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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2016 > Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

For all of Ali’s classic bouts inside the ring, the champion’s most iconic victory came outside of it, as Jonny Wilkes explains

Since the death of Muhammad Ali on 3 June 2016, at the age of 74, the outpouring of tributes and love has been both overwhelming and on a global scale. From sport stars to world leaders, everyone has expressed gratitude and respect for the prizewinning pugilist, poet and civil rights icon who transcended both the ring – where he danced on light feet but swung with heavy punches – and the very nature of celebrity. Here was a smoothtalking self-promoter so charismatic that he proclaimed himself “the Greatest” and no-one felt the need to disagree.

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Understandably, many recent column inches have focused on his quick-witted trash talking (“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick!”), as well as his legendary fights. In a golden age of boxing, Ali towered over (sometimes literally, as they laid sprawled over the mat) some of the greatest names in the sport, such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston. While heavyweights lumbered and relied on brute force, Ali skipped and dodged with lightning agility and hit back with a ferocity mixed with technical mastery. He earned and embodied his phrase: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. And to say Ali could take a punch and shake it off is to understate the level of punishment he could absorb – his famous ‘rope-a-dope’ approach – only to lunge suddenly into attack once he sensed his opponent to be tiring.

Yet for the historic moments in the ring, Ali’s toughest, greatest fight took place out of his gloves and away from the ropes. By refusing to be drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam, Ali risked everything to stand toe-to-toe not against a boxing rival, but the US government, a hostile media and accusations against his beliefs. As Barack Obama noted in his heartfelt tribute, that fight would “cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail.” But Ali wouldn’t have been Ali if he couldn’t stand his ground in such a fight. In doing so, he became a figurehead of the civil rights movement, a symbol of counterculture and a beacon for peace.

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! As strong as his technique in the ring was Ali’s quick-witted mastery of microphone and camera
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August 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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