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A fight by fight look at Muhammad Ali’s career milestones

Bouts defined the golden era of heavyweight boxing


 
FILE - In this Oct. 1, 1975, file photo, spray flies from the head of challenger Joe Frazier as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74. (AP Photo/Mitsunori Chigita, File)

In this Oct. 1, 1975, file photo, spray flies from the head of challenger Joe Frazier as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Mitsunori Chigita, File)

Muhammad Ali’s prolific 61-fight career featured bouts that are considered the greatest in history: a trilogy with Joe Frazier that produced “The Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manila,” and the “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, among many others.

Ali’s bouts defined the golden era of heavyweight boxing. Here’s a look at just a few of them, in chronological order:

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Ali vs. Sonny Liston

DATE: Feb. 25, 1964

WHERE: Convention Hall, Miami

STAKES: WBA/WBC Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Liston was the heavyweight champion at the time of the fight. A first-round knockout of former champion Floyd Patterson in 1962, followed by the same result in a matchup 10 months later, had built Liston into the most intimidating fighter of his day.

Ali, still known as Cassius Clay, was a fast-talking 22-year-old challenger known as “The Louisville Lip.” He had won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but had been knocked down by journeyman Sonny Banks early in his career, and again by Henry Cooper.

Many believed Clay would be no match against Liston.

THE BUILDUP: Clay seemingly went berserk at the weigh-in for his championship challenge, and some observers attributed his actions to fear and suggested the fight should be cancelled.

THE FIGHT: Liston could not handle Ali’s speed, left jabs and quick rights to the head. Ali almost quit after the fourth round, contending there had been foul play. During the round, Ali got something in his eyes, probably liniment from Liston’s shoulder, which the champion later claimed he had injured.

“Cut my gloves off, I want to prove to the world there’s dirty work afoot,” trainer Angel Dundee says Ali told him in the corner. Dundee refused, and Ali stayed out of harm’s way in the fifth round and became champion when Liston quit on his stool after the sixth.


Ali vs. Liston

DATE: May 25, 1965

WHERE: Central Maine Youth Center, Lewiston, Maine

STAKES: WBC Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Both fighters were involved in controversies following Clay’s upset in the first match. Clay joined the Black Muslims and changed his name to Muhammad Ali in a move that evoked widespread condemnation. Liston was arrested and charged with speeding, careless and reckless driving, driving without an operator’s license and carrying a concealed weapon. He had a loaded .22 calibre revolver in his pocket, empty bottles of vodka and a young woman in the car.

Congress began investigating corruption and organized crime influence in boxing, and neither fighter was viewed as a role model. Some were bothered that the original fight had a contractual clause for a rematch and some argued Liston had more to gain financially from losing the first bout and fighting a rematch than he did from winning.

THE BUILDUP: The fight was originally scheduled for Nov. 16, 1964, at the Boston Garden, but three days earlier, Ali needed emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. It delayed the bout six months, Liston was arrested again and Massachusetts officials began to have second thoughts about allowing the fight. A dispute over licenses with the promoter led the fight to be quickly moved to Lewiston, Maine, a mill town with a population of about 41,000 located 140 miles north of Boston.

THE FIGHT: The effects of a right hand landed to the side of the head while Ali backed away in the first round of the rematch will always be argued among boxing fans. Some observers contend Liston went down from a perfect punch; others call it a phantom punch.

Chaos reigned in the St. Dominic’s Youth Center. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former heavyweight champion, counted Liston out. But when Liston got up, Walcott got confused and was going to let the fight continue. Nat Fleischer, the founder of The Ring magazine, called to Walcott and as the referee walked toward Fleischer, Ali and Liston began fighting again. Told Liston has been counted out, Walcott stopped the fight, which ranks as one of the shortest heavyweight title bouts in history.

“I did my job,” Walcott said. “He (Ali) looked like a man in a different world. I didn’t know what he might do. I thought he might stomp him or pick him up and belt him again.”


Ali vs. Cleveland Williams

DATE: Nov. 14, 1966

WHERE: Astrodome, Houston

THE HYPE: Williams, considered by many one of the hardest punchers, was in greatly diminished physical condition when he agreed to fight Ali at his peak. Williams had been inactive all of 1965 after he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop.

THE BUILD-UP: Few gave Williams any chance, and Ali was a 5-to-1 favourite. More than 35,000 in attendance made it the largest crowd to witness an indoor boxing match at the time. Ali was allegedly concerned before the fight that Williams might be badly hurt if the bout went for any length of time. Ali was advised to go for a quick knockout to avoid causing any lasting damage.

THE FIGHT: In what arguably is his greatest performance, Ali stopped the power-punching Williams in the third round. He knocked down Williams with two left jabs and a right to the jaw while back-pedaling early in the round. Williams went down again from a 12-punch barrage, and the fight was stopped after a third knockdown achieved by a double left hook and a right to the jaw.

