The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The legend of Muhammad Ali as told by Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich

Coverage of “The Rumble in the Jungle” leads The Washington Post Sports Section on October 31, 1974. (Washington Post archives)
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When Muhammad Ali shook the world, The Washington Post was there.

Sports columnist Shirley Povich covered Ali for The Post for more than three decades, chronicling the rise of “The Greatest” and the waning moments of his remarkable career. Povich was there for his first heavyweight title, his fight against the U.S. government, the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “cruel spectacle” that were his final fights.

Here are a few of the most memorable from Ali, and Povich.

Clay vs. Liston I

On Feb. 26, 1964, Povich wrote from Miami Beach, Fla., describing the scene at Ali’s first news conference as world champion, when the precocious heavyweight then known as Cassius Clay surprised the media with a newfound modesty.

“It was surprise on surprise that Cassius Clay was pulling,” Povich wrote. “Here he was the next morning, his first as heavyweight champion of the world, and now in a performance no less stunning than his conquest of Sonny Liston the night before when he left Liston a bloodied and beaten hulk on his ring stool at the end of six rounds.

“Cassius, who had loud-mouthed his way to the title match in the first place and then licked Liston, now had the working stiffs of the press off balance. He was the mannerly, subdued young man now talking about himself and his victory in controlled tones that bordered on whispers. He was almost shy, respectful to everybody.

“Not a mark did he bare from his battle with Liston: ‘I am through talking,’ Cassius said, almost sotto voice, ‘I don’t have to talk anymore. All I have to do is be a nice clean gentleman.’ This was an upset to equal his feat of the night before.”

Even in that humble showing, the press pulled the braggart out of Ali.

“Some of the new modesty began to wear off,” Povich wrote. “If Liston is great I must be double great,” Ali said that day. “You experts put a big load on that old man. You made me fight harder. But I ain’t mad at you. You just let my mouth overshadow my ability.”

An injured, defeated Liston told Povich that Ali was not as good as Eddie Machen or Floyd Patterson or Zora Folley. In the process, Liston told Povich what made Ali so great: He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

“They come to fight,” Liston said of his previous opponents. “He runs like a thief; like he stole something.”

About a month later, Povich wrote about the World Boxing Association’s attempt to strip Ali, at this point preferring the moniker Cassius X, of his heavyweight title after the fighter joined the Nation of Islam.

“Now there is some evidence that the WBA has also gone slightly loose in the head,” Povich wrote.

“Three notable things have happened to Clay in the nine months since the WBA itself announced he was the thoroughly acceptable No. 1 challenger for Sonny Liston’s heavyweight title. (1) He licked Liston, (2) He joined the Black Muslims and (3) He flunked the arithmetic test of his Army Draft board.

“It is still very doubtful if any of these episodes is a crime against the state, the people or the World Boxing Association. Actually, Cassius’ defeat of Liston could be acclaimed as a public service which removed that twice-convicted felon from the heavyweight throne.”

Povich couldn’t resist from piling on Liston.

“It may not be nice to have as the reigning heavyweight champion a youth who never learned his multiplication tables,” he wrote, “but the WBA never raised its voice against Sonny Liston with his record of 16 arrests and two jail terms until last week.”

“The Fight of the Century”

When Joe Frazier defeated Ali in their first meeting, dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” on March 8, 1971, Povich reported from Madison Square Garden in New York.

“In round 11 he wouldn’t go down,” Povich wrote. “There was a definite sag to his knees, and there was hurt on Muhammad Ali’s face, but he wouldn’t go down from that murderous left hook to his jaw. His pride was propping him and it was his defiance against Joe Frazier in this moment of his trouble and he lasted the round out.

“But in the first minute of round 15, there was no time for Muhammad Ali to summon his pride to avert a knockdown because he was already on the flat of his back, deposited there by another of Joe Frazier’s thunderbolt lefts. He was up at the count of three, but he had to take the mandatory count of eight, and now he knew he was a beaten fighter for the first time in his professional life.

“The decision in favor of Joe Frazier would be a formality as soon as Johnny Addie collected the slips from the judges and the referee at 11:40 p.m. this night. Muhammad Ali could no longer boast he was the greatest; the slow, chunky fellow he had scorned as clumsy and flat-footed was his conqueror in perhaps the fastest-paced heavyweight battle ever fought.”

“Rumble in the Jungle”

Povich followed Ali to Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 for the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali faced and defeated George Foreman on Oct. 30 in remarkable fashion.

“It was a totally confused and arm-weary Foreman who finally gave up his title, from a horizontal position, with two seconds left in round eight,” Povich wrote. “Ali had ripened him for this sort of thing, winning every round on The Washington Post’s scorecard.

“When the end came, it was by trick. After a flailing by Foreman on the ropes, Ali slid away as he had done some 50 times previously in the fight. But this time he was sagging and appeared hurt. He was faking it. When Foreman moved in with his hands held low, on the scent of a kill, Ali sprang, bouncing the winning triple off Foreman’s chin: left, right, left. Ali had back the title he first won 10 years ago.”

Ali vs. Holmes

It wasn’t all triumphant victories for Ali, however. In 1980, there was the Larry Holmes fight, which Povich would accurately preview under the title, “Ali: Long, sad night likely.”

“He will become, he boasts, the only heavyweight champion to regain the title four times,” Povich wrote of Ali. “Big deal. If it happens, which is doubtful, it was made possible only because Ali was the only champion ever to lose the title three times. Altogether the four-time business is one bit of braggery Ali might be wise to drop. It raises questions.”

On Feb. 3, 1996, Povich would look back at Ali’s last gasp in a column titled, “Not all comebacks are magical.”

“Sad, too, was the denouement of the great Muhammad Ali,” Povich wrote. “In his last comeback against former sparring partner Larry Holmes, Ali wasn’t even a ghost of his former self. Ringsiders were asking the referees to stop it as an act of mercy by the fourth round. The ref finally did in the 11th. But Ali would be remembered for that cruel spectacle.”

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