Greatness is in the Comeback
That is what 22-year-old Cassius Clay (who would become Muhammad Ali) said after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
But as Ali would prove to us, greatness is not defined in moments of victory; it is defined in the moments after a defeat. Greatness is in the comeback.
Three years after winning the championship, Ali was stripped of his title, had his license suspended and was not allowed to leave the country because of his refusal to be conscripted into the U.S. military.
Without a license to earn a living for nearly four years, Ali went broke. His rival, Joe Frazier, who succeeded Ali as champion, had to loan Ali money to fight his court case to get his license reinstated.
That set the stage for “The Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden (even Frank Sinatra couldn’t get a ringside seat, although he did see the bout while shooting photos for Life magazine).
In the 15th and final round, Frazier floored Ali with a hard left hook. Ali struggled to his
feet, his jaw badly swollen, only to suffer several more stunning blows. The decision was unanimous: Frazier retained the title, dealing Ali his first professional loss.
In 1972 and 1973, Ali lost twice, to Elmo Henderson (who?) and Ken Norton (who broke Ali’s jaw). Where’s the greatness?
Later in 1973, Ali defeated Norton in a rematch, and in 1974 he would beat Frazier in the “Ali-Frazier II” bout. But Frazier had already lost his title to Big George Foreman.
Then came “The Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30, 1974, pitting Ali against Foreman.
Almost no one gave the former champion a chance of winning. At 32, ancient in boxing years, Ali had previously lost to Norton and Frazier, while the fearsome 25-year-old Foreman had knocked out both men in only the second round.
In one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round to regain his title against all odds.
Ali, once again, was the greatest.
And he kept on fighting, losing his title in February 1978 to 24-year-old Leon Spinks and then defeating Spinks eight months later to become the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
While overcoming terrifying boxing opponents, Ali’s greatest foes were outside the ring—the boxing commission, the U.S. government, the media. Standing true to his principles, Ali became a catalyst in opposing the Vietnam War, racism and religious bigotry. Today, as he fights his own battle with Parkinson’s disease, he’s a champion for research and awareness.
Muhammad Ali recently celebrated his 70th birthday and, while he’s lost his share of fights, what makes him the greatest is that he kept on fighting. He inspires me to do the same.
No matter whether you are standing tall in victory or can still taste the blood of defeat in your mouth, I hope this special comeback issue of SUCCESS inspires you to keep fighting, too.
YOU are the greatest.
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