Ali introduced the “Ali Shuffle” in the fight. Broadcaster Howard Cosell later said, “The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was against Williams. That night, he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived.”


Ali vs. Joe Frazier

DATE: March 8, 1971

WHERE: Madison Square Garden, New York

STAKES: Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship; WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Simply known as “The Fight,” it pitted a pair of undefeated champions. Ali had been stripped of his belts for refusing to enter the armed forces in 1967, so Frazier was the reigning and recognized champion. Each fighter was guaranteed $2.5 million.

THE BUILDUP: On the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of policemen to control the crowd, outrageously dressed fans and countless celebrities. Millions watched on closed-circuit broadcast screens around the world, and the Garden was packed with a sellout crowd of 20,455 for arguably the most famous boxing match in history. The fight also carried racial undertones with most black fans supporting Ali, much to Frazier’s dismay.

THE FIGHT: The fight lived up to the hype as Ali fought for the third time since he ended an enforced layoff of three years, seven months because of his refusal to be drafted into the Army.

He used every trick at his command to buy time and impress the judges, but Frazier was relentless. He got Ali into desperate trouble in the 11th round, but Ali refused to go down. He finally did from a long left hook to the jaw 25 seconds into the 15th round. Despite getting up quickly, his right cheek ballooned to grapefruit size as Ali finished the fight. Frazier was the unanimous victor.

Referee Arthur Mercante relayed the following conversation that took place in the ring:

“You know, you’re in here with the God tonight” Ali told Frazier.

“If you are God,” Frazier replied, “you’re in the wrong place tonight.”


Ali vs. Ken Norton

DATE: Sept. 10, 1973

WHERE: The Forum, Inglewood, California

THE HYPE: Norton had broken Ali’s jaw and won a 12-round split decision on March 31, 1973, in San Diego. Norton was a forward-pressing fighter-boxer who was notable for his unusual guard and stance, popularly characterized as the “cross-armed defence.” Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, wrote that Norton’s best punch was the left hook, but many others lauded his infamous overhand right.

THE BUILD-UP: Norton weighed in at 205 pound, a full 5 pounds lighter than his first match with Ali. Critics wondered if Norton had overtrained for the rematch. Ali felt a loss would ruin his claim of ever being “The Greatest,” and broadcaster Howard Cosell repeatedly told viewers during the ABC telecast that Ali was dominating the bout.

THE FIGHT: With one round to go in the rematch, Ali was again facing defeat. He was trailing by two points on one card and was even on the other two. Ali dominated the first minute of the final round, held his own in the final two minutes and won in a split decision. A loss would have changed boxing history forever as Ali likely would never have gone on to some of the huge bouts that are known to this day.

“I’m in good condition, but I’m tireder than usual,” Ali said afterward, “because of my age. If I wasn’t in this shape, wasn’t no way I could’ve won.”


Ali vs. George Foreman

DATE: Oct. 30, 1974

WHERE: 20th of May Stadium, Kinshasa, Zaire

STAKES: Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship; WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: “The Rumble in the Jungle” was another moment in which Ali was given little chance of joining Floyd Patterson as the only two-time undisputed heavyweight champions. Foreman had looked awesome in winning the title from Joe Frazier and in defending it against Joe “King” Roman and Ken Norton with none of the fights lasting two full rounds.

THE BUILDUP: Foreman and Ali spent much of the middle of 1974 training in Zaire, getting acclimated to its tropical climate. The fight was originally set to happen Sept. 25, but Foreman was cut near his right eye during training. The date was pushed back to Oct. 30. A three-night-long music festival to hype the fight, Zaire 74, took place as scheduled from Sept. 22-24 and included performances by James Brown, B.B. King and The Spinners.

THE FIGHT: The fight was scheduled for 4 a.m. local time in order to appear on live closed-circuit television in the eastern United States at 10 p.m.

Ali had trouble keeping the powerful Foreman at bay in the first two rounds. He decided to go to the ropes and let the champion tire himself out by punching at Ali’s defensive shell _ what he would later call the “rope-a-dope.” Occasionally, Ali flurried off the ropes, and did so late in the fifth round when he landed eight solid punches to Foreman’s head to take command of the fight.

Ali knocked out an exhausted Foreman in the eighth round.

Foreman later said: “He is the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer, that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not pretty, he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”


Ali vs. Frazier

DATE: Oct. 1, 1975

WHERE: Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, Philippines

STAKES: WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship; Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Ali had defeated Frazier in a largely forgettable rematch in 1974, so “The Thrilla in Manila” became the rubber match. The bout is ranked as one of the best in boxing history and Ali chronicled the battle in his memoir, “The Greatest: My Own Story.”

