The Greatest: Remembering Muhammad Ali in the Village Voice


On Friday, June 3, the world lost “the People’s Champion,” Muhammad Ali. Ali was hospitalized on June 2 for a respiratory illness and passed away the next day.

The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer first made a name for himself with his skills in the ring during the early 1960s and later for his outspoken views. Ali retired from boxing in 1981, but remained an icon of the sport for the rest of his days. Outside the ring, he fought for civil rights, resisted the Vietnam War draft, served as a diplomat, and advocated for awareness and research about Parkinson’s disease (with which he was diagnosed in 1984).

Throughout his boxing career, Ali had many key matches in New York City, and the Village Voice was there to witness them. From the “Fight of the Century” to the “Super Fight II” against rival Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden to his bout against Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium in 1976, the Voice chronicled Ali’s ascent to greatness as our Male Sports Figure of the Century. (And also that one time he pranked a bunch of fifth graders in Greenwich Village for Candid Camera.)

We dug into the archives for some of the Voice‘s coverage of Ali’s career fights in New York, as well as his impact on the world.

In 2000, the Voice looked back on the century in sports and gave Ali top honors:

When Sports Meets Politics
By R.C. Baker

In an echo of past imperial glory, a supremely confident young warrior named Cassius Marcellus Clay won fame in the brutal arenas of Rome, just as the American Century was beginning to show the cracks and strains of empire. The Olympic year of 1960 would soon be outstripped by “The Sixties,” and no one embodied them more than the newly christened Muhammad Ali: Whether converting to what the ruling class viewed as a bewildering and dangerous religion, partying with Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer, boosting Howard Cosell’s career, reading poetry in the Village, or, most ominously, refusing to fight the Viet Cong, Ali took hold of America’s hydra-headed monster of race, religion, and class and beat it like a gong.

The frustrated youngster, who threw his gold medal into the Ohio River when he found that even an Olympian was judged solely on melanin content, grew into the man who faced down the entire military-industrial complex as thoroughly as he had that equally fearsome bully Sonny Liston, achieving lasting victory over both. He lost skills and money in the three-plus years he was barred from boxing, but his principled stand won him respect all over the world.

Sport can be suffused with tribal hatreds that leave behind trampled soccer fans or burning, overturned cars, and politics often sully games that only the supremely naive feel should be simple contests of strength, speed, agility, and graceful sportsmanship. Yet Ali, using only that most basic tool, the human hand, whether clenched in a fist or held outstretched in a gesture of trust, reconciliation, and peace, showed that it can also be luminous and poignant.

It was, in fact, Ali’s trembling, stricken hand that lofted the Olympic torch in ’96, and until the bomb went off, we all forgot for a while that politics hang over sports like so many swastika banners festooning 1936 Berlin. But politics ultimately look small and unimportant next to the triumphant, beatific howls of Picabo Street and Michael Johnson, or the desolate rictus of a fallen Mary Decker, or, especially, the Führer’s constipated anger as thousands of good Germans eschewed xenophobia and cheered Jesse Owens’s four gold medals.

The following transcripts are from the February 7, 1974, edition of the Voice, following Ali’s Super Fight II victory on January 28. From his perspective as a former boxer, Jimmy O’Farrell weighed in on Ali’s win.

Ali: Doing what he had to
By Jimmy O’Farrell

Muhammad Ali knew what he had to do to beat Smoking Joe Frazier and he did it. But exactly. A 6-5-1 scorecard doesn’t leave much room.

Everything you’ve got in skills is there early, maybe not later. If you’ve been the greatest and still have shades of greatness, show it quick. Then, when the skills dull let guile fill in. Pull the whole shooting match out right away, and let them talk about you like they did before. They’ll remember what you showed them early and it’ll stick.

Think in terms of Ali’s mind.

I can still do what I did before, but only in flashes. And this guy won’t let up. I got to improvise. And have all the guts in the world. I got a machine coming at me and there’s nobody there to turn off the switch. Only me, except if I don’t do it early there’s not even me.

And that’s what Ali did. He walked out and doubled and tripled his jab, hooked off the jab and showed the screaming worshipers the Ali of the past. For round one and round two. Ali set Smoking Joe up for a one-two in the second round, nailed him perfect, and then the goddam referee almost fouled up the performance.

Poor Tony Perez tells them both to go back to their corners with 20 seconds left in the second round. But Frazier’s legs have buckled and maybe he’s on the way out. What the hell! Tell you the truth if I find out I still had 20 seconds left in the second round and I got my man going and the referee makes us stop for a while I guarantee the first guy I hit at the beginning of the third is Perez. Let them find a new ref!

From here on in it’s flash and guile. Ali picks his spots. Let the six and seven punch combinations go, then hold, walk Frazier around, show some of the footwork, nail him coming in, and hold some more. This gets him by buy he’s got to do it fight. He’s got to do it exact. Because of that goddamn machine. If he don’t fight him perfect he won’t walk out a winner.

But Ali did fight him perfect. When Smoking Joe was applying too much pressure Ali fought him off. This allowed rest. Last 30 seconds of the round Ali let the combinations go. Steal some rounds. Perfect execution. A little cheating, but they took three years away from him. Anyway fighters have been doing this for years.

Christ we’re talking about two of the all-time greats. They’re maybe 70 per cent of what they were. But that 70 per cent can buy and sell what the public has been looking at for years. You don’t knock it.

