Yet even as he battles his toughest foe ever, a debilitating customer named Parkinson’s syndrome that has eroded his motor skills and left him a shadow of his former self, Muhammad Ali couldn’t resist the siren call to return to the homeland of his maternal ancestors.
Better known as the greatest and most colorful combatant in the history of prize-fighting, the great-grandson of one County Clare native named Abe Grady was back in Ireland last week for the first time since 1972. That’s when Ali, his Irish roots then widely unknown, stopped Alvin “Al Blue” Lewis in 11 rounds at Croke Park.
Like 37 years earlier on his last visit there, there was much fanfare on the Emerald Isle as Ali, who’s 67, became the first man to be awarded the freedom of Ennis for 600 years. The town is unlikely to have a more celebrated descendent.
The 20th Century’s most influential athlete continues to cast a long shadow on a sport he helped define. As a spectacle, the heavyweight division has paled significantly in the decades since Ali reigned supreme. Most casual fight fans would be hard pressed to name more than two of the current belt holders.
And in the post-Ali era, only Mike Tyson, who wreaked mayhem both in and out of the ring, has been able to transcend the sport as widely as the former champion did.
It’s been nearly 28 years since Ali retired with a 56-5 ledger [37 KOs] and public acclaim as the best boxer in history. Fleet of foot and hand and blessed with unnatural skills, he was the first man to win the heavyweight championship of the world three times during a professional career spanning 21 years.
Complementing his fistic talents was a heavy dose of charisma, wit and a showmanship that was a promoter’s dream.
Then there were, of course, his brave social and political stances from early on that made him a lighting rod for his critics during the turbulent sixties and would ultimately cost him the prime years of his career.
Fighter supreme, showman and outspoken activist, this eclectic mix added up to a one of a kind athlete now fondly remembered by fans as “The Greatest of All Time.”
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Ky., on January 17, 1942, the first son of a sign painter and his wife Odessa Grady Clay.
It’s through Odessa that Ali received his Irish genes. A household domestic, her father, John Grady, was old Abe’s son by a freed African-American slave that he married some time after arriving in America from Ennis in 1862.
One could optimistically argue that the granite chin Ali developed later in his career was Irish-like, and equal to the whiskers possessed by ferrous-chinned Celtic warriors such as Steve Collins, Wayne McCullough and John Duddy.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t always like that. A fighter since age 12 when a Louisville cop named Joe Martin steered the young Ali to a boxing gym, he was knocked down early by Sonny Banks, Joe Frazier and most famously by British champ Henry Cooper.
His chin, however, would harden. Some experts would later theorize that once Ali’s reflexes had diminished, his ability to take punishment from wrecking ball punchers such as George Foreman and Ernie Shavers could have triggered the Parkinson’s syndrome that now afflicts him.
The phenomenal speed and reflexes were quintessential Ali from his amateur days as Cassius Clay. From his amateur debut in 1954 until his gold medal as an 18 year-old light heavyweight at the Rome Olympics six years later, he’d go 100-5 in the unpaid ranks.
A major influence of his unique ring style that eschewed boxing orthodoxy was his idol Sugar Ray Robinson. From the legendary Harlem middleweight, Ali would adopt the footwork and flash. From a colorful pro wrestler nicknamed “Gorgeous George,” he would learn to mimic the braggadocio and boasting that would make him an inexhaustible source of priceless quotes.
But it wasn’t all vain talk. Early in a pro career that began in 1960, the young brash fighter would predict the round in which he’d knock out an opponent and then proceed to fulfill the prophecy in the ring.
Adding to the theatre surrounding the upcoming heavyweight as he disposed of one foe after another was his conversion to Islam. That was publicly announced after he pulled off what was then considered a monumental upset by dethroning world champi on Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964.
Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and began the most remarkable reign in heavyweight history.
His mix of blinding hand speed, combination punching, bewildering footwork and lightning reflexes that were only matched by his fast mouth, made him invincible.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” was how his equally loquacious assistant trainer, Drew “Bundini” Brown famously described this blend of finesse and power that made his charge an elusive, albeit, deadly fighter.
Ali was 29-0 when he lost the world title – to Uncle Sam. Having refused induction into the US Army in 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and his license revoked. It would be three years before he’d return to stop Jerry Quarry in the first of their two meetings.
If his first reign as world champion was defined by pure artistry, Ali’s second coming featured some of the most punishing and brutal contests in heavyweight chronicles.
Joe Frazier handed him his first loss in what was dubbed as “The Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. That would be the first of an absorbing trilogy punctuated by the “Thrilla in Manila” four years later.
Ali would also have his jaw broken by Ken Norton in 1973 and suffer his second pro defeat before twice avenging that beating.
For many, however, the highlight of Ali’s career would be the “The Rumble in the Jungle,” that dramatic October 1974 encounter with George Foreman in Zaire.
The big concern going into that bout was whether Ali, then 32, could avoid serious injury against the younger, hard hitting Foreman. Instead, the old master won via an eighth round KO to regain the world title.
Four years later, Ali would lose the belt in the ring for the first time ever, against eight-fight novice Leon Spinks in Ring Magazine’s 1978 “Fight of the Year.”
But seven months later, on September 15, 1978, Ali would wrest the title back from Spinks, to make history as the first three-time heavyweight king.
After two ill-advised come-backs in 1980 and 1981 that resulted in horrific beatings at the hands of his lineal successor, Larry Holmes, and Trevor Berbick, Ali hung up his gloves for good.
As he battles the effects of Parkinson’s – his motor skills seriously compromised, his once imposing 6-foot-three frame wrecked by tremors and his speech impaired – Ali’s legend lives on.
He remains an inspirational and influential figure to young boxers and old timers alike who reminisce wistfully over the golden years of the heavyweight division.