More Sports:

June 04, 2016

'The Greatest' Muhammad Ali dead at 74

There was no one like Muhammad Ali and there will never be anyone like him. “The Greatest” was the most recognized person in the world for decades when the world wasn’t connected as it is today. He ruled the heavyweight division of boxing at its height, battling Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, George Chuvalo, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young and Larry Holmes.

He defied convention in so many ways.

Ali was a large man who fought small, with his hands down, using otherworldly footwork and the hand speed of a lightweight. He defiantly said no to the Vietnam War when much of the nation didn’t object. He crossed racial lines, socio-economic lines, cultural lines and international lines, fighting in exotic milieus like Manila, Philippines, and in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

PHOTO GALLERY: Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

So often in boxing, especially today, the fight never lives up to the hype. Ali brought alive “The Rumble in the Jungle,” “The Thrilla in Manila.” He was the pulse and heartbeat of Madison Square Garden the night he fought Frazier in “The Fight of the Century,” on March 8, 1971, Ali’s first professional loss.

“Was Ali the greatest heavyweight of all-time? I can unequivocally say no, Joe Louis was,” Izenberg said. “But what I can say was Ali the fighter who made the greatest impact not only in America but in the world, the answer to that is yes."

In so many ways, he was the father of the modern pro athlete, unafraid to speak his mind. What made him unique was how tangible he was. Talk to a fight fan or a regular sports fan who followed boxing in the 1960s or 70s, anyone that ever came across Ali knew they had the whole of him, not a sound bite through a high-def screen.

Ali made himself known to the world.

Today, the world mourns the passing of “The Greatest,” from a respiratory condition. In the end, what made him The Greatest, eventually led to his passing at 74. He’ll be remembered for his footwork and hand speed, but he also had one of the most legendary chins in boxing. The pounding he took from the Fraziers, Foremans and Nortons, led to Parkinson’s, and in his last decade, he was a shell of himself.

Jerry Izenberg, longtime Newark Star-Ledger columnist, and Hall of Fame writer, has been with Ali almost since his start and was ringside for nearly every one of his fights. He was one of the first to back Ali when he refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, and Izenberg, who’s 85, saw all of the all-time greats, going back to Sugar Ray Robinson.

“Was Ali the greatest heavyweight of all-time? I can unequivocally say no, Joe Louis was,” Izenberg said. “But what I can say was Ali the fighter who made the greatest impact not only in America but in the world, the answer to that is yes. There’s a distinction. Joe Louis was the best, but it doesn’t mean Ali wasn’t great.

“Ali affected America’s conscience racially. He affected America’s conscience about not going to war. Socially, politically, and because he was the heavyweight champion, he had the greatest impact on America and the world because people listened to him. He was seen or heard on TV whether he was fighting or not on fight fans, and not fight fans. He resembles, through no fault of his own, Mickey Mantle. Mantle was a social bum, in my opinion. He wasn’t a pleasant person around the locker room. He started cliques about certain writers he didn’t like, but the thing about Mantle is he became my hero when he told the truth about himself.

“Ali, conversely, was like him because he was the devil incarnate to white America, and to some African-Americans. He wasn’t the patron saint of the Vietnam War, and today, all of those people, they might have been hard hats, they might have been veterans, they might have been racists, 90-percent of those people view him as a hero now. He evolves into the statute that he ultimately held over Americans today.

Ali’s story is legend. It began when he was then Cassius Clay, a kid who drove his bike to a local business in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, one summer day in 1954, for free balloons and ice cream. When he came back out, the bike was gone. He was so angry a local police officer, Joe Martin, directed him to a boxing gym.

It’s where it all began.

He finished with a career record of 56-5-1, with 37 KOs, and one loss by KO, to his good friend and former sparring partner, Holmes, in his last fight.

Ali won a gold medal at light heavyweight in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, and the story followed how he threw the gold medal into the Ohio River because of the racism he encountered back home in the United States. (Many historians believe Ali actually lost the medal and used the colorful tossing story to explain why he didn’t have it any longer).

He beat Liston when no one thought he could. He returned from a three-year exile, the prime of his career, and regained the heavyweight title when no one thought he could. Many experts believe Ali was actually at his best when he knocked out Cleveland Williams in the third round on November 14, 1966, in the Houston Astrodome. Then, eight years later, he did shock the world in beating the 25-year-old, undefeated Foreman, who had stopped every opponent he ever faced until then.

Ali’s second incarnation, when the rest of the heavyweight division caught up to him, saw him take on killers like Frazier, Norton, Foreman, Quarry and Shavers.

“I appreciated Muhammad from the start,” Izenberg said. “I told my wife of 35 years when I heard he died to leave me alone. It’s hard to hear. I was there in Zaire the night he beat Foreman. After he beat him, it rained. The kind of rain where the fight would not been able to go on. We were trapped in the stadium. Ali went back to where we stayed, a military compound called Nsele, so we returned and we couldn’t find him. There were two of three of us and I said, ‘Let’s go find him, I bet you he’s down by the Congo River.’

“And there he was. You have to picture this. We’re on a raised part of the bank. He has his back to us. He’s looking across the river and he’s just staring. His hands were by his sides, standing there by himself. We didn’t know whether he was talking to himself or what. But suddenly, he raises both hands in the air, like the Rocky pose, and he puts them down. He turns around and starts walking back. That’s when he sees us and says, ‘Fellas, you’ll never know what tonight meant to me, and I’ll never be able to explain it.”

That’s the way the world will remember him — with his hands raised in victory.

Joseph Santoliquito is the President of the Boxing Writers Association of America.