Muhammad Ali, the original motormouth: Entertaining inside and outside the ring

I wasn’t around when Muhammad Ali was rumbling in the jungle. I have seen that, and almost every other Muhammad Ali fight, countless times, but it has always been thanks to an iffy internet connection, and about 40 years after the punches were actually thrown. But can one ever truly appreciate the genius of Ali when you have never woken up at 4 am to watch it live? Can a YouTube video convey the thrill and the magic of watching history unfold? It’s easier today to type ‘Fight of the Century’ in a search bar, but the actual beauty of sport is to watch it live. To not know that the fight you are witnessing will go down in history as the greatest boxing match of all time.

Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a boxer, he was a performance onto himself. He didn’t even need an opponent in the ring to make people tune in. In the lead up to what would later be known as ‘Thrilla in Manila’, his third bout with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, he started the trash talking early. He took a little gorilla doll around with him everywhere, calling it ‘Joe Frazier’s conscience’. Having his opponent sufficiently worked up, he proceeded to punch the doll, saying “There will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila”.

 Muhammad Ali, the original motormouth: Entertaining inside and outside the ring

File photo of Muhammad Ali and his entourage try to wind up Ken Norton ahead of their fight. Reuters

Joe Frazier, preparing for the fight in suburban Manila, was watching this performance on TV. Was it humiliating for him to watch his opponent call him a gorilla, taunt him over his perceived ugliness, and have hundreds of press journalists laugh mockingly? Was it difficult for him to be told he is no good because George Foreman beat him, and will beat him every day of the week? Ali certainly thought so. Revealing the strategy behind his motormouth approach to every bout, Ali said it helps to get an opponent angry before a fight “because when a man’s mad, he wants ya so bad, he can't think”. It certainly worked with Joe 'Frey-sha', and even more effectively with Foreman.

During the rumble in the jungle, Ali vs Foreman in Zaire, he kept goading Foreman, who was easily the bigger and more powerful boxer. Foreman could, and should, have easily overpowered Ali with just his brute strength, but he was taunted so hard that he couldn’t think straight. “Is that all you got, George?” Ali would ask. “They told me you could punch, George.” By now the crowd was eating out of Ali’s hands; 60,000 people were as one, chanting “Ali buma ye” (kill him, Ali). Foreman was battling Ali, the heat, the taunts, and the full weight of a partisan crowd which wanted nothing more than to see more blood being shed. It was all too much.Big George Foreman just collapsed in the eighth round.

Ali realised the value of dirty talking early in his career. When he was just 22, he beat reigning world champion Sonny Liston. “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest,” he said. He wasn’t even Ali then; back in 1964, he was just Cassius Clay, little more than the boastful poetries he’d written about himself. Could he, like he claimed, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee? What confidence it must have taken in one’s own ability to, as a 22-year-old, call the reigning world champion a bear. And this is boxing. Getting your opponent angry would only result in punches becoming even fiercer.

But the most special attention he reserved for Joe Frazier. Many believe Frazier is the only boxer Ali truly believed could beat him and it clearly required special attention to work him up. Before their first match, Ali kept insisting Frazier couldn’t become world champion saying “He’s too ugly to be champ” and “He’s too dumb to be champ”. And unlike George Foreman who was pragmatic enough to realise what Ali said in the ring was different from what Ali thought of him, and went on to become very good friends with him, with Frazier the pain was real. More than 20 years after their fight in Manila, Frazier continued hating Ali for what happened in Manila. When told Ali would be lighting the flame for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Frazier said, “I wish Ali had fallen into the flame. If I had the chance, I’d have pushed him in.”

Ali was the pioneer of the motormouth dial-a-quote press conferences before key matches. And although, everybody since then has been following his model, nobody can do it with as much class or as much wit. When Ali insulted you, it was because he respected you enough to do so. It wasn’t trash talking for the sake of it, it was because he genuinely believed it would wear you down. And it was all done with laugh-out-loud humour.

Mike Tyson tried to do it but was unimaginably crass about it. “Lennox Lewis, I want your heart, I want to eat his children.” There is nothing nice about it. It wouldn’t make Lewis mad with rage. It wouldn’t make a gaggle of press persons spectators chuckle. It wouldn’t have 60,000 people chant ‘Tyson buma ye’. It wouldn’t do anything. It was trash talking for the sake of it. And just for the record, Tyson lost that bout. Lewis owned him and knocked him out in eight.

Now sample Ali’s tirade against Frazier: “Joe Frazier should give his face to the Wildlife Fund. He’s so ugly, blind men go the other way. Ugly! He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country! What will the people of Manila think? That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly.”

That was stand-up comedy level good. It was insulting and mean and got Frazier riled up. And that helped Ali win.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2016 17:25:25 IST