What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ — and the poster that sold it Remembering The Champ’s historic comeback

 

In the darkest night part of morning they came 60,000 strong — to watch undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman take on challenger Muhammad Ali. It was another time. The 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, is now the Stade Tata Raphaël in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and The Rumble in the Jungle, as it was known, was scheduled to begin at 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1974. This was so the match originally titled From Slave Ship to Championship would air live on closed-circuit television in U.S. theaters at 10 p.m. EST.

From backstage, journalist Norman Mailer described the scene. Although his entourage was somber, Ali appeared relaxed as he addressed himself in a mellifluous tone: “I been up and I been down. You know, I been around. It must be dark when you get knocked out. Why, I’ve never been knocked out. I’ve been knocked down, but never out.”

Ali was about to prove, once again, why he was the greatest of all time. Ever since the boxing commission stripped the champ of his title and suspended his boxing license for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War, Ali had been on a mission to reclaim all that had been stolen from him. Ali fought the law — and won, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was vindicated in June 1971.

“No one had heard the word ‘Zaire.’ ”

Boxing license back, Ali took on then-world champion Joe Frazier in The Fight of the Century in March 1971. It was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had battled in a title fight. They went the full 15. Frazier won by unanimous decision, handing Ali his first loss.

By 1974, George Foreman held the title. Undefeated, Foreman had more than 35 knockouts under his belt, and at 25, seemed an unstoppable force, but Ali, seven years his senior, never lost heart.

On most fight posters, the location was not a visual part of the story. Whether held in Las Vegas, Chicago or Miami, the location was simply a matter of logistical information. But with The Rumble in the Jungle, Africa was a central character. “No one had heard the word ‘Zaire,’ ” recalled sports photographer Neil Leifer. “If you want to put your country on the map — what a way to do it. If you wanted the world to know who you were, get the most popular black man on earth to promote it. It was probably a good business move for Mobutu.” Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was noted for his cruelty and for being a master of terror on a grand scale, died in exile in 1997.

Set against a blazing yellow background, black and white photographs of Foreman and Ali floated above the continent of Africa, silhouetted in verdant green, perfectly matching the colors of the flag of Zaire. The poster had gone through slight modifications after Foreman cut his right eye during training, pushing back the date of the match, and it ran in both English and French. The French version of the fight poster included the words Un cadeau du President Mobutu au peuple Zaïrois et un honneur pour l’homme noir: “A gift from President Mobutu to the people of Zaire and an honor for the black man.”


Leifer, a boy wonder who began his professional career in 1958 at the age of 16, produced arguably the most famous photograph of Ali on earth: the image of him standing above Sonny Liston after throwing “the phantom punch” that sent the challenger to the mat during the first round of the 1965 world heavyweight title fight.

A photographer, like a boxer, has to be fully prepared for the fight, to be in peak condition and determined to make history. With more than 200 magazine covers and 17 books to his name, Leifer’s most recent book, The Fight (Taschen) is a triumph of book publishing. Limited to just 1,974 copies, the book features photographs by Leifer and Howard L. Bingham, Ali’s best friend, who died in 2016.

Using abridged copy from Mailer’s 1975 The Fight as its departure point, the Taschen volume follows Ali’s path through Zaire, crafting a comeback that blew people away. The book comes inside a slipcase that is modeled after the fight poster, using the same colors and design concept. “An image has to stop you — otherwise you will walk right by it,” said Leifer. “A cover is a poster — and if you take a second look at it, you might want to look inside. That yellow just jumps out at you … you can see it from half a block away.” But it’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement and the African independence movements.

It’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement.

The story belongs to the champion. This is increasingly clear when paging through The Fight. The Rumble in the Jungle was Ali’s return to glory. Unlike Foreman, whose strengths did not translate outside the ring, Ali took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, never meeting a camera or a reporter he did not like.

As Mailer reported, after shaking hands, Ali told Foreman, “You have heard of me since you were young. You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!” Foreman blinked.

The bell rang, and 30 seconds into the fight, Foreman had Ali on the ropes. They sparred, landing blows. It was an intense round, but people feared Ali would not be able to sustain that level of aggression. They weren’t wrong. Somewhere in the second round, Ali switched it up: rope-a-dope.

Ali hung back against the ropes, inviting Foreman to charge, then ducked, bobbed, weaved and blocked the champ’s fists of fury. Everyone was stunned. “What Muhammad did was so unusual, I honestly didn’t know when he would win,” Leifer recalled. “Any sensible person said, ‘What is he, out of his mind? He’s letting himself get hit.’ Foreman was an incredible puncher. You had to assume that at some point he’s going to break through Ali’s defense … but it didn’t happen that way.”

By the eighth round, Foreman was spent and Ali was prepared, landing several hooks followed by a five-punch combination that sent the champ sputtering to the ground. Mailer reported, “Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position … he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets as high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground. He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news … ”

Determined to rouse himself, Foreman made it back on his feet after a count of 10, but he was finished. With two seconds remaining in the round, referee Zack Clayton stopped the fight. Ali had won the title back. Then he fainted.

Soon after the fight, the sky broke open and the rains came pouring down. The rainy season had been two weeks late, and the torrents flooded the stadium, drenching the batteries until the generators gave out. Half of the Telex machines shut down, and pictures and words could no longer get out — but they didn’t need to. Ali lived up to the poster — and did what he came to do as the whole world watched.