Last weekend, perhaps the greatest sportsman ever to walk the face of this earth passed away and that sportsman was Muhammad Ali. Ali was the greatest not just for his insurmountable ability in the boxing ring but also in terms of what he did outside of boxing. Someone who stood and fought for what he believed was right in the face of adversity, and enacting that by example in his sporting achievements. An inspirational and talismanic figure who set an example towards how we should live our lives as human beings.
In terms of his own boxing skill, Ali was able to combine great movement and hand speed which came to define the way he boxed, influencing many boxers at the time and generations of boxers afterwards.
It was this free, expression fuelled style of boxing which earned him worldwide acclaim, alongside his brash yet charming personality which led many to believe that he was the greatest ever. He said so himself.
If there was one fight which shook the world and in turn defined Ali and what he would become, it would be the fight against the then Heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman in October 1974, 'The Rumble in the Jungle' in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
By the night of the fight, Ali had already established himself as a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in the way that he stood up for black rights and also stayed true to who he was as a pacifist in his refusal to go to war in Vietnam. Ali was in turn stripped of his Heavyweight title at the time and exiled from boxing for 4 years.
Upon his return, Ali worked hard to regain the peak of his athleticism and power, enduring a couple of losses along the way to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Having successfully won rematches against both fighters, Ali saw an opportunity to fight Foreman after he had beaten Frazier for the Heavyweight title.
In choosing Kinshasa in Zaire, Ali wanted reach out to the people as much as to rekindle the success he had experienced early on in his career. He wanted to connect with people he recognised as his own as opposed to Foreman who was uninterested in gelling with the local community. Ali orchestrated his performance to the tune of 'Ali Bomaye!' which translated to 'Ali kill him!' And the people of Kinshasa chanted this everywhere he went and when he got in the ring. Ali came as a signifier of hope for the millions that lived in relative poverty in the totalitarian state.
Ali boxed perhaps the most intelligent fight of his career that night and all the while dazzling the fans who watched him. Coining the term 'rope a dope' he employed tactics of resting against the ropes and holding Foreman for the majority of the opening rounds with Foreman continuing to slug away with huge shots and expanding a lot of energy. Ali rode pounding blows and by the 7th round Foreman was beginning to tire.
With 30 seconds left In round 8 as Foreman appeared to have Ali pinned to the ropes, Ali suddenly opened up with a left and a right to Foreman's chin, catching Foreman unawares and sending the big man reeling to the canvas.
The crowd erupted and Ali was anointed as the greatest. Ali beat Foreman using not only his will power but also his brain, and it was this intelligence he combined both in the ring and outside the ring that attracted everlasting recognition.
In death his legacy and influence will continue to inspire not just boxers and sporting people, but also those fighting their own battles, to not give up and to keep fighting.
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