Ali wrote the script, because he knew the script by rote. He’s not only a fighter, he’s an architect. When they had out awards Muhammad has to get one for writer, as well as performer and director.

(Jimmy O’Farrell is a former amateur champion, fight promoter, and boxing manager.) 

Joe Flaherty, who wrote about Ali multiple times for the Voice, took contention with the final call on the Frazier–Ali fight in his 1974 cover story:

Frazier 7 to 5: Muhammad Ali Seagull 
By Joe Flaherty

Unless one was blessed with a doctrinaire mind, the whole affair was destined to be steeped in sadness. If you love boxing, an Ali-Frazier fight is similar to a great novel you want never to end. Neither man deserves the damnation of a final chapter.

They have heightened the game by the grace of their colliding styles. Both are artists — Ali fights like a metaphor on a bender while Frazier bows to Thoreau: life should be simplified. Yet a decision had to be rendered, and that soured the stomach.

But this is a singular perversity, a wrongheaded sadness that has nothing to do with the general scheme of things. There is no defense for such dumbness unless one allies with old dogs. But you are what you are and super-charged events have always defeated me.

Clocking the history of my prescience in cosmic affairs bows to the pratfall. Early, the kid said Baltimore would take the Jets, that Minnesota would devour the Kansas City Chiefs. I have touted all the wrong novels of major writers, and as a child the promise of a Zorro serial at a Saturday afternoon matinee moved me to vomiting. Never mind my opinion of Ethiopia as a military might!

But enough of this mock humility, the reader has been hit with enough sucker punches. The elaborate confession was only a device to soften up the sympathetic. On Monday night Joe Frazier won that damn fight seven rounds to five.

Now, to “make everything clear,” I picked Ali to win, as I had in the first fight. Why he failed to achieve the goal says a lot about the ’60s and a ton about New York. Ali’s genius bears strange gifts. (Why else would we deem it genius?)

His campaign started early: those who scored for Frazier in the first fight were not only full of shit but decorated in sheet as well. Now that’s a helluva cross for any liberal to bear. Ali hit us where we live — self-hate. Frazier’s win the first time around was, in the ’60s’ term, a “white man’s decision.” A bit like saying that George McGovern was misunderstood.

What was never considered was that Ali brought to boxing the same nebulous qualities Nixon brought to football. That is, he took it out of the realm of sportsmanship and brought it into sociology. Thus, if you believed in Frazier, there was a residue of honky in your soul, and a Sunday afternoon of football meant you were in the closet for B-52s.

But we have become a people  who wink at tyranny. The American mind has closed. Thinking is the kinkiest of occupations, it’s easier to settle for stances. No small reason that David Susskind and William Buckley are regarded as saints.

But let’s talk about the setup. Ali set up the “nigger” game. In the course of his career he has made every black fighter he faced whiter than he is. If one examines the “black odyssey” in America, wasn’t Frazier hinting at that despair? In contrast Ali was pampered. A confessed “mommy’s boy” who was schooled in boxing by a white cop, Ali’s problem, like all geniuses, is that he had the early adoration of women. Frazier worked a meaner street. Denied a father early, Frazier was granted the dubious legacy of becoming a man too soon. Frazier has the touching sense of being left.

But on to the ’60s and New York. It was a decade full of despair, but one in which we never seemed to chastise ourselves. It was 10 years devoid of sin, unless sin was an aberration to which we were entitled. In short, it was a party of spirit, there was no self-denial. Tough work was demeaned. Hemingway became a fraud, a mean memo for rupturing the English sentence; and Mailer was reviewed for macho: not for soul but for his imagined social attitudes. Thus, perhaps that night I committed the sin of all those I didn’t respect. Just maybe I put on intellectual blinkers.

But that is a hand I won’t sit in on. Frazier, according to this eye, did what every fighter is supposed to do: he gave an honest night’s work.

But in public opinion, Frazier was done in early. Larry Merchant in the New York Post made a case for Ali in the first fight second only to Max Lerner on the Vietnam war. Merchant is a man of talent who carries the weight he justly deserves, but he argued with the zeal of Louis Nizer when he has a guilty client. Merchant’s contention was that in the first fight Frazier was hit more often. On re-seeing the fight he had counted the punches. Not unlike Lyndon Johnson pulling out his popularity polls for you.

True, Ali did hit Frazier often — as his lumpy face testified. But Frazier’s face testified. But Frazier’s face, like Marciano’s, is a basic part of his ring gear. It’s his union book where dues are paid in order to let him do his work. What he did right (as he had in the first fight) was to control the evening. Ali passed a great deal of time with his trunks on the ropes. He also held Frazier — not the tactic of a dominating fighter.

For days afterward, I was left in that most dismal of states — looking for allies. In an attempt to cheer me up, my main chum Tommy Sugar informed me on a subsequent morning that two Italian boxing writers from New Jersey also scored the fight for Frazier; but this didn’t alleviate the pain of my shattered ego, since I suspected they were Tony Imperiale’s uncles. All that was missing were the cards of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and a posthumous nod from Father Coughlin. Such thoughts led me to believe Frazier’s training quarters was possibly called “Mein Kampf.”

So there could be various reasons for this column. A lack of identification could be one. Another excuse could be that too many cathedrals have crumbled, or perhaps it’s just plain dumb. But I’ll stick with the raw decision. The real “nigger” was had.

Take a closer look at the February 7, 1974, edition of the Voice.