The Strategist; Greatest

The unmistakable demeanour of Ali pictured here in “Esquire’s The Meaning of Life: Wisdom, Humor, and Damn Good Advice from 64 Extraordinary Lives”, published in 2009.

Muhammad Ali, strategist, butterfly, bee, greatest boxer in history; the man has many names and most of it heroic. His exploits in the ring is well documented. He would bounce and fight like an artist-boxer, complete with both brawn and brain. His arrogance is unmatched and his strategies, bewildered even the strongest punches and ring managers.

I would come to know of him as soon as I could learn and remember. From my late grandfather, late Uncle Benny to my teenage neighbours, everyone knew who this loud mouth world beater was. But not me. I didn’t get to watch him or learn of him until much later. I probably knew more of him when Will played him in “Ali“.

When he fought Larry Holmes on 3rd October 1980, he was already near retirement but my late uncle was rooting for him and so did lots of others around the world. All I knew at that time was the younger men ought to win given their youth, strength and agility. In sports, youth mostly win and in style too.

For Ali, the legendary boxer would be a spectacle to watch even till this day. Upon his demise at age 74 on 3rd June 2016, the world who knew him came to a standstill. We’d pay our last respects even if it was through the news or facebook. For me personally, I flipped open my one and only boxing book, “40 Boxers Describe My Greatest Fight by Ken Gorman“.

I read about Ali versus Foreman, the very first match featured in the book and the one Ali called his greatest fight. The match was set in Zaire, Africa on 25th September 1974. Ali’s preparation of the fight reads like a war strategy. He arrived three weeks earlier to acclimatise to the hot weather. He’d leverage his presence with the media to send messages to the world about how he would overcome George. In that same vein, they were the same messages to impose threats to his opponent’s mind. Clever!

From the weighing in to the fight, Ali’s mind was clear, he was going to floor his biggest nemesis to gain back his heavyweight title. He taunted George before the fight and taunted him during the fight too – asking if that’s all the boxer got. If it didn’t drive Foreman mad, it would have driven him to the ground. All that George could summon to punch and attack was not able to bring the butterfly down. Ali floated around the ropes and stung hard when the guards were down after eight rounds.

Another match in the book was between Henry Cooper and Cassius Clay or Ali before he embraced Islam. Cooper was the top heavyweight champ of Britain, Europe and Commonwealth for more than a decade in a career lasting 17 years from 1954 to 1971. The main event against Clay took place on 18th June 1968 and Britain was all ready to see their man standing up against the fast talking black boxer. They were eager to see Cooper teaching this young lad a lesson.

If Foreman lost the match and crown in Zaire but remained as Ali’s great friend for the rest of his life, Cooper went down in the books as the punch Ali will never forget, “That Cooper hit me so hard, he didn’t only shake me – he shook my relatives in Africa!”

To Ali, you’re a fine specimen as you once described yourself to be. Rest in peace Champ!

Picture from Esquire’s The Meaning of Life: Wisdom, Humor, and Damn Good Advice from 64 Extraordinary Lives.

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