‘The Greatest’ always answered the bell

Published 12:42 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Growing up in a home with a father who loved the sport of professional boxing, it was hard not to gain an appreciation and understanding of that athletic art form.

My dad taught me how to box; basically for self-defense purposes. To date, I’ve never been in a situation where those skills were needed. Hopefully, the remainder of my time here on Earth will follow suit.

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Bryant household would gather around the black-and-white television each Tuesday night for what was then billed as “The Fight of the Week.” I remember seeing the stars of that era…my dad’s heroes: Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Emile Griffith and Dick Tiger.

Back then – long before the days of cable TV and the Internet – you either watched a boxing match live or it would take days to learn of the results.

I remember the anticipation was building in advance of one particular fight in February of 1964. My dad wanted to see one of his favorites, Liston – then the World Heavyweight Champion – get in the ring with an upstart young man from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.

My love affair with Clay began on the night of Feb. 25, 1964 when he boldly predicted he would knock out Liston….calling him “the big ugly bear” and that after the fight, “I’m gonna donate him to the zoo.”

My dad, an amateur boxer, didn’t like Clay’s style…he thought he had too much mouth.

What the world didn’t know about Clay then was his speed and endurance. Nobody had hands and feet faster than Clay. And after beating Liston to the punch for six rounds, the then world champ refused to come out of the corner to answer the bell to start round seven. That prompted the message heard around the globe: “I am the greatest; I have shocked the world,” said Clay, his hands raised about his head as he pranced around the ring. “I’m too fast; I’m too pretty.”

As we all know, Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He defeated Liston in a May, 1965 rematch and then took out Patterson six months later.

Perhaps my main attraction to Clay/Ali was he was a boxer of my generation (he was born in 1942, 11 years before I arrived). He was brash and loud, unlike the fighters of my dad’s era, and he could back up his words with his fists. Perhaps I used Clay/Ali as my ally – my “mouthpiece” – when I revolted against the adult “establishment as a teen.

When Ali was stripped of his world title in 1966 for refusing to be inducted into the Army and fight in Vietnam, Ali said things publically then that many young men of that time felt privately. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me (the ‘n’ word), they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail,” he stated.

He was eventually reinstated as a pro boxer, and his best was yet to come, despite losing three years from the prime of his career. He went to “war” in the ring vs. Joe Frazier (twice), Ken Norton, and George Foreman (Ali’s famed “Rope-A-Dope” strategy)…just to name a few of his key bouts. He went on to become the only fighter in history to win the World Heavyweight title three times.

After retiring in 1981, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years later. That proved as the toughest opponent he ever faced as the disease robbed him of his “pretty face”, those lightening hands and feet and his words of wisdom.

However, he still maintained his generous spirit, traveling the world on goodwill missions.

The world lost “The Greatest” this past Friday (June 3) at the age of 74. To some, his legacy will be confined to his gift of gab….but there was more, much more, to Ali. He took the best punches from opponents in and out of the ring and gracefully answered the bell when it beckoned him to defend.

May he rest in peace.


Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal