The Greatest!

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I readily admit I was suffering from "writer's block" when I sat down to pen this week's column, even with a litany of subject matter from which to choose: political chaos between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency; 49 killed and 54 wounded at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida; Vanderbilt rape case still ongoing ...

Then it hit me: Muhammed Ali, formerly known as "Cassius Clay"! Though I'll discuss his boxing legacy, his poetic showmanship, his charisma, his humanitarian contributions to global culture, it's the "fluke" behind the story that for me, anyway, proves the most intriguing.

He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, January 17, 1942. He died Muhammad Ali, June 3, 2016, from Parkinson's disease, in Scottsdale, Arizona

Cassius Clay's boxing career took flight when he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy.

Though a 7-1 underdog, Clay, at age 22 beat the ferocious Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight Championship title in February of 1964. He soundly defended his title against Liston the next year, 1965. After baffling the boxing world by twice beating the formidable Liston, Clay, in poetic meter, was quoted as saying, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee/The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see."

Having joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and having changed his birth name to "Muhammad Ali" (around 1964), Ali refused to serve in the U.S. Army and ultimately was stripped of his title in April 1967, at age 25, at his boxing peak, some say. He was famous--infamous, others argue--for stating: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong!" After considerable controversy, Ali was allowed to resume his boxing career in 1970.

Though he had 61 pro fights during his 17-year career (1964 - 1981), winning 56 and losing 5, he is best remembered for his three fights with Joe Frazier, and his one fight with George Foreman (of steak/burger grill fame).

*Madison Square Garden; March 8, 1971: "Smokin'" Joe Frazier was heavyweight champ of the world. In what some boxing experts call "The Fight of the Century," Frazier beat Ali in 15 rounds via unanimous decision.

*Madison Square Garden; January 28, 1974: In what was billed as "Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier II," Ali won in 12 rounds by unanimous decision. (NOTE: Of the three fights between Ali and Frazier, many consider this one the most lackluster.)

Kinshasa, Zaire (Africa); December 30, 1974: Pitting Ali against World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman (who'd beaten Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in 1973), the media proved creative by dubbing this fight "The Rumble in the Jungle." During pre-fight interviews, Ali mocked Foreman by saying, "I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail." Ali won by knockout, putting down the brutish Foreman just before the end of the eighth round.

*Philippine Coliseum: Quezon City, Philippines; October 1, 1975: Proving imaginative yet again, the media labeled this fight the "Thrilla in Manila." True to form, Ali taunted Frazier during interviews before the fight by saying to Frazier, "It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila." Ali won by TKO (Technical Knockout) in 14 rounds.

"The Fight of the Century," "Rumble in the Jungle," and "Thrilla in Manila" are rated as three of the greatest boxing bouts in heavyweight history.

At 6 feet and 3 inches in height, weighing around 220 pounds during his prime, and possessing the quickest hands and feet of any heavyweight champion, ever, a sound argument is that Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. If my research is correct, over the course of his career, he appeared 40 times on the cover page of "Sports Illustrated," second only to NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Further, Muhammad Ali is the only boxer to win the World Heavyweight Championship three separate times: beating Sonny Liston in 1964, beating George Foreman in 1974 (as mentioned), and also beating Leon Spinks in 1978.

Testimony to his legacy is the wide array of celebrities and dignitaries who attended his funeral, held Friday/June 10 in Louisville: former President Bill Clinton, former NFL great Jim Brown, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, comedian Billy Crystal, former president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, and a host of others.

So, what's the "fluke" that caused me to write this column? I was sitting at a computer inside Motlow State Community College's library (McMinnville), looked over at the magazine rack, and Muhammad Ali was on the cover page of the June 2016 issues of "Sports Illustrated," "TIME," and "People." Suffice it to say, my "writer's block" disappeared and I immediately knew the subject matter for this week's column--it was simply too coincidental.

I have to wonder if, other than Muhammad Ali, the same man/woman has ever been on the cover page of these three prestigious magazines the same month and same year...probably not.

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Mike Vinson
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