Before Game 5, TNT showed a clip of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra giving his team a pep talk. He relayed a story about Muhammad Ali. While The Champ was in exile, barred from fighting due to his refusal to enlist in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War, Joe Frazier had taken charge of the belt that Ali believed was rightfully his.
As soon as the sport gave Ali his license back, he got in the ring with Frazier.
The world dubbed it “The Fight of the Century.”
They fought in Madison Square Garden, and to the surprise of most, Frazier won.
It would take years for Muhammad to get his rematch. Then, as soon as it seemed like the two rivals would clash again and Ali would have another chance at the title, George Foreman emerged — and beat the snot out of Joe Frazier.
The belt now belonged to Foreman.
Ali still got his rematch with Frazier, and beat him this time, but he now had his sights set on Foreman.
When the two fought, it was a big enough deal to hold the fight in Zaire. Ali was a global icon, but Foreman was unbeatable. As in, he hadn’t been beaten as a professional. He entered the ring with a 40-0 record. 37 of those wins were knockouts.
He was the biggest, baddest man on the planet and the belief was that the aging, slowing Ali needed to dance around the ring, steering clear of big George’s brickwall swings.
This is what Spoelstra was referring to.
Ali didn’t dance. But he didn’t necessary go blow-for-blow with the big dude neither. He instead knew that he was the real Champ, the battle-tested warrior who should always be favored. He knew Foreman wasn’t ready for this stage. He knew that he could force Foreman to lose his composure and fight the fight that Ali wanted it to be.
Ali went with the rope-a-dope, letting George swing away and swing away, never connecting with any clean hits. Ali just leaned on the ropes and blocked as much of the force of each blow as he could.
Foreman was exhausted, punching himself out in the hot Zaire weather. Ali then became the aggressor and, in no time, put George on his back. He was too tired to get up.
The Champ beat the champ.
Because he knew how to win that fight. Even Ali, arguably the most confident athlete in history, knew he couldn’t be bigger, stronger than Foreman. But he knew he was The Champ, and he knew how to beat Foreman.
That was how The Champ regained his belt.
But it wasn’t the first time he won it.
The first time came when Ali, at barely 22-years-old, flew down to Miami to fight a former biggest, baddest man on the planet: Sonny Liston.
Liston was the Foreman of his day, and didn’t seem like someone who could ever lose a fight.
Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, was a brash, young, confident kid that a lot of experts didn’t take seriously. He was more show than staying power, and he didn’t hit that hard. He danced around the ring and avoided the punches of lesser fighters. He wouldn’t be able to do that against Sonny Liston. Plus, he talked too damn much.
It didn’t matter.
Ali won. Easily.
He wasn’t a household name. Not for his fighting anyway. Many experts knew he had a great future, but many doubted his ability to win, his ability to ever be truly great.
Seven rounds later, he was the 22-year-old heavyweight champ.
He was ecstatic. He jumped on the ropes.
He yelled “I shook up the world.”
That’s all this Game 7 is about.
I love Xs and Os, and execution will have a lot to do with the outcome. But at some point, it’s just a fight. This is a bout between what are clearly the two best teams in the conference, and the winner will have a chance to win the NBA championship belt.
Will the battered, incumbent, world-famous champs overcome adversity like an old Ali and prove once again that they are the best in the sport? Or will the young, confident, upstart underdogs head down to Miami and shake up the world like a young Ali?
Rumble, young man, rumble.