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The Magical Transformation Of Muhammad Ali
If we put a young reader of this article (or any young Muhammad Ali fan) into a time machine and zapped him back forty or so years ago, two things concerning Ali would become obvious to the youngster: 1) he really was as fast, quick, and as great as he had heard; and 2) he was a very unpopular sports figure. The first should not come as much of a surprise to him or her, given the availability of VHS tapes, DVDs, and now, youtube. But, the second observation may shock him or her. As hard as it is to believe about someone who is now as beloved and popular as any sports figure worldwide, Muhammad Ali was at one time not liked, well, actually hated by many people (whether they were sports fans or not). Much of the hatred was not justified, of course, but bigotry and ignorance never are. He was also loved by his fans — a true love or hate him celebrity if there was one.
To be fair and balanced, Ali brought some of the dislike for him upon himself. Right after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, which was often called the Black Muslims at the time. The Black Muslims were in some ways (for lack of a better term) anti-white. Ali’s religious beliefs at the time included viewing the white man as the “devil” and white people as not “righteous.” He also claimed that white people hated black people. All of these things were somewhat understandable, given how poorly many whites treated blacks (although rarely called blacks back then) at that time. However, fairly or not, joining the Black Muslims was not going to make “white society” warm up to him. Also, Ali was boastful — “I am the greatest” — “I’m pretty” — ” I can’t possibly be beat” — I “shook up the world” — I “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” (my personal favorite sports quote of all time) and early in his career, even predicted in what round he would knock out his opponents (with amazing accuracy). He was seen as a loudmouth who was both cocky and conceited. He was the most controversial athlete in the US (maybe the world) AND then in 1967 he refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, saying that the war was against his religion. Most of the country was still behind the war in 1967 (however, this would soon change), so this was obviously not a popular move, and at least for the short term, increased the dislike towards him. It was at this time that his popularity hit an all-time low while his controversial image hit an all-time high.
When Ali told the public that he had joined the Nation of Islam he also announced that he had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He said that “Clay” was a symbol of his ancestors’ enslavement, explaining that it was a name given to his slave ancestors by the white man. I do not know if this name change affected his popularity, however, it should be noted that only a few journalists (notably Howard Cosell and boxing announcer Don Donphy) in the US accepted it at this time. (Personally, I think Cassius Clay is one of the coolest and catchiest sports names I have ever heard, however, when thousands of people chant “Ali”, “Ali”, “Ali” it does have a nice “ring” to it (pun intended).) One boxer, Ernie Terrell, refused to acknowledge Ali’s name change and was punished brutally by Ali throughout their 15-round bout. This fight would be Ali’s 2nd to last fight before he was stripped of his title by the professional boxing commission. He was also stripped of his boxing license near the end of 1967 for refusing to enter the U.S. Army. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison for his refusing induction into the U.S. Army. Ali appealed the conviction and was out on bail during his appeal.
Before he was stripped of his title in 1967, Ali had 9 successful title defenses (including a rematch with Liston and a convincing win against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson ) and had built up his record to 29-0 with 25 wins by knockouts (including TKOs). The boxing world had never seen so perfect a boxer. Or, so I thought. Ali’s refusal to enter into the U.S. Army was big news and immediately made me a boxing fan. My father, a fan of both Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, explained to this sports-nut 8-year-old the best he could about Ali’s legacy and talents up to this point. He explained to me that some white people did not like Ali because he was so loud and brash and did not toe the line as Joe Louis had. Also, that some white people did not like him simply because he was black. He explained that the government went after Ali for these reasons. (In 1964 Ali failed the Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and and spelling skills were sub par. The tests were revised in 1966, and “somehow” Ali was reclassified as 1A.) Soon after this, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I now learned the full meaning of the words bigotry and prejudice. Even an 8-year-old (with the proper guidance) could see that Ali, while not perfect, was not being treated fairly.
I became a Muhammad Ali fan even though I had never seen him fight! Every chance I had over the next few years I would at look at boxing magazines and boxing books at newsstands, magazine stores, and libraries. The articles (including ones in “Ring Magazine”, called the “bible of boxing”) that interested me the most were the ones where the so-called boxing experts (who I suspect were all older white guys at that time) would rate the greatest fighters of all time (yes, there was an important point to this story), and specifically, the greatest heavyweights of all time. Routinely, Ali did not even make the lists of greatest fighters (pound-for-pound) and on the lists for greatest heavyweights of all time he was was much lower than I expected, usually 6th-10th and sometimes not even in the top 10! My father had told me he thought Ali and Louis were the two greatest heavyweights ever, so imagine my surprise. Was my father wrong (I was confident he was not), or were the boxing “experts” underrating him because they did not like him and/or because they were prejudiced? Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, all white, were always rated higher than Ali. (Dempsey, I would later learn, refused to fight any of the black heavyweight fighters of his time. How could a neutral person (say a person with green skin) not rate him lower just because he ducked at least half the good and/or great heavyweights of his time?) These lists made me so mad that to this day I look at any athletes’ rankings with a jaundiced eye, especially when it is from a very small sample of people. Think about the reaction of our imaginary young Ali fan if he or she saw these lists! (I am sure this is surprising to a lot of readers, which is part of the reason that I decided to write this article.)
