By George Lois
Muhammad Ali’s first sounds were “Gee-Gee, Gee-Gee.” His beautiful mother, Odessa Clay, called her son “G-G” for the rest of her life, and years later, Ali would say, “After I won the Golden Gloves, I told Mama that from the very beginning, I was trying to say, ‘Golden Gloves.’” So began the life of Muhammad Ali, who celebrates his 70th birthday on January 17, 2012.
Though many know him as “The Greatest” boxer of all time, few know that it was actually the theft of his bicycle at 12 that proved to be a pivotal beginning of his boxing career. After the bike was stolen, Ali ran to the police station threatening to “whup whoever stole my bike.” Joe Martin, a white Louisville policeman, told him he had better learn to fight, and in his spare time, took Ali under his wing and taught him the ropes. Ali won his first fight six weeks later. When the referee raised his arm in victory, Ali shouted the iconic words that would become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I’m gonna be the greatest of all time!”
But what was so incredible about Ali was all the courageous and selfless things he did beyond boxing. In 1975, I called Ali to talk to him about the campaign I was doing for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose book convinced me that this was an innocent man in the slammer. Muhammad was so happy to hear I thought Rubin was innocent. He said, “Absolutely, I’m with you.” Ali literally stopped doing a million things to help someone—a fellow fighter—get out of jail. It was so heroic, and of all the times we worked together, it is still my favorite memory of him. I also can’t tell you how many times, when we were driving on the road, that he’d see a school and make me pull over. He’d meet all 200 school kids and sign 200 autographs, often with a kid on his lap. That was just his personality to be so giving of his time. It seriously got to the point that when I saw a school, I’d think, ‘Oh my God, here we go again. We’re in trouble.’
Manny Pacquiao: “Growing up, I was aware of what the legendary Muhammad Ali achieved in and out of the ring. Filipinos have a special place in their hearts for Ali because his greatest win took place in the Philippines in 1975. Although I was not yet born when he fought the very best, I learned from watching his fights on television and the stories that I heard of how great he truly was during his prime. Nobody can doubt his achievements in the ring. He did not back away from any fight. There is no doubt that he influenced me as a fighter because of the things that he did inside and outside the ring. He is a classy competitor and more importantly, a true human being. I can say that he had a hand in making me what I am today.”
Manny Pacquiao is the first eight-division world champion boxer. He is also a congressman in his native Philippines where he is hailed as “the national fist.”