Looking Back: Part Two

By Ted Sares on May 4, 2013
Looking Back: Part Two
There was more to Muhammad Ali than shenanigans, intuitive poems, and rope-a-dope.

A new bravado begins. Muhammad Ali’s sociopolitical defiance is in sync with the times. He begins to transcend boxing…

“There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist.”—Ayn Rand

The 1960s started out peacefully enough what with Camelot and all. “Ich bin ein Berliner.” JFK at the helm equals comfort and security. Everyone is proud to be an American, but Dallas destroys Camelot and Vietnam justifies cynicism. The Nation of Islam and Black Panthers, Weather Underground Organization, SDS, “Black Power,” Berkley, the sexual revolution, feminism, and gay rights make their presence felt. The flashbulbs are going off constantly. Body bags and assassinations mix with flower power and Woodstock, and it all comes to a boiling edge in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.1968 is the seminal year; it’s about politics, culture, innovation, and mostly unrest. Nixon wins over Humphrey on a “law and order” platform while Chicago police incongruously sap antiwar protesters in Lincoln Park. Nixon is the ONE.

The Altamont Music Festival was held later in 1969. Fans were held “Under My Thumb” by bikers. Someone stabs a man holding a gun in front of the stage. It’s a downer at the end. Cosmic flower children wander across the hills toward home and an uncertain future with spooky and monster wind turbines in the background. A bad way to end the ‘60s, but it’s about a generation that realized it could make a difference just by standing up and being heard—and it did just that.

And speaking of standing up and being heard, Cassius Clay knocks out Sonny Liston. In no time flat he becomes Muhammad Ali—the right man for the right time. He “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” With television not being as important for boxing in the ‘60s, he uses his mouth and his brashness to attract attention and soon reigns supreme. He calls his opponents bums and chumps and it starts something different from the prior decade: trash talk. A new bravado begins. His sociopolitical defiance is in sync with the times. He begins to transcend boxing.

Live on national TV, Emile Griffith knocks out Benny Kid Paret with at least seventeen unanswered punches. The Kid dies shortly after. There is the usual knee-jerk response to ban boxing. It fails.

Television turbocharges boxing’s popularity toward the end of the decade, and enjoying it in one’s home or favorite pub becomes the norm. Somebody named Joe Frazier debuts in 1965, Ken Norton debuts in 1967 and George Foreman in 1969, but Ali is the main man.

Fewer ethnic fighters toil in the ring and blacks and Hispanics rule the sport. Boxers from the old school like Graziano, LaMotta, and DeMarco give way to a new and more turbulent wave of fighters who are young, enthusiastic, and who seek bigger paydays.

The progressive jump in athletics for African Americans went from the Negro Baseball League and Paul Robeson and then to Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and number 42 Jackie Robinson, who provided hope, heroism, and a blueprint for the future. It moved from Larry Doby to Althea Gibson and Jim Brown and culminated with a new breed of African-American athletes/activists who began paving the way for others—Wilma Rudolph, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, quarterback Doug Williams, golfers Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder, Ali, leading up to Tiger Woods and the 41st Super Bowl in which both head coaches were African American. The evolution had been spectacular, albeit too long in coming. Muhammad Ali’s considerable contributions to this progression will remain a major part of his legacy


There are more anecdotes and opinions about Ali than just about any athlete in history. As a legendary world champion boxer and social activist, he has been the subject of numerous books, films and other creative works; fact is, Ali has been written about ad nauseum. There is a different, cruel Ali for Joe Frazier and Ernie Terrell just as there was a serious one for Ken Norton and a funny one for most of his other opponents and fans.

On September 5, 1960 at the Olympic Games in Rome, Cassius Clay fought against Zbigniew Pietrzyskowski from Poland for the light-heavyweight title. Clay won a unanimous decision to take the gold medal. Soon after, he turned professional.

His unique style was predicated on his uncommonly fast reflexes which allowed him to lean back and avoid punches while keeping his hands low and then striking out to pepper his opponents .This led to his famous assertion that he was going to “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” but it came pretty close to accurately describing his modus operandi.
Ali’s boxing record in the decade of the ‘60s (cut short in 1967 because of draft issues that were later resolved in his favor by the Supreme Court) was an amazing 28-0, and included two big wins over Sonny Liston. His TKO over Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in 1966 may have showcased Ali at his very best. The list of his opponents reflects the old-school tradition of the best fighting the best and reads like a Who’s Who of Boxing.

Of course, a part of his legacy (with due credit to Tony Galento) must include the beginning of modern trash talk, and maybe that was, in part, his way of standing up to the establishment. Calling opponents “bums” and “chumps” and predicting the round of their demise was something very new to the fans, and what gave this behavior credibility was that his predictions frequently proved accurate. Moreover, he seemed to have a Peck’s bad boy quality that cut him some slack.