The boxing experts (and I use that term as loosely as humanly possible) said that while Ali was fast (how is that for an understatement?), he had little or no power (what drugs were they on?). They also said he had poor technique on defense, mainly because he would often avoid punches by leaning his head straight back. (This was, at the time, considered poor technique because the fighter would be off-balance and if he got got caught with a punch, it would accentuate the force of that punch and, of course, increase the chance of a knockdown or knockout.) Some writers even suggested he did not take a punch well (hello, is anybody out there?). They suggested both of his victories over Liston were fixed (with no proof) and that Liston suddenly was not as great as they thought he was before he fought Ali (Ali was a 7-1 underdog when they fought for the title, and Liston was considered “invincible” before the fight). My favorite was the implication that Ali’s first victory over Liston was not that impressive because Liston got “old in the ring” — a phenomenon that logically does not exist (as you know, people age gradually over time, not in an instant), but creative nonetheless. They had other lame reasons (I cannot remember them anymore) for rating this super fast and unbelievably talented undefeated fighter so low. I suppose I could go and explain why all these criticisms are not true, (I will save that for my article, “The 10 Greatest Heavyweight Boxers of All Time”) but that is not the point of this article. The point that I am making, is that while Ali is a very popular figure right now and considered the greatest heavyweight of all time and one of the two greatest fighters all time (“pound for pound” — along with Sugar Ray Robinson — I give the edge to Ali), neither of these things were close to being that way in 1967. The question is: How and why did he magically transform himself to how he is viewed currently?
In order to answer this question, we have to finish the story (both mine and Ali’s). Ali’s last title defense was in March 1967 against Zora Folley, and the next time he that he was able to fight was in October 1970 against Jerry Quarry, a top contender for the heavyweight crown. Ali was no longer the official champion, even though he had never lost a fight (how fair does this seem?). For the Quarry fight, Ali was able to get a boxing license through the help of a state senator in Georgia, because Georgia was the only state in America without a boxing commission. Ali won in 3 rounds when the fight was stopped because of a cut to Quarry’s face. Although rusty, Ali was clearly better than Quarry. Sadly, though, Ali was not the same fighter as before. Ali had lost some of his speed, quickness, bounce, and sharpness because of the 3-year, 7-month lay-off. Ali was 25 years, 2 months old when he last fought and was now 28 years, 9 months old. Even sadder was when the realization sank in that the sports world had missed seeing the greatest and most exciting boxer in history fight during his best prime years. (On a personal note, this made me even angrier than those moronic all time heavyweight rankings lists.) Soon after the Quarry fight, Ali was able to get a boxing license in New York, when the New York Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license. He fought this fight in Madison Square Garden against another top contender, Oscar Bonavena. Ali, who was ahead on all 3 of the judges’ scoring cards, knocked down Bonavena 3 times in the 15th round, which caused an automatic stoppage of the fight.
Soon after that, Ali finally got a shot at the heavyweight title with a fight against the current “champion”, Joe Frazier (who also happened to be undefeated at 26-0). Never before in the history of boxing had two undefeated fighters, both with legitimate claims to the heavyweight crown, fought for the heavyweight championship. It was the most anticipated fight in boxing history and was billed, appropriately, as “The Fight of the Century.” I remember Quarry, who also fought and lost to Frazier (a TKO — again a cut to Quarry’s face) shortly before he fought Ali, predicted Ali would win because he was too fast for Frazier. Who better than Quarry would know? On March 8th, 1971, a now 11-year-old boy’s sports hero was finally going to get the title back that was unjustly taken from him. Or, so I thought. I was helping my brother with a morning paper route at the time, and I woke up at 5:30 on the morning after the fight and literally ran down the steps to see the morning paper. I grabbed the paper, and I still remember the headlines in huge capital letters (biggest headline I ever saw) “IT’S FRAZIER.” My heart sank as low as a heart could sink. I am surprised anyone got their papers that morning. Sometimes life is just not fair, I thought. Then I imagined how Ali must have felt that morning. And, how low was Ali going to be on those stupid lists now?
