Muhammad Ali Day: The Greatest’s 80th Birthday Celebrated

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. The bout lasted only one minute into the first round. Ali is the only man ever to win the world heavyweight boxing championship three times. He also won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome as a member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. In 1964 he dropped the name Cassius Clay and adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. (AP Photo/John Rooney)

Muhammad Ali is widely considered the greatest boxer ever. Five years after he died at the age of 74, Ali’s birthday January 17 is celebrated as Muhammad Ali Day. This year 2022 is special because he would have been 80.

As a boxer, Ali defied all boxing conventions: “never put your arms down”, “don’t keep your chin up or lean back when trying to avoid a punch or let your opponent corner you”. None of that stopped him. 

Ali was bold with words, but his way of fighting was even bolder in the ring: arms down, head up, he danced and dared his opponent to come close.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali emerged on the boxing scene more than 50 years ago as an Olympic light heavyweight champion. As a professional, he defined a lightning-fast, tap-dancing style that set the limits of what a heavyweight could do. 

Along with a fearsome reputation as a fighter, he spoke out against racism, war and religious intolerance, while projecting an unshakeable confidence and humour that became a model for African-Americans at the height of the civil rights era.

Stripped of his world boxing crown for refusing to join the U.S. army and go to fight in Vietnam, Ali returned in triumph by recapturing the title and starring in some of the sport’s most unforgettable duels.

“Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met,” said George Foreman, who lost to Ali in Zaire in a classic 1974 bout known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

“No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age. To put him as a boxer is an injustice.”

Ali finished his career with 56 fights won – 37 by KO – and only five lost. Many boxers have tried to imitate him and incorporate elements of his style into their arsenal. But Ali was so authentic that no one has managed to do it like him.

Back and forth, back and forth. Ali scissored with his feet. It seemed like an innocuous move, but the footwork was what made it effective.

Those quick feet were also his best defensive weapon. If his opponent fought at a distance, his feet helped him flee quickly. The A-B-C of boxing says that to avoid lunges, a boxer should move backward and sideways, but never straight backward. Ali never followed the rules.

Ali was not the boxer with the most powerful punch, but he was quick and persistent with his hands, and he would tire out his opponent before knocking him out.

“His hook is probably the punch that made him a champion,” says Freddie Roach, a Boxing Hall of Fame trainer. “When you find the distance where you can connect your best combinations and your power punch, the hook is very effective.”

Larry Holmes was the only one who could stop him with a KO punch. But, among the most poignant memories of Ali’s iron jaw is Joe Frazier knocking him out with a left hook in the fifteenth round of their first fight. Ali quickly recovered, although he lost by decision.

“That punch would have knocked the whole building down,” said Ray Mancini, a former lightweight champion. “I said, ‘How can anyone get up from a punch like that?’

Ali knew where to stand, where to move, how to dictate a fight on his terms. That’s why he became the greatest of all time. The world’s boxing family celebrates him today.


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