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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Happy birthday, Muhammed Ali

It is Muhammad Ali’s birthday today, making him officially ‘in his seventies’. Reaching this birthday is in itself a huge achievement for Ali. He was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s 30 years ago, in 1984. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is 16 years, but Ali’s fighting spirit has no doubt contributed to his longevity.

Muhammed Ali inspecting a shillelagh at Dublin Airport
11 July 1972
There have been a lot of health scares concerning Ali lately. He was hospitalized briefly early this year with pneumonia, and his brother, Rahman, had declared him to be on the brink of death in February 2013, but this was disputed by other members of Ali’s family.

Ali first started showing symptoms of Parkinson’s in 1979, displaying trembling hands and vocal stutterings. He was declared fit to fight by the Mayo Clinic, and continued to do so into the eighties, despite those closest to him begging him to stop. It is believed that those last fights aggravated his condition.

Ali is still named as one of the best heavyweight champion of all times. He was the first to win the title three times, and achieved this during what was known as the golden era of heavyweight boxing, contending with the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston. He also won an Olympic gold medal before going professional, though he claimed to have thrown his medal away after being refused service in an all-white restaurant.

What made Ali stand out the most from his contemporaries was his light-footedness. He was never an overpowering puncher, but his speed meant he could dodge heavy punches and counteract with some jabs of his own. His flurries of lighter jabs would wear out many of his more powerful opponents, and his ability to absorb their punches meant he could outlast them.

When Ali faced Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in Dublin in 1972, he was preparing for another shot at the championship title. He had lost to Joe Frazier in 1971, the then reigning heavyweight champion. However, Ali had been inactive for almost four years before that fight when he was stripped of his title and his boxing licence was removed after he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War.  

Very few people wanted to fight Lewis, as he was known as a heavy hitter. Ali had a lot of respect for him, and cited him as one of the top five fighters he had ever faced.

Ali at Stewart's Hospital, Portmarnock
15 July 1972
While Ali was in Ireland, he visited Stewart’s Hospital in Portmarnock and spent a lot of time greeting people on the streets. He also sat down with the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, and conducted a brilliantly candid interview with Cathal O’Shannon on RTÉ. It was not just his prowess in the ring that endeared Ali to the public, his showmanship, his exuberant confidence and his natural empathy for the downtrodden that made him one of the most recognized sports people in the world. 

Happy birthday, Champ! May you live as long as you want, but never want as long as you live.

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