The fight was very close and Frazier fought a great fight (his best performance ever) and even knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook in the final round (the 15th). At the time, there was no “10-point-must scoring system”, so whoever won the round got a point. I have since watched the fight three times and I scored it 8-7 all three times, with Ali winning each time. You can watch the fight and make your own decision. All three judges had Frazier winning — 8-6-1, 9-6, 11-4 (what fight was he watching?). Both fighters spent time in the hospital after the fight, with Frazier spending more time there. Hmm. But, as far as the record books go, Ali had lost his biggest fight (so far, at least).
Soon after the fight, on June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous 8-0 (with one abstention — no — Antonin Scalia was not on the bench at that time) decision, reversed Ali’s conviction for refusing to enter the U.S. Army. Finally, some good news for Ali and his fans. With the conviction and the 5-year jail sentence no longer hanging over his head, Ali, like a man possessed (and with good reason), fought and won an amazing 10 times in 17 months against top heavyweight opposition between July, 1971 and February, 1973. It seemed as if Ali was trying to make up for lost time, get all the rust off, and force a rematch with Frazier. Unfortunately, Frazier defended his title against hard-punching and also undefeated (37-0) George Foreman in January, 1973, and in somewhat of a surprise, lost his title when he was destroyed by Foreman. Foreman knocked Frazier down (as Cosell famously screamed “down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier”) an astonishing 6 times in just 2 rounds before the fight was stopped. In March of 1974, Ali lost to an excellent fighter, Ken Norton (29-1), when Norton broke Ali’s jaw and won a close decision. Six months later, Ali won the rematch against Norton in another close decision.
In January, 1974, Ali finally got his rematch against Frazier, although this time it was not for the heavyweight crown. Foreman had agreed (at least unofficially), however, to fight the winner for a shot at his heavyweight crown. In the second round, Ali had Frazier in trouble on the ropes and it appeared he might knock Frazier out when the referee stopped the fight because he said he thought he heard the bell signifying the end of the round. There was, however, still almost 30 seconds left in the round. Frazier was able to recover and the fight ended up going the distance (12 rounds). Ali clearly won a unanimous decision with the judges scoring it, 8-4, 7-4-1, 6-5-1 for Ali. Even though Ali was 3 years older than he was in the 1st fight, he somehow looked a little sharper than in the 1st fight. It appeared that any rust that could possibly be knocked off was fully knocked off now, even though he was never the same fighter after the lay-off. Ali finally had another shot at the heavyweight crown, but as they say, “be careful what you wish for.”
Meanwhile, Foreman fought Norton two months later and pulverized him with 3 knockdowns in 2 rounds before the fight was stopped. Foreman had won his last 8 fights with 1st or 2nd round knockouts. He was an impressive 40-0 with 37 knockouts (including TKOs), 30 of which occurred in the first 3 rounds! He also was just hitting his prime at age 25. Ali was now 44-2 and past his prime at age 32. Boxing experts were saying that Foreman had the hardest punch of anyone in the history of boxing (this time the boxing experts knew what they were talking about — go watch the the Frazier and Norton fights if you have any doubt). It looked to me at the time that Foreman had a shot at going down in history as being the greatest heavyweight ever. He looked more invincible and powerful than Liston did before he fought Ali the first time. In addition, Foreman was younger than Liston (age 32) when Liston fought Ali in 1964, and Ali was now older. Plus, Foreman had destroyed Frazier and Norton while Ali had 4 close decisions with them, winning 2 and losing 2. Foreman was heavily favored (5-1 odds) and even Ali’s longtime supporter, Cosell, did not think Ali had a chance of winning. How come Ali and his now 15-year-old supporter cannot get a break? I actually thought Ali would find a way to win a 15 round decision by winning the later rounds as Foreman got tired, but I do not know if I actually believed it, since I always thought Ali would win (excluding his two fights when he was old — 38 and almost 40 years old). My father agreed, but neither one of us was confident enough to make it sound like a real prediction. After all, Foreman looked awesome and fought as if he had only one goal in mind when he was in the ring — to knock the other fighter senseless — and Ali was going to be no exception.
Interestingly, Ali actually gave away part (but only part) of his strategy by making fun of Foreman’s slow, long, deliberate punches (one of the funniest moments in sports history) and mentioning the fact that Foreman had only fought past the 8th round (remember that round) three times in his career. Ali said that Foreman would get tired, and I believed him, because it made sense to me logically. Provided that a 32-year-old Ali, who was slower now and no longer capable of dancing for 15 rounds, could avoid getting knocked out. Tall order against the likes of Foreman.