THE BUILDUP: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos wanted to host the fight to divert attention from the social turmoil in his country. Ali verbally abused Frazier in the build-up, and nicknamed him “The Gorilla” _ which he used to rhyme, “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” Ali chanted that mantra while punching an action-figure-sized gorilla doll. Ali’s preparations were upset before the fight when he introduced his mistress as his wife to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and his wife, Belinda Ali, saw the introduction on television. She flew to Manila and engaged Ali in a prolonged shouting match in his hotel.

Frazier’s side decided the hordes of people and tension in the steaming city were a poor training environment, and Frazier relocated to a quiet setting in the mountainous outskirts of the city. Frazier led a Spartan existence, often sitting for hours in a contemplative state in preparation for the bout.

THE FIGHT: The fight lived up to its billing, Ali and Frazier once again bringing out the best in each other. At one point, Ali told Frazier, “They told me Joe Frazier was through.”

“They lied,” said Frazier, who then hit Ali with a crunching left hook.

Ali retained the title when Frazier, who could not see, was kept by trainer Eddie Futch from answering the bell for the 15th round. Ali was well ahead on the scorecards at the time.

When it was over, a physically and emotionally drained Ali said, “It was the closest thing to death.”


Ali vs Norton

DATE: Sept. 28, 1976

WHERE: Yankee Stadium, New York

STAKES: WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship; Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: The final fight in their trilogy was memorable for what happened outside the ring as much as inside it. Longtime promoter Bob Arum took the fight to Yankee Stadium, but a police strike left fans without any protection. Unruly mobs kept thousands of fans from attending the fight.

THE BUILDUP: The breakdown in the purses was a sign of just how much drawing power Ali still had. He was guaranteed $6 million and half of any revenue over $9 million, while Norton was guaranteed a mere $1 million and 5 per cent of all revenue.

THE FIGHT: Ali had vowed to “knock the sucker out inside five rounds,” but they wound up waging a fight for the ages. They went the full 15 rounds with the two ringside judges scoring it 8-7 for Ali and referee Arthur Mercante scoring it 8-6 with one round even. Norton said he won “at least nine or 10 rounds” and complained of being robbed, and the fight is still considered one of the most disputed decisions in history. Even Ali once said that he thought Norton had won the fight.


Ali vs. Leon Spinks

DATE: Sept. 15, 1978

WHERE: Superdome, New Orleans

STAKES: WBA Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Ali had not lost in five years, beating Foreman, Frazier and others during his winning streak, before an upset loss to untested and largely unknown Leon Spinks on Feb. 2, 1978. The two met in a rematch seven months later at the Superdome, where 70,000 fans made it the largest indoor attendance ever for a prizefight.

THE BUILDUP: Spinks was still a relative unknown, even after beating Ali _ he had fought just eight times as a professional. Meanwhile, rumours had already begun to circulate that Ali would retire after the fight, and Ali himself had said: “This will be my last fight. I will go down as the first man to win the title three times.”

THE FIGHT: No longer fleet of foot and fist, Ali relied on veteran guile to beat Spinks in a one-sided decision. Ali artfully used his jab to keep the younger Spinks at length, and then shoot his left hand every time Spinks tried to get inside. The few times Spinks succeeded, Ali tied him up and forced referee Lucien Joubert to separate him. At one point, Joubert took a round away from Ali for holding.

Not that it mattered. Ali was well ahead on the scorecards by the time they reached the championship rounds, and he spent the final few rounds dancing his way to victory. Afterward, Spinks said, “He is still my idol.”


Ali vs. Larry Holmes

DATE: Oct. 2, 1980

LOCATION: Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas

STAKES: WBC Heavyweight Championship

THE HYPE: Ali had retired in June 1979 but within months began plotting his comeback. He was supposed to fight new WBA champ John Tate in June 1980, but he lost to Mike Weaver in March. So in April, Ali agreed to fight Holmes, the fearsome young champion. Promoters wanted the fight to take place at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, but local officials were concerned that it would damage the soccer field.

THE BUILDUP: The fight was actually called off after the fiasco in Rio, and Holmes knocked out Scott LeDoux in July. But the two sides got together again and hammered out an agreement to fight in Las Vegas, where Caesar’s Palace would build a temporary 24,790-seat outdoor arena.

There were concerns over Ali’s health prior to the fight, and he was required to undergo a neurological exam at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Doctors noticed him having trouble touching his finger to his nose and with some muscle co-ordination, but ultimately determined that he was fit to fight.

THE FIGHT: Ali had begun taking a drug called Thyrolar for a thyroid imbalance, and he would blame it for feeling slow and weak during the fight. Outside observers said he simply looked old. In any case, Ali was toyed with the same way he used to toy with others. Holmes delivered a savage beating, and Dundee finally refused to let Ali answer the bell for the 11th round.

Ali fought once more, losing a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick Dec. 11, 1981, at Nassau, Bahamas.


 
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