Muhammad Ali was, and always will be, The Greatest


Angelo Dundee used to say that you could parachute Muhammad Ali down to any country in the world and the first person he met would know who he was - and break out into a beaming smile.

Dundee, who was in Ali's corner for all but three of his 61 professional fights, was the first and certainly not the last to advance the notion that Ali was an athlete who transcended not only his sport, but sport itself.

Even as the years rolled by after his final ill-advised bout against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas, as the ravages of Parkinson's disease grindingly took their toll, the aura surrounding Ali was one thing that never diminished.

Muhammad Ali gets his gloves strapped by Angelo Dundee

New generations of boxers would cite the exploits of the man they called "The Greatest" as unreachable ambitions of their own. The replays of his title bouts and newsreel quips have only increased over time.

Occasionally, there were those who had the audacity to offer up the names of current champions who might be approaching a similar parallel: they were routinely shouted down. Ali will always be The Greatest - and he knew it.

"Will there ever be another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry, and is as tall and extra pretty as me?" he once asked his biographer Thomas Hauser.

"In the history of the world from the beginning of time, there has never been another fighter like me."

Muhammad Ali in training for his fight with Henry Cooper

But Ali's reach extended much further than a flung right hand. He emerged as a hero to the civil rights and anti-war movements in the way he accepted jail and the stripping of his world heavyweight title rather than go to fight in Vietnam.

Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 14, 1942. He was first persuaded into his local boxing gym by a policeman, Joe Martin, who found the eight-year-old distraught and bent on revenge against a boy who had stolen his bicycle.

"I wanted to learn how to box so I could whup the kid who stole my bicycle," said Ali. Within 10 years, he was standing on top of a podium in Rome, with an Olympic gold medal hung proudly round his neck.

The first signs of Clay's future political activism emerged shortly after his return from Italy when, in a probably apocryphal tale, he is said to have thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River in frustration having been refused service in a local diner.

Muhammad Ali with his mother Odessa Clay

Clay made his debut in October 1960 with a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker in his home city of Louisville. After 15 straight wins he pulled off a notable stoppage of fading former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore in November 1962.

In 1964, after rising off the floor to beat Henry Cooper in London, Clay stunned the ogreish and seemingly invincible Sonny Liston with a seventh-round win in Miami Beach to win the world heavyweight title.

It was the beginning of a 16-year odyssey which would see him become the first man in history to win the world heavyweight title three times, and would take his remarkable roadshow to all corners of an enraptured globe.

Popularity, however, was slow in coming. The public did not take so kindly to the new champion's brash and boastful antics, not least when he announced he had joined the Black Muslim movement of Malcolm X and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali lands a hard right on Ernie Terrell

In a fight against the fringe contender Ernie Terrell in New York in 1967, Ali deliberately extended a one-sided contest for the full 15 rounds, taunting Terrell for his refusal to recognise him by his new name prior to the fight.

But Ali's unparalleled fistic talent was not slow to emerge. In the fight immediately preceding the Terrell bout, Ali turned the feared puncher Cleveland Williams inside out over three rounds recognised by many as the greatest of all his performances.

Ali's first tenure as world champion ended one year later when he refused to answer the US army draft and was stripped of his title, handed a five-year suspended prison sentence and banned from travelling abroad.

His three years of exile may have robbed the world of Ali at his peak. Ali returned to beat Jerry Quarry in October 1970, but suffered his first career loss to his future nemesis Joe Frazier over 15 brutal rounds in New York the following year.

 Muhammad Ali is surrounded by admirers and friends after leaving the Federal Court Building where he was convicted on charges of refusing to be inducted into the Armed Forces

Ironically, the fight was impressive enough to re-establish Ali's credentials in defeat. Three years later he decisioned Frazier in a rematch, earning a title shot against the powerful, brutal champion George Foreman. Foreman had flattened Frazier in two rounds the previous year, and went into the fight a heavy favourite.

Under the audacious direction of the promoter Don King, Ali and Foreman took their fight to Kinshasa, Zaire, the heart of Africa. It would become the most famous boxing match ever staged: The Rumble In The Jungle.

The blunt, brutal Foreman, every bit the antithesis of Ali, expected Ali to try to shove his ageing body out of range. Instead he did precisely the opposite, covering up with so-called "rope-a-dope" tactics for round after round.

An increasingly frustrated Foreman duly punched himself out before Ali pounced to apply the winning shot in round eight, crashing into the side of Foreman's head which sent him spiralling down to the canvas.

Perspiration flies from the head of George Foreman as he takes a right from challenger Muhammad Ali

Ali had reclaimed the title, but he was far from done. In 1975 he won a brutal rubber match with Frazier in the Philippines dubbed the Thrilla in Manila, when Frazier failed to answer the bell for the 14th round.

It was an extraordinarily savage contest, and one which many claim, without proof, may have accelerated Ali's decline in later life. What can certainly be said is that he was never the same again in the boxing ring.

After a low-key global tour, Ali was embarrassed by the eight-fight novice Leon Spinks in 1978, yet summoned remarkable reserves of energy to defy the passing of time and claim it back later that same year.

Resisting mounting calls for his retirement, Ali went on to lose in 10 rounds to the rising star Larry Holmes in 1980, before the final, dismal defeat to Berbick in 1981 which mercifully brought his remarkable career to an end.

Muhammad Ali hugs President Bill Clinton

Illness robbed the world of much of Ali's wit and wisdom in the long years of retirement that followed, yet through the increasingly fleeting public appearances his eyes still sparkled with mischief, even if his body could no longer play ball.