The fight finally took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire and was billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, who usually started slowly in the second half of his career, surprisingly came right at Foreman and caught Foreman several times with punches to his head. While Foreman looked imposing in the ring, it was clear after the end of the first round that Ali was faster, quicker, and most importantly, by far the better “boxer”. While none of this was surprising, seeing this gave Ali fans hope. Then in the second round, Ali unveiled the other half of his strategy — the half he did not tell anyone about. For most of the next 7 rounds, Ali sat on the ropes and let Foreman hit him with all his might. Ali absorbed the punches with his arms and fists and also threw in some well-timed counter punches. Ali even taunted Foreman in an effort tire him both mentally and physically. Each round Foreman grew more and more tired and, as a result, he threw his punches with decreasing force and effectiveness. Near the end of the 8th round, Ali caught an exhausted Foreman in a counter- punching combination, and Foreman spun around and fell mightily to the canvas. Goliath was slain with a combination of brains and brawn, and 7 long years after his title was unjustly stripped from him, Ali was again the “rightful” heavyweight champion. And a 15-year-old sports nut thought to himself: Can my sport’s hero finally get some respect from the so-called boxing experts? Do you still think he cannot take a punch? Did you see that explosive, powerful combination at the end of the fight? Did you notice that poor defensive technique now known as the “rope-a-dope?” Was this fight fixed also? Will we ever see a heavyweight as fast and quick as Ali? Will Foreman suddenly and magically be considered overrated just like Liston? And, did a 25-year-old Foreman get “old in the ring” too?
This fight, more than any other, helped persuade Ali’s critics that they were wrong about his overall abilities as a boxer (whether they actually admit it or not — I am doing it for them). The rest of his career, except for his 3rd fights with Norton and Frazier (the “Thrilla in Manila”), are fairly inconsequential to our discussion. He beat Norton in a close fight to gain a 2-1 career edge against him (Norton would eventually win a portion of the heavyweight crown after Ali retired). Before the third fight with Frazier, Ali called Frazier a “gorilla” while punching a play gorilla as if it were Frazier during the promotion of the fight. Joke or no joke, all things considered, for Ali to call another black man a gorilla was truly a despicable act and his lowest moment as a public figure. (Openly cheating on his second wife around the time of the Foreman fight was not an admirable action either.) The fight, however, was another classic, and Ali again showed both his ability to take a punch and a lot of heart. In a sometimes brutal back and forth fight, Ali won when Frazier’s corner did not allow him to answer the bell for the 15th round because his eyes were closed and he had taken a beating the last couple of rounds. Ali fell to the canvas in exhaustion when he realized he had won. Ali now also had a 2-1 career edge against Frazier. Later, Ali would lose his title to an inexperienced Leon Spinks and then win it back 6 months later to become the first fighter to win the heavyweight title 3 times.
In 1998, Ring Magazine ranked Ali as the #1 heavyweight boxer of all time (finally!). Ring Magazine also did a ranking of the 80 greatest boxers in 80 years in 2002, and Ali was 1st among heavyweights and 3rd overall (Sugar Ray Robinson was 1st overall, the great Henry Armstrong was 2nd, and Louis was 4th overall, 2nd among heavyweights). ESPN recently listed the 50 greatest boxers of all time, and Ali was 2nd overall and 1st among heavyweights. Five-time middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson was 1st overall and Joe Louis was second among heavyweights and fourth overall. At the end of 1999, ABC voted Ali the “Athlete of the Century” ahead of Jordan, who was second. Also late in 1999, a panel of 46 sports experts voted Ali the 3rd Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. Jordan was first (and deservedly so), Joe Louis was 11th, and Sugar Ray Robinson was 24th. Now I ask you again: How and why did Muhammad Ali’s magical transformation take place?
His transformation actually happened in two different ways. First, there is his popularity as a public sports figure, and second, the ranking of his boxing skills. I will deal with his boxing skills first. When I first started looking at these lists, Ali had only finished the first half of his career. He was, as previously mentioned, 29-0, and in his 9 title defenses he looked heads and tails above his opponents. To get full appreciation of Ali’s greatness you have to watch his 10 fights between 1964 and 1967 when he was between the ages of 22 and 25. They are the most incredible display of boxing you will ever see. Blinding speed and quickness, amazing footwork, sharp jabs, and powerful combinations. He also displayed an amazing ability to avoid getting hit by dancing around his opponents and using his abnormally quick reflexes to avoid their punches. This ability and the speed of his punches and footwork had never been seen before in the history of boxing. As for power, I think 25 knockouts (including TKOs), 14 of which were in the first 5 rounds, in 29 bouts, speaks loudly enough. In one fight in particular, against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams (check it out on YouTube where you can witness the “Ali Shuffle”), he looked so sharp, fast, and powerful, yes powerful, you would have thought we did have that time machine mentioned in the beginning of our story, and that he was an athlete from 200 years into the future! Nobody, not even the great Joe Louis, would have stood a chance against Ali that night. In other words, during his prime, his opponents were completely outclassed — he barely got touched in most of these fights. (In the Williams fight, for example, (by one count that I read) Ali landed over 100 blows while Williams landed only three!)