Muhammad issued his “sociopolitical” statements during the 1960s and into the ‘70s while constantly reminding us that “I am the greatest!” But there was more to Ali than the self-proclamations, shenanigans, intuitive poems, Ali shuffle, and rope-a-dope. In this connection, criticizing icons is not popular, and, when one targets The Greatest, sacred and inviolate ground may be involved

The day after his championship bout with Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali publicly announced his conversion to Islam. Taking his lead from his friend and mentor Malcolm X, Ali had joined the Nation of Islam, a group led by Elijah Muhammad that advocated for a separate black nation. Since many people found the Nation of Islam’s beliefs to be racist, they were angry and disappointed that Ali had joined them.

Then, when Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm X (for becoming too popular and critical of Elijah’s conduct), Cassius X, as Clay was then known, demonstrating perhaps a politically pragmatic side—if not one tinged with some treachery—remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad and was given the name “Muhammad Ali,” which means Messenger of God. Ali disassociated himself from X and went so far as to rebuke Malcolm for not following the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Elijah’s eldest son, Herbert Muhammad, was then appointed Ali’s new manager.

After his suspension, Malcolm X, disillusioned by the hypocrisy he believed was rampant in the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, went to Mecca and moved toward a more orthodox, Five Pillars form of Islam. He also assumed a new name: El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz. In 1965, he was officially denounced by the Nation of Islam. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City.

How much fear may have influenced Ali’s behavior during this period, only he knows. He has never discussed it openly, but, like Malcolm X, he later left the Nation of Islam and joined a more orthodox mainstream Islam; he became a Sunni Muslim in 1975. Like Malcolm, he embraced a far more liberal perspective toward race.

While I have difficulty romanticizing Ali, I cannot deny the tears that welled up in my eyes when, along with an estimated 3 billion or so other television viewers, I watched him open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 wearing that white gym suit, his free arm trembling from the effects of Parkinson’s.

Nor can I deny the contributions he made to the African-American community, first as a pivotal radical voice, and much later while he was active on the lecture circuit. The timing of his opposition to the Vietnam War was in perfect sync with the unrest and volatility of the 1960s, and his involvement with and conversion to the Nation of Islam enhanced his persona as a countercultural hero during a time of counterculturalism. That he made a huge difference as a change agent cannot be denied; that his perceived cultural legacy should place him on a pedestal of respect cannot be denied; and that he led the sports world in radicalism at a time when radicalism arguably was necessary can also not be denied.

In short, he was the right person to come along at just the right time and, rightly or wrongly, he represented courage, individualism, and conviction to his adoring fans. Manifestly, he was a boxer whose life transcended boxing, and there probably will never be another like him. Looking back, Muhammad Ali was what boxing was all about in the turbulent decade that was the 1960s.

Reportedly, at a Parkinson’s disease fundraiser in Houston, Ali sat quietly at the podium. After receiving an award, he smiled and flashed mischievous eyes, but his daughter spoke to the gathering. As he was being escorted away, he noticed a wheelchair-bound elderly lady. He stopped, bowed, and kissed her head.

What’s not to love?

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) vs. Zigzy Pietrzykowski HQ

The Undamaged Zapruder Film

Original Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston weigh-in 1964

MALCOLM X The Assassination of Malcolm X

Muhammad Ali vs Cleveland Williams

Napalm Strike in Vietnam

1968 chicago police vs protesters

1968 King Assassination Report (CBS News)

Altamont Free Concert - Death of Meredith Hunter

Atlanta 1996 - Llama Olímpica

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  1. Ted 06:24am, 05/07/2013


    He is still another of my many friends who live in Henderson, Nevada. I almost moved there in 1996….almost. Glad I didn’t because the real estate market went ot the dogs but the Krusher lives in a mansion next to the Lake.

  2. Mike Casey 06:15am, 05/07/2013

    Yeah, I was looking for the Ali connection there too!

  3. Ted 04:44am, 05/06/2013

    Wrong thread, Have another Tequila on Cinco de Mayo!!!!!!!!! LMAO

  4. The Kursher 07:19pm, 05/05/2013

    Pretty easy once you think it through based on risk-reward. It will be in the order of the guy who offers the most money at the least risk. That means Khan first in London. Maidana second. Garcia third. Pacquiao forth in Asia, and Canelo last. He will avoid the Argentina guy like he had a dose of you know what.

  5. ted 09:01pm, 05/04/2013

    Thanks B-Red and Dollar

  6. dollarbond 04:44pm, 05/04/2013

    Wonderful stuff Ted.  Loved the way you balanced it.

  7. B Red 04:18pm, 05/04/2013

    Excellent article, ya dig

  8. Ted 03:30pm, 05/04/2013

    Yes he did, Kid,

  9. kid vegas 03:12pm, 05/04/2013

    You set the context really well on this one. Those were some bad juju times after 1963. I remember The Meredith thing in Mississippi most of all and then it went downhill from there. When JFK was assassinated it became a new ball game. The MLK riots of 1968 were just plain brutal. I was in Chicago back then an it was steaming with hate. Ali just stood out as someone who had courage in my humble opinion.

