By now, you would have read numerous tributes for the late Muhammad Ali. His feats in the ring, his activism outside it, his numerous quotes – plastered all over the Internet in a valiant attempt to encapsulate the GOAT, the Greatest of All Time, into a bite-sized anecdote. To do so would be a disservice to Muhammad Ali. He was more than just a boxer, a draft dodger, a Muslim convert and all the other terms normally associated with him. He was a cultural tour de force who touched the lives, for better or for worse, of everyone around him.
This article will attempt to do no such thing. Rather these are five of my favourite lesser-known facts about Muhammad Ali that I have gathered in my boxing journey, which I hope will demonstrate the intelligence and charisma of the man.
1. Muhammad Ali once watched Rocky II with film critic Roger Ebert
The late Roger Ebert sat down with Muhammad Ali during the summer of 1979 to watch Rocky II in order to understand the differences between actual boxing and one filmed for the silver screen. Ebert wrote about his encounter with the legend in vivid detail, especially the intelligent conversations. One in particular stood out.
“For the black man to come out superior would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
2. Ali was a huge underdog in Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman
Before the fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, Ali was given a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the match. George Foreman was more beast than man, with a right uppercut that could cause even God to wince a little. As for Ali, age had robbed his famous speed and footwork. Even his long-time supporters were skeptical that Ali could win.
Everyone except Ali, of course, and he made them eat their words, knocking Foreman out in the eighth round with a blistering combination. If you haven’t had the chance to watch the fight, I implore you to take an hour out of your time and watch this masterpiece.
3. The rope-a-dope strategy Ali supposedly used in Rumble in the Jungle is a myth
They say winners write history and Ali, being the showman that he was, suckered everyone into thinking that he used a new strategy to tire Foreman out before knocking him out. He called it the rope-a-dope – using the ropes to cushion the punishing punches Foreman was dishing out and tire the champion before capitalising.
In actual fact, it was Ali’s astute tactics and high ring IQ that enabled him to outsmart Foreman. Foreman had a two-pronged strategy – manipulate his opponent into a corner before punishing them with his uppercuts and hooks. Ali would go into the corner but he nullified Foreman’s incredible strength by smothering him in clinches. He would also manipulate Foreman’s head by holding it with his hand before turning away. It was dirty and legally gray but Ali fully exploited it.
4. Ali was an atypical, unconventional boxer
Hands down, chin up as though taunting the opponent, leaning back instead of slipping punches, and the famous shuffle. If you went to a boxing gym and did everything Ali did on your first training session, you would be given a dressing down by the coach. Ali’s style of fighting ran contrary to the basics of boxing (feet planted, hands up, chin down and legs to be never crossed) and yet, the man won multiple championships with his mantra of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
5. Sonny Liston once pointed a gun at Ali
During the lead-up to their fight in 1964, Ali followed Liston, the champion at that time, to a casino for the sole purpose of harassing him. Annoyed, Liston pulled out a gun, which made Ali madly dash out of there without looking back. The gun was a fake but Ali didn’t know it at that time.
If you would like to know more about Ali, I recommend reading The Fight written by the incomparable Norman Mailer or watching the numerous documentaries about Ali that have been made in the past few decades. If you only have time for one, watch When We Were Kings, available on Netflix.