After the lay-off, however, it was a different story, since he lost some of his speed, quickness, and the bounce in his legs, so he could no longer dance around his opponents as he used to for an entire fight. So, Ali had to find other ways to win. He also had to take punishment, something that was not tested much in the first half of his career. It turns out that his ability to take a punch might have been his biggest strength, but we did not know it till after 1969. So, while he did not look as good overall in the second half of his career, he did display two important qualities in a fighter which he had not displayed before: 1) an amazing ability to take a punch and punishment; and 2) an ability to find other ways to win, such as “ring smarts.” So, to be fair to the so-called boxing experts in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the evaluation of his boxing skills should have gone up, but not by that much. Which means that some of them had grossly underestimated his abilities. This includes Ring Magazine.
Ring Magazine has actually changed ownership and publishers (a couple of times), so I suspect that none of the people who did the rankings 25-40 years ago were the same ones who did the rankings in 1998. I also suspect that, unlike now, the people doing the rankings (all the rankings I saw — not just Ring’s) were ALL middle-aged or, more likely, older white guys. These so-called boxing experts were not going to give a brash, loudmouth, flamboyant, anti-establishment black male his due and rate him higher than their childhood heroes, whether they were white boxers or a toe-the-line black boxer like Joe Louis. (Ironically, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), has always been underrated for the same reason.) My father, a very liberal, intelligent man, was apparently able to look past Ali’s skin color and in-your-face personality and just evaluate only what he saw in the ring; these so-called boxers apparently could not. There is just no other explanation for the disparities in the rankings. Sometimes sports can teach you an important lesson in life. I know I learned one from all of this.
But, this only tells half the story. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, lots of people, sports fans or otherwise, just did not like Ali’s personality; other people loved it. I mentioned many “negative” parts to his personality, however, I have yet to mentioned any likable parts to Ali’s personality (pretty good restraint for an Ali fan). Ali was funny, quick-witted, intelligent, an entertaining poet, charismatic, and at times, classy and kind-hearted. So, why do people now see his positive qualities and overlook the negative qualities and actions of Ali? You almost never hear anything negative about Ali anymore. When he was the final Olympic Torchbearer in Atlanta in the 1996 Olympics, in listening to the announcers and the fans’ reception, you would have thought he had been elevated to a God-like status.
How did this part of Ali’s magical transformation take place? Well, first, people have changed. While admittedly a slow process, each generation of people is less prejudiced than the one before. Second, soon after Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, the Vietnam War started to become very unpopular. Instead of being seen as a draft dodger, Ali was now being seen as a hero for standing up to an unjust war and draft. Plus, he did this at a great personal, sacrifice, losing 3 and half of his prime years, with very little complaint. Third, he lost. An individual’s popularity, sports or otherwise, goes up whenever they have a setback and bounce back from it. Fourth, in his three fights with Frazier, Ali showed he had lots of heart (so did Frazier). Fifth, redemption. Ali gained his “rightful” title back 7 years after it was unjustly taken away. Plus, he did it with a feat that can only be described as sheer athletic brilliance, while absorbing great punishment against what appeared to be an unbeatable Goliath. Sixth, sympathy. The punishment that Ali took in the ring resulted in his now having Parkinson’s syndrome. It is sad to see such a quick-witted, fast-talking, brilliant athlete, struggle to talk and control the shaking of his hands. As a result, people do feel sorry for him.
It would be interesting to see how Ali is viewed 100 years from now. I am sure, thanks to his magical transformation that has taken place over the last 40 years, it will be better than it was in 1967. And as a life-long Ali fan, this makes the little boy inside of me happy. It is also nice to know that my father did not steer me wrong in all of this and that the so-called boxing experts were flat-out wrong (which is only fitting since they underrated Ali for the wrong reasons). In addition, this taught me an important lesson: Never let your personal bias or views about someone affect how you rate someone’s abilities, in sports or in other areas of life. I told you in the beginning — this one is personal.
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