The GRE4T3ST – Oil on Panel 36” X 48” – August 2018
Painting 43 is quite simply a tribute to Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Clay in 1942 (I know right? Missed it by one year!) in Louisville, Kentucky.
At the age of 12 Clay’s much loved red Schwinn bicycle was stolen from him. He promptly reported the theft to Louisville police officer Joe Martin and vowed to find the culprit and beat him up. Officer Martin, also a boxing trainer, suggested that before he went looking for a fight, he should first learn to fight. And with that being said, he took the young Cassius Clay under his wing and began training him to box. Six weeks later Cassius Clay won his first boxing bout in a split decision. This is the reason behind the Schwinn head badge on the shoulder of the larger boxer.
Ali fought everybody as if they were the one that stole his bike. By the age of 18 he won a Gold Medal in Boxing at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome Italy. He went pro later that same year.
In 1964 at the age of 22, he defeated the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston, loudly proclaiming; “I am the greatest!”, as well as claiming the title. He won the fight in the 6th round when Sonny Liston opted not to return to the ring when the bell sounded at the beginning of round 7. This was considered to be a major upset since 43 of 46 sports writers had picked Liston to win by knock-out. It was shortly after this fight that Clay announced his conversion to Islam, and the fact that he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
The scene portrayed in my painting depicts his 2nd win over Sonny Liston in 1965 defending his Heavyweight Champion Of The World status. There he stands, looming over the once invincible Sonny Liston (Piston), who, in a matter of 2 minutes and 12 seconds of the first round, had been reduced to a small icon of what he once was. It all happened so fast, that to this day the rumors of a fixed fight still hang heavy in the air like smoke over a spot lit boxing ring.
The deciding right hand punch that Ali later referred to as his “Anchor Punch”, is symbolized in the painting by the exposed shock in the cavity of his right forearm. A missing plate reveals a heavy duty coil over shock that may provide a little extra power for his legendary right hand jab. Until this fight, nobody seemed to notice Ali’s powerful right hand jab, afterwards, it was all anyone could talk about. Note the anchor logo on the elbow end of the shock’s base.
The left forearm plate remains in place and intact, though it is missing one of its four retention screws. This is because Ali would often get so wound up before a fight that those who witnessed it thought for sure that he “had a screw loose”. At the weigh-in the day of his first fight against Liston, he got so worked up his heart rate registered 120 beats per minute and his blood pressure hit 200/100. Dr. Robbins, the chief physician for the Miami Boxing Commission said that he was “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and likely to crack up before he enters the ring.” An hour later everything had returned to normal, it was all part of his act. “Liston’s not afraid of me, but he’s afraid of a nut!” Ali was quoted as saying later.
The butterfly on the left forearm plate makes silent reference to Ali’s poem “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. To be fair to the poem, the hexagons on his chest doors refer to the “bee”.
The stories surrounding this particular fight against Sonny Liston are rife with talk and speculation about Malcom X’s recent assassination, Ali’s bow tie wearing Fruit of Islam bodyguards, the 24 hour FBI security for Ali, Sonny Liston’s mob connections, death threats on both sides of the aisle, the small venue in Lewiston Maine, the inexperienced referee, etc… it has all the earmarks of a perfect conspiracy. In fact, it has been referred to as the “Kennedy Assassination of Boxing”. But aside from a few bow ties and neck ties adorning the robots in the crowd, my painting does not dwell on this “slag” and instead focuses on a man that against all odds, stood by his convictions and fought a fight on behalf of them worthy of anyone’s admiration.
Ali’s life was always full of controversy, whether it was what he was saying, or what he was doing. The biggest example is when he opted out of the draft in 1967 declaring himself a conscientious objector due to his Muslim beliefs. People thought he was just trying to dodge the draft any way he could, and he instantly became the topic of conversation at the proverbial water coolers around the globe.
He was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury of the criminal offense of violating the Selective Service Laws by refusing to be drafted in April of 1965. And also, because of his stance against the draft, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license AND the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title! In October 1971, 43 months later, the conviction was overturned due to a technical error in the filing. And while he served no jail time, the 43 month suspension had a big effect on his boxing career and boxing style going forward.
I could give you several facts that correspond with Ali and the number 43 in an attempt to fortify the reasoning behind using him for my subject matter on painting 43, but it really isn’t the reason I chose to paint him. I chose him mainly because he was a man of great conviction. While the rest of the world raged on about this and that, he lived peaceably and consistently until the end. He was a great role model to young rebels as well as wealthy philanthropists.
My dad couldn’t stand him because he said that he “had a big mouth”, while I on the other hand, “loved” the rhyming antagonist and looked up to him with unfettered admiration. I thought he was funny, quick witted, and talented far beyond the other tired looking, lumbering boxers that my father seemed to like. I find it fascinating that he would often predict the exact round he was going to take someone down. Once Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) predicted that he would take his opponent down in the 5th round but actually ended up taking him down in the 4th. When asked why, he said he had to deduct a round because Warner neglected to shake his hand at the weigh-in. How can you not like a guy that quick with his wit? As a kid growing up in Flint Michigan, I soon enough learned what fighting was, and Ali to me, was the epitome of putting his money where his mouth was.
He said it best for me when he said:
“You don’t lose because you get knocked down
You lose if you stay down.”
So look at number 43 as an inspiration to believe in yourself enough to get back up when the world has knocked you down. Rise up and wipe the tears from your eyes, shake the dust from your clothes, and get back to what you were doing without making excuses or pointing fingers. Fight for your beliefs and fight for others when their faith is too weak to fight for themselves. By doing this, one day you may well become their Muhammad Ali.
————— numerical nonsense below this line ——————-
43 and he:
– He had a 43 inch chest when he fought Sonny Liston in 1965.
– He was banned from boxing 43 months while awaiting his day in court.
– His 43rd fight, known as “The Rumble In The Jungle”, was against Ken Norton who was 43 years old at the time. Ali suffered a broken jaw in the 2nd round, but boxed on until the 12th round before his trainer finally convinced him to throw in the towel. Imagine that, boxing 10 more rounds with a broken jaw… I can’t even walk on gravel barefoot.