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Learning from Muhammad Ali

By Cliff Montgomery,
The self-proclaimed "Greatest of All Time," Ali had a pretty good idea of what he was talking about. He became the first man to win the heavyweight title three times and revolutionized the sport by introducing a style that went against many of the game's sacred teachings.

Getting into boxing at 12 so that he could 'whip the thief' who stole his new Schwinn bicycle, then-Cassius Clay showed an amazing aptitude for the fighting game.

In his first years as a boxer, Clay showed some characteristics he would maintain throughout his career. His fighting style was very unusual. Back then Cassius was already faster than most of his opponents. So fast was Clay that he was able to box while holding his left hand by his side and often pulled straight back to avoid punches, two of the game's cardinal sins. In fact to be honest, they are faults which should not be tried by anyone who does not have comparable speed and footwork. Clay employed the best jab in boxing and had handspeed comparable to a welterweight.

It was also one of Clay's features to predict the round in which his opponent would fall. Though it earned him the name "the loudmouth" from many sports journalists, they failed to understand that the apparent boasts also gave Clay a strong psychological edge over his opponent.

A boxer who makes good on his predictions boasting that he will knock out his next adversary in the 6th round can make many lesser-willed opponents believe its probability. This helps to beat a tough fighter before the bout even begins. Clay was employing the first true signs of psychological warfare in the boxing ring. It would not be the last time he practiced such tactics.

A chance at the World Heavyweight Championship came his way in 1964 against Sonny Liston, a former prisoner who was jailed for killing a man with his bare hands. He seemed as invincible as Mike Tyson at his best.

Clay was fearful, but he didn't show it. In fact his wild behavior and loud predictions had convinced Liston that the young upstart was utterly insane. He'd seen similar actions from dangerous guys in the pen. For the first time, Liston was as intimidated as his opponent.

Clay danced around the flat-footed champion the whole fight, landing lightning-fast jabs and combinations before a counterpunch could be landed, essentially wearing down the tougher fighter--the major tactic of Clay's style. At the beginning of the seventh round, Liston refused to resume the fight.

Not long after this bout Clay made a decision which would be central to his life: he had become a devout Muslim, and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He lost support among many people who did not understand his choice.

Some tried to say that Ali was indeed an incredible boxer, but didn't have much of a punch. The problem with this logic is that Ali knocked many--if not most--of his opponents out cold.

Others said Ali wasn't tough enough. This idea was destroyed in 1973 however, when Ken Norton broke Ali's jaw in the second round of a legendary fight. Though Norton won on points, the fact that Ali continued for ten rounds with a broken jaw proved one thing: The man was very tough when he had to be.

In 1974, an older Ali made a radical change in his fighting style when he took on George Foreman. Ali leaned against the ropes and far out of the ring whenever brutal punches came his way, which allowed his body to take the blows with only minimum damage. For the first time Ali also actually protected his face and body in a true defensive stance, further allowing him to take the strikes.

Ali gambled that after a few rounds, Foreman's confidence in his superior power would begin to crumble, and that perhaps the man might simply wear himself out with those gargantuan punches. He was right.

Ali felt he had found a new fighting style, one that would allow him to stay in the fight game now that he was in his mid-30s and had begun to lose a touch of that wondrous speed. It was the greatest error he ever made in his professional life.

The human body can take small bursts of grueling punishment, but it simply cannot maintain that punishment over a period of years, especially from some of the best fighters in the world. This new tactic, called the 'rope-a-dope' by Ali and others, employed over a period of years probably contributed to Ali's current physical problems more than anything else.

But this is not what will be remembered. We will remember Ali at his best, at his fastest, at his strongest. If he could sometimes be infuriating, he was often spectacular.

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