ropes and seemingly taking punches which no other man had ever stood up to before. All the while he was talking to Foreman, ‘Is that all you got! They told me you could punch George!’ 

When struck flush, Ali would hold momentarily and wrestle with Foreman, while sharing his head at the crowd to assure them (and himself) that he wasn’t hurt. 

By the 5th round it was clear something strange was happening. Foreman’s face was starting to mark up from Ali’s punches, and more worryingly for the champion; he was starting to show visible signs of fatigue and frustration.  No one had ever taken his punches like this before, instead of destroying Ali with his punches, it was almost as if with every punch he landed or tried to land on Ali, he was losing a little more of his strength. Now, when Ali landed his own little retaliatory flurries, Foreman was visibly wobbling under the punches. And the crowd continued to cry “Ali Bomaye, Ali Bomaye!”

In the sixth round, Ali stayed off the ropes for much of the round, instead circling the outside of the ring and jabbing. Foreman was still in pursuit and throwing punches whenever he was in range and even when he wasn’t, but now the punches were weary and becoming more and more uncoordinated.  It was now Ali who was beginning to land the better more telling punches.

With hindsight the writing was on the wall for Foreman by the seventh round, but those watching the fight could still barely understand or believe what was unfolding before their eyes.  The seventh saw Foreman reduced to pushing out his punches, as he stumbled after Ali like an exhausted drunk. Ali’s punches were cruel and calculated, as they crashed in increasing volume into Foreman’s swelling face and head.

Ali came out with a determination to finish things in the 8th round, with added purpose in his punches, and he was now the aggressor. Foreman was still coming forward, but his attacks had been reduced to a blind stumble, by exhaustion, and the steady battering from Ali’s punches. When Ali got caught on the ropes, the punches seemed to be bouncing harmlessly off of him, and it was his own counters that were having the most effect at this moment.

The finish came in the final moments of the 8th round. A left right combination sent Foreman down with a heavy flop onto the canvas, where he lay in an exhausted daze as the referee Zack Clayton toiled out the count.  At ten, Foreman tried to rise, but his strength was gone; the butterfly had drained all the strength from the invincible giant

Ali was the World heavyweight champion again, and he had regained his title by turning his style onto its head, from being the elusive target, to being a sitting target.  Ali’s performance must rate as one of the greatest single performances by a boxer in ring history. His ability to adapt his style and find a way to win, even when physically out-gunned, and the ability to beat his opponents both mentally and spiritually in the latter part of his career, is as much part of Muhammad Ali’s greatness as his youthful speed and skills.

Later on, even Ali would push on for too long, beguiled by his own greatness into thinking he could outbox time and the laws of nature. 

Six years after he beat Foreman in Zaire, Ali foolishly came out of a two year retirement and was battered and beaten to defeat by Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, in a fight of almost eerie sadness. 

Yet, the realization in the dying years of his career that Ali was after all only human serves only to heighten the depth of his career achievements. Here is a man who dominated the most talented heavyweight division that has ever been seen, at a time when he himself was well past his own physical peak. 

However, on one particular moonlit morning in Zaire, Muhammad Ali was indeed indestructible, superhuman, and magical.

Muhammad Ali will be buried at Cave Hill Cemetary in Louisville.

Muhammad Ali Funeral - Janazah (Jenazah) Muslim Prayer Service in Louisville, KY. June 9th.

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