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Muhammad Ali: What He Truly Meant to Boxing and People around the World

By Mike “Rubber Warrior” Plunkett

Imagine what would have happened in the heavyweight division if Muhammad Ali had never existed. There’s no question that things would have been very different indeed without him. Imagine this possible scenario so as to get a sense of how different the division might have been without him:

Sonny Liston would have remained the world heavyweight champion through several title defenses for many years. Relatively challenging title defenses against Ernie Terrell and Eddie Machen would stand out above the walkovers he would enjoy over the other lesser known opponents he turned back. Each of his defenses would tank from a business standpoint given his country’s inability to identify with him as a ring hero. From a fight standpoint, each of his title defenses would be mostly non-competitive or as in the case of the Terrell defense, a protracted pursuit devoid of any real excitement or drama. His fights would be all too predictable and interest in the heavyweight division would gradually wither away.

In 1969 the older-than-listed Liston would lose the heavyweight championship to Jerry Quarry who would surprise the masses by out-boxing and frustrating the aging and complacent destroyer over fifteen rounds in a bout that up to that point would be considered one of the most boring heavyweight title bouts in history.

Boxing would enjoy a slightly renewed renaissance at this point. The new heavyweight champ would be viewed as a willing fighter, good looking and not a brooding hulk known for his run-ins with the law as he was for his efforts in the ring. But more to the point many would be happy that the new heavyweight champion was a white American, the first since the reign of the beloved Rocky Marciano. The resurgence however would be short-lived once everyone had experienced one of Quarry’s scintillating performances. Gate receipts would recede and the momentum would die down.

In 1970 “Smokin” Joe Frazier would stop Quarry for the heavyweight championship. That changing of the guard and the four successful defenses he would make over the next three years would do little beyond the sports pages each result would be plastered on after each successive fight. There’d be no great threat looming that would capture the imagination of the public and no great paydays to be had. Who would really care?

In 1973 Joe Frazier would be hammered into the canvas by George Foreman. Foreman would successfully defend the title three times before being outpointed by Joe Bugner in November 1975 in exactly the same way Jerry Quarry won it from Liston. The win would revitalize British boxing for a year or so but in the United States Bugner’s slow but effective style would lull the masses to sleep.

In February 1978 Ron Lyle would edge Bugner for the world heavyweight title in controversial fashion, losing it seven months later to an inspired but aging Earnie Shavers in his first defense, who himself would go on to make one successful title defense with a one-round blow-out of Ken Norton before losing it in September 1979 to Larry Holmes via 11th round TKO. Holmes would go on to prove to be a dominant and gifted champion but the uninspired array of challengers would ensure limited interest throughout his reign, which would end on a low and controversial note in September 1985 at the hands of Michael Spinks, the reigning world light heavyweight champion. Nobody would care.

Muhammad Ali’s tenure in the sport came at exactly the correct time and his accomplishments go beyond mere ring exploits. He infused new lifeblood into a sagging sport in a way that forced people and the media to take notice. Loud, brash and boastful, he didn’t turn boxing into a media event, but he drew the masses to it. I recall what originally drew me to view boxing for the first time. As a child I carried a small transistor radio around with me always listening to the hits of the day. I liked the sense of business and connection to the world that little unit gave me. In the months and weeks before Ali and Joe Frazier took each other to the brink in the “Thrilla in Manila” Ali’s particular brand of cartoonish lip work caught my ear time and again. He sounded a little like a cartoon character at first but at the same time I recognized something serious and focused in his delivery and I was awed at the self belief and blatant conceit he projected over those radio waves. In short he sounded fun and I began to inquire as to who he was relative to his chosen profession.

By the time Ali and Frazier had concluded their historic trilogy I was an unabashed fan. From that point on I devoured the history of his career and became aware of his accomplishments over time and the value he brought as a notable heavyweight champion relative to the overall context in the heavyweight division. But there was more to Ali than ring accomplishments, revenue and media spotlight, there was a rare quality about him that I tapped into over the course of time. He projected himself in such a way that one began to feel a sort of personal kinship with the man. His words of hope and moving forward in life for all people around the world went far beyond the confines of the ring ropes or a sound bite. He infused people with self belief in the face of turmoil and he demonstrated marked value in his statements when he overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles inside the ring, often when Father Time and the deck were stacked against him.

I caught on to Ali just as he began to fade away and long after he was physically extraordinary. I caught onto him when his character as an individual carried him beyond expectation and in some cases, reason. Just before he regained the heavyweight championship in September 1978 it was as though he quietly told me through his words not to worry about a thing; that he’d find a way to come through for me again. His confidence rubbed off on you. It was that special quality, among other rare and unique qualities, that set him apart.

I lived and died with Ali up until he tried to regain the heavyweight title for an unprecedented fourth time against Larry Holmes in October 1980. Like a lot of people, I held back tears that night. A dear friend had come to the end of the ride before we were truly ready to let go. That’s what it felt like and how it affected people. It’s reflective of what he brought to the sport at the point in time when he caused the world to watch it and pay attention to it. Ali crossed-over the political and cultural boundaries that so often segregated people and ideologies, and he did it in such a way that when it was time for him to leave the dance many of us hurt inside. He touched us beyond what anybody ever expected of a world heavyweight champion or sports hero.

Well, that may come off as a lot of psychobabble. It probably is. But this is not; this is the truth and the bottom line: Muhammad Ali gave us pleasure and hope. We saw and we knew we’d never seen anything like it, and that it was incredible. He was Santa Claus, your favorite uncle, your best friend and Superman all in one.

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