  10. NYIrish 01:42pm, 05/04/2013

    Tis. Indeed.

  11. Ted 12:43pm, 05/04/2013

    Coyote, I’ll try to put some of that in the posts if the opportunity presents itself, but rememebr, I was just covering the 60’s

  12. Ted 12:41pm, 05/04/2013

    Irish, as God is my witness, I just got off the phone with Frankie Crawford’s son, Jeff who wanted to see if I can get him a copy of his dad’s fights with Sajo

    Small world

  13. NYIrish 12:24pm, 05/04/2013

    Ted, Don’t let Yogi and Boo Boo get ur laptop!

  14. Lonesome Coyote 12:21pm, 05/04/2013

    I accept that, Ted. But I’ve always felt that his boxing superiority was rather too easily ascribed simply to fast reflexes and quick hands. I see it as rather more than that…..That’s what I’d like to have read as well! No problem though. Nice article!

  15. Ted 12:06pm, 05/04/2013

    I know, but I wanted to stress the non-boxing persona as much as the boxing one. He did go through the 60’s like a freight train

  16. Lonesome Coyote 12:04pm, 05/04/2013

    Thanks, Ted. That’s a well-balanced and still affectionate view of my still favourite fighter and a great and courageous human being.  But I’d have liked a little bit more on his fistic genius….!

  17. Ted 11:46am, 05/04/2013


    Hmm. I was fascinated by X. I first heard him speak when he debated a TV personality by the name of Marty Fay back in Chicago. At the time, I mentioned to my sister that the guy absolutely destroyed Marty with his logic and ability to debate.

    Later, because I knew about the Muslims in Chicago, I admired his stand against them but I didn’t like his militancy. When he moved to center and change his name to Shabazz, I got to like him quite a bit. He became a moderate and was truly gifted. He was the real deal and did wonders for his followers.

  18. Ted 11:40am, 05/04/2013

    Well put Tex. He is trapped in his body but I believe his mind remains sharp though he now tires easily. He is 70 years old and has outlived Quarry, Frazier, Lyle, Cooper, Patterson, Liston, Folley. Mathis, Young, Berbick, and others. He is being cared for by his wife, he seems to be in good hands and content.

  19. The Krusher 11:40am, 05/04/2013

    Ted Sares, what was your take on Malcolm X?

  20. Tex Hassler 11:25am, 05/04/2013

    Ali is one of the greatest fighters of all times. I admit his bragging turned me off but he could fight. It is sad to see him as he is today but that is what boxing can do to a fighter. He has now paid an extremely high price for the great fights he put on in the ring.

  21. Meinhard Schmidt 11:03am, 05/04/2013

    Wonderful short essay Ted about a man who, like him or not, was/is bigger than boxing!

  22. Ted 11:00am, 05/04/2013

    We also get deer, moose, Fischer cats, wild cats, fox, snakes, weasels that turn white, etc. We have 300 acres of dense forest and it’s an animal preserve deluxe.

    Ali was and is not for everyone, but I have come to be on the side that’s for him. The 60’s were rough on him but he persevered and then made the 70’s work for him. Very complex issues associated with him. That all said, hero worship is not in my DNA.

    I have my own short list of heroes and it does not include any boxers, though it does include a few athletes from other sports.

  23. Ted 10:58am, 05/04/2013

    Thanks Meinhard. It would have been much longer if I had discussed his boxing exploits in more detail but I wanted to hit it from a different perspective and try to present a more balanced essay. Too many are too emotional when it comes to Ali and that drives me up the wall. Note my use of Ayn Rand’s quote in the beginning.

    The Norman Mailer types made me want to vomit with their hero worship. I’ll leave it at that.

  24. MIKE SCHMIDT 10:52am, 05/04/2013

    Timely that you have the big ugly bear coming thru the yard!! If you need Bronson to clean out the yard let me know and we will do a road trip—turkey, beaver and woodchuck will be consumed head to toenails. Great write—Clay-Ali of course will bring mixed feelings for many but one thing was certain—EVERY FIGHT WAS ENTERTAINMENT

  25. Ted 10:32am, 05/04/2013

    Thanks Charles, especially coming from you.

  26. Ted 10:31am, 05/04/2013

    The 60’s were God awful for me, Krusher.

    WHOA, whoa, just as I was typing this, a monster black bear just saunered though by back area. This is the 6th time so far we have had bear sightings on our property. We also have had wild turkeys, beavers, and woodchucks recently. Thiis is why I live in Nothern New Hampshire.

    I’ll get these onto my Facebook page soon.

  27. Charles Farrell 10:30am, 05/04/2013

    Very nicely reasoned, Ted.  Very culturally astute.  It’s rare to find this kind of insightful boxing writing.

  28. The Krusher 10:22am, 05/04/2013

    This one brought back some memories—not all good, however. The 1960s were just plain awful for me. Ali was a bright spot shining in the mud.

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