I am a generation older than Josh so I have a different, earlier memory of the guy who was then called Cassius Clay. I saw him win the Olympics as a light heavy weight, and listened to the first Liston-Clay fight on the radio in 1964. It wasn’t televised. It was in theater TV. Liston, who was a Mike Tyson in his prime type – one punch and you were out, and he’d never been knocked down — was a prohibitive 7-1 favorite. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My friends and I speculated afterwards that Liston must have taken a dive. But if you watch the fight on video, Clay was so quick he was unhittable, and destroyed Liston with his long left-handed jabs. (The second fight, where Liston got knocked out in the first round, still looks to me as if Liston didn’t want to fight. The right-hand that took him out was not even extended. It was more like a hard jab.) When Clay turned Ali and refused to go to fight in the Vietnam War, he was sent to jail in the middle of his career.
He lost five years between 23 and 28, the prime time for a prize fighter. By the time he fought Frazier and Foreman, he didn’t have the lightning speed and endurance that would have made him the greatest ever. And his willingness to go to jail for Vietnam – being the heavyweight champion in those days was by far the greatest honor in sports. Nothing compared to it. It was as if Shakespeare had been willing to go to jail and stop writing in the five years he wrote Hamlet, Othello and Lear. It was an unbelievable sacrifice, and would be enough – if he had never fought again – to make him a great hero.