Muhammad Ali: The Fight He Could Not Win
Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016. He was “The Greatest.” He told us so himself. And Sports Illustrated named him the greatest athlete of the 20th century. He is a three-time winner of the heavyweight championship.
Ali was polarizing. When he converted to Islam, he rejected his birth name or what he referred to as, his “slave name,” Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and renamed himself, Muhammad Ali. On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali publicly refused the military draft because of his new-founded religious beliefs. He was then convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and was stripped of his boxing titles.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft evasion, but because he was banned from boxing, he lost three prime years of his career. Nonetheless, his protest to the Vietnam War made him a hero to many.
My father, the child of Italian immigrants, loved boxing because so many successful boxers in his youth were Italians like Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Gus Mercurio, Nino Benvenuti, and Rocky Castellani. The list goes on.
March 8, 1971, one of my fondest childhood memories was when my father and I attended the closed circuit telecast of the first Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight, known as The Fight of the Century. This was, of course, long before I learned just how bad boxing was for the brain. Frazier won that fight, but Ali prevailed in their next two rematches. In 1974, Ali also prevailed in his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman in Zaire. During this fight, Ali used his famous “Rope a Dope” strategy, letting Foreman pound Ali with brutal blows round after round until Foreman wore himself out. Then Ali staged his comeback and knocked Foreman out in the eighth round.
Ali’s performance with Foreman was heroic. But, he received blow after blow from Foreman during that fight. Larry Holmes, “The Easton Assassin,” himself a remarkable heavyweight fighter, said it was Ali who was “the dope” during that fight because of how many times Ali allowed Foreman to hit him. Ali’s strategy during the “Rumble” was far from the “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” strategy that Ali so often bragged about. And his brain surely paid the price for being a human punching bag for Foreman.
In his prime, Ali was larger than life, but his brain health eventually gave out because of all the punches he absorbed during his career. We remember those sad scenes from his later years—the trembling giant who could hardly move because of Parkinson’s disease.
Best-selling author Jonathan Eig is coming out with an Ali biography later this year that promises to document the number of times Ali got hit during his fights. We’ll have to wait until the October 2017 publication date to learn that number. Ali himself reportedly estimated that he’d been hit 29,000 times in his fights. Plus, how many more times was he hit during his training sessions?
Regardless of that total number, getting hit in the head accidentally or receiving repeated head blows form sports is terrible for the brain. Had Ali realized all the damage that he was doing to his brain, would he have stopped boxing? Probably not, but with so many of our kids playing sports – whether it’s boxing, football, soccer, snowboarding or lacrosse – Muhammad Ali’s life is a sobering reminder that we must protect our brains.
At Amen Clinics, SPECT brain imaging allows us to see the damage caused by head injuries. Every day we see lives ruined by daily bad habits that could have been avoided. Protect your brain. And if you or someone you love is suffering from a head injury, come in to see us. We can help. Call today at 888-288-9834 or visit us online to schedule a visit.
Dr. Joseph A. Annibali graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Senatorial Scholar, and from which he received an Honors award for studies in Biological Chemistry. Dr. Annibali is the Chief Psychiatrist at Amen Clinics Washington DC. Author of Reclaim Your Brain—How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Back Under Control.