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Back when boxing really mattered, and Ali was king of the world

American swimmer Janet Evans looks on as Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic flame during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in Atlanta.
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Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic flame during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in Atlanta. Credit: Michael Probst, AP

Today’s question: Who is the current heavyweight boxing champion of the world?

Someone asked me that recently. I had not a clue.

Two or three decades ago, this would have been unthinkable. For most of this writer’s  life, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion was among the most famous human beings on the planet. You, as I, can probably name them: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, Evander Holifield, Lennox Lewis… and that’s where my interest pretty much ends.

Rick Cleveland
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Rick Cleveland

Before we go any farther, I should answer the original question. I googled the answer. The current heavyweight champion of the world is Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine. He won the undisputed title last month, defeating Great Britain’s Tyson Fury in a split decision in a fight held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

I had not been aware.

This would have been heresy way back in the 20th century when boxing really mattered and even the most casual of boxing fans readily recognized the heavyweight champion of the world. I followed the sport closely then, and not just the heavyweights. Smaller guys such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns, Roberto “No Mas” Duran were international celebrities, well known to all.

Boxing was all over TV on the major networks. I grew up watching the Friday night fights with my dad on NBC. They were sponsored by Gillette razors, which at a tender age I thought quite appropriate since at least one of the combatants always appeared to have lost a battle with razor blades. I well remember my dad pointing out a Black fighter named Sugar Ray Robinson one Friday night and telling me, “That man is pound for pound the greatest boxer I’ve ever seen.” I don’t think I knew exactly what that meant but I do remember at fight’s end the other guy looked like he had lost a battle with razor blades.

We didn’t get much live professional boxing in Mississippi back then. The State Golden Gloves tournament was held each year at the Sports Arena at then-Mississippi Southern College, right across Highway 49 from where we lived. Brother Bobby and I thought we might want to try that one year and Dad went and bought us some 16-ounce gloves at Smokey’s Sporting Goods. After about two minutes of our first sparring session, we both decided we’d stick to Little League baseball. Boxing hurt. Bad. We said, “No more” long before Duran said “No was.”

But we continued to follow the sport, especially when a young, fast talking, faster punching man named Cassius Clay emerged as a contender to the heavyweight title then held by Sonny Liston. Liston was a heavily muscled, ferocious looking fighter. An ex-convict who had learned to fight in prison, Liston had won 28 consecutive fights, mostly by knockout. He had knocked out the great Floyd Patterson in the first round of his two immediately previous fights.

This was 1964. Clay whipped Liston, converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and then whipped Liston again in a first-round knockout marred by controversy. Many observers thought Liston took a dive. After watching the replay, I sure thought he might have.

I’m going to make a really long story short here. Ali won a few fights as champion but refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector to the war in Viet Nam. He was stripped of his boxing license in all 50 states, and Joe Frazier became the heavyweight champion. Ali did not fight for more than three years, which should have been the prime of his boxing career.

Fight fans everywhere clamored for an Ali-Frazier fight. Problem was, there was no place that would sanction the fight, What many Mississippians might know is this: Ever so briefly, Ali and Frazier agreed to a fight at Mississippi Coliseum to be held on Dec. 15, 1969. At a press conference in Philadelpiha – the one in Pennsylvannia – Ali said he had been granted a license by the Mississippi Boxing Commission, something that had not been publicized at all in the Magnolia State. Turns out it was a most temporary license.

Cliff McCartstle, in the playful grasp of Muhammad Ali, was celebrating his 12th birthday when his mother walked him across the street in Natchez to the home where Ali was staying. Says McCarstle, now 49 and living in Tulsa, “Ali was in the yard playing with one of his daughters. My mother asked if he would have a photo made with me. He grabbed me, growled and rubbed my head. It was awesome. I’ve had the photo in every office I’ve ever had. It never fails as a conversation starter.”
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Cliff McCartstle, in the playful grasp of Muhammad Ali, was celebrating his 12th birthday when his mother walked him across the street in Natchez to the home where Ali was staying. Says McCarstle, now 49 and living in Tulsa, “Ali was in the yard playing with one of his daughters. My mother asked if he would have a photo made with me. He grabbed me, growled and rubbed my head. It was awesome. I’ve had the photo in every office I’ve ever had. It never fails as a conversation starter.” Credit: Photo courtesy McCartstle family

A few days later, the Mississippi Boxing Commission issued a statement that its members had voted unanimously not to issue a license to Ali. We missed out on a chance at being the center of the boxing universe.

But when the first of three All-Frazier fights finally did happen on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Mississippi Coliseum did provide a closed circuit televised viewing of the match. Tickets were scaled from $5 all the way up to $12. I made the trip from Hattiesburg to watch. I sprung for a $12 ticket – pretty much a king’s ransom for me at the time, on the lower level, near the screen.

My guess would be the crowd was upwards of 4,000 in attendance, nearly all male and about 50-50 African American and Caucasian. I do remember well that most of the Black attendants were clearly pulling for Ali, and most of the white ones, present company excluded, were pulling for Frazier. And I do remember that we missed the first two of three rounds because of technical issues with the closed circuit feed. Trust me: Nobody, Black or white, was happy about that. We seemed a few seconds away from a riot before we finally got a picture.

It was, as all three eventual Frazier-Ali fights were, a brutally contested classic. Frazier floored Ali with an evil hook in the 15th round and eventually won a unanimous decision. You probably know that Ali would go on to win difficult fights when they met again three and four years later.

I covered the Sept. 15, 1978, fight at the Louisiana Superdome when Ali decisioned Leon Spinks to regain the heavyweight title for an unprecedented third time. As fate had it, I sat near the ring in the VIP-media section, right next to Larry Holmes, who had formerly been Ali’s sparring partner. On the other side of Holmes, was promoter Don King. Both openly cheered for Ali, perhaps in anticipation of the huge pay day that would come two years later when Holmes easily defeated Ali in Las Vegas, That was Ali’s next-to-last fight. I was present, chills running down my spine, when Ali, trembling noticeably from Parkinson’s, lit the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta.

Ali died 20 years later on June 3, 2016. He had outlived Joe Frazier by nearly five years. As it turns out, boxing has died a much slower death.

From 2016, Mississippi remembers Muhammad Ali.

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