Muhammad Ali died Friday evening at the age of 74. The date was June 3rd, 2016. It will be a date many of us who grew up marveling at the man known as The Greatest will remember forever. Much like we remember March 8th, 1971.
You remember that night, don’t you? It was the first of hundreds of sporting events that would come to be known as an “…of the Century” game or fight.
Every sports season, pro or college, and every year in the ring brings us a new “Game of the Century” or “Fight of the Century.” Most of those fall far short of anything significant for that season or year, much less century. But on that night, in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, The Fight of the Century truly was all that and more.
It can be argued for all the great fights in all the weight classes over the past 45 years since that epic night – the hyped and over-hyped, the over-priced pay-per-view events, the “no mas” moments both literal and figurative – there’s never been a singular moment in boxing history more compelling, more anticipated and capturing more interest around the world, a world with far less media saturation, than Ali-Frazier at the Garden.
Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, was 26–0, with 23 KOs. Muhammad Ali came in at 31–0, with 25 KOs. Frazier won that fight in a unanimous decision. It was 15 rounds of brutal combat between two men who could not have been more different, both inside and outside the ring. But for better or for worse, helped along by two rematches both won by Ali, they would be bound together for the rest of their lives.
I still have the program from that night. No, I wasn’t at the Garden. I watched it with 3000 others on closed circuit television at Peoria Central High School’s gymnasium. Looking back, I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of boxing fans around the nation, if not millions, were doing the same thing as all of us. There wasn’t cable. There wasn’t pay-per-view. There wasn’t the internet. Either you were there, or you watched on the wall of a gymnasium. The programs they handed out to us were the same ones handed out to paying fans at the Garden. It was a nice touch, and so many years later a souvenir I’m grateful to possess.
The crowd that night was about 80% for Frazier. I was for Ali. I was always for Ali. Then and now, he was the only boxer I ever made time to watch.
It never seemed the ring was big enough for Ali.
Outside the ring, the world was his stage. He was Olivier and Pavarotti: Grace, style, charisma and power. A magical presence who demanded you pay attention to him. The actor who walks onto a stage and without saying a word, all your attention goes to him. That was Ali, anywhere.
All the athletes today who act like, or believe, they’re a badass… Muhammad Ali was the original. He was the real thing. He was a showman unlike any other in any sport before him or after him. His skills in his prime were unrivaled. When he said about his style, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see” – if you watched him at his greatest, he defined that phrase.
But beyond the ring, it was his humanity, always, that set him apart. He touched people across the globe. From toddlers to the elderly, it made no difference. He smiled, he told stories, he cracked jokes and he displayed his magic tricks whenever he could.
He was that once-in-a-generation athlete who transcended his sport.
He crossed all lines of division, real or perceived, between races, religions, politics and culture. He was a giant in the ring, loud and bombastic outside of it. An entertainer to even an audience of one. He lit up in front of a microphone and camera, but he was no different sitting at the counter of a diner.
There will be lengthy, detailed and beautiful tributes written about Muhammad Ali in the coming days and weeks. His fights, his causes, his work with the poor and with charities, trying to spread peace, his opposition to war as an activist… you didn’t need to know or follow boxing to know who Muhammad Ali was.
We are a society that likes to put people, places or events in boxes. Then we label the boxes. It makes things easier for us to sort out, stay organized.
We each have our sports teams and players we place in the box labeled “the greatest.” Generally speaking when boxes collide, arguments ensue. That’s the nature of sports and sports fans.
In my lifetime, only one man embodied all that represents and defines The Greatest in boxing and really, it’s not even close… Muhammad Ali.
That silence you hear is consensus.
About the Author: Christopher serves up the news of the day, politics, sports, pop culture, films, music and the quirky side of life with distinguished guests and contributors from across the nation and around the world. He tackles the most complex issues to stories slightly off the radar delivering depth and humor with a thoughtful perspective. When he was in Fargo, North Dakota, the program was nominated for Best Radio Show in the Red River Valley in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by readers of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. As a writer, Christopher's work has been been published by the Chicago Sun-Times, Sun-Times Network publications, Reuters, USA Volleyball and Team USA, the Official Website of the U.S. Olympic Committee.