How Ali Became the Greatest - Muscle & Performance

How Ali Became the Greatest

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“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” — Muhammad Ali

Casual observers of boxing might not realize this, but fights aren’t always won in the ring. More often, they are won in the gym, where creaking bag stands, rhythmic taps of the jump-rope and crashes of leather on skin are prologue to a winner’s anthem, long before the final bell on fight night. Muhammad Ali knew this. And he trained like it.

Cassius Clay was born January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky. When he took up boxing at age 12, it was instantly apparent that he possessed all the raw materials to do well in the ring. But as anyone will tell you, talent gets you nowhere fast unless you’re prepared to put in the work to nurture it.

So he did, catching up with Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee in 1960 and peppering him with questions about how all his accomplished fighters prepared. It wasn’t enough to just “train hard” — Ali wanted to know exactly what these men did to get where he wanted to go. According to Dundee, he had an insatiable curiosity for the sweet science, a willingness to do more than the other guy and a drive unlike any other fighter of his time (and maybe since).

Knowing how he approached each ruthless session can pay big dividends for any fitness enthusiast, even if your goals stop somewhere short of sold-out arenas and the heavyweight championship of the world. Time to glove up for 10 rounds of hard-hitting advice based on Ali’s approach to his craft.

Photo by R. McPhedran/Express/Getty Images

ROUND 1 | BE DEDICATED
In the early 1960s, Ali — then Cassius Clay — was a relative nobody, just another cookie-cutter light-heavyweight prospect in the Sonny Liston era with a slight build and a polished amateur record. But it was in the pre-dawn darkness of Miami Beach that he started to mold that potential into something much greater. Clay was determined to someday grab the heavyweight belt, and he couldn’t wait for daylight to get to work.

“I never had to ask him to come to the gym,” Dundee recalls. “He was there before I even got there. As soon as he got there, he’d start working. There was no set routine. He’d say, ‘I wanna spar,’ and we’d set him up with guys. He was always first in and last to leave. He’d even come to train when he wasn’t fighting.”

“Ali was known for his dedication,” says Justin Fortune, a boxing trainer, conditioning coach and former heavyweight contender. Fortune was a student and fan of Ali’s training moxie and mentality, and he has used both to construct more modernized programs for his stable of fighters at his Hollywood, Calif., gym. “He had hardcore dedication,” Fortune says. “For him, it was all about getting in there and doing your work — no bitching. He was never into taking the easy way out. Go hard or go home.”

Round Summary: If you’re looking to transform your physique, become more athletic or train for an event, get serious about it. Make your workouts an extension of your work or school day, fitting them into your routine and working hard from warm-up to cool-down.

ROUND 2 | SEEK WISDOM
When Ali settled on the fact that he wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world, he didn’t pick up a guru-written paperback or ask probing questions of the guy hitting the heavy bag next to him. He sought out one of the most accomplished trainers of his time and devoured anything he could about the routines of other top boxers.

“At that time, I was on TV every other week with a fighter,” Dundee says. “He came to see me at the Sheraton Hotel, called me from the lobby and asked me to work with him. He was like a student of boxing. He’d find out how champs trained, how much they ran, how they ate before and stuff like that.”

Round Summary: While your gym mates might be able to provide you with some good advice, you should seek out the most experienced person you can find to help you reach your goals. A professional trainer is a good option, but if that’s cost prohibitive, be resourceful. If you want to bench 300 pounds, for example, you wouldn’t ask your light-lifting training partner how to get there. You’d ask the biggest, strongest guy in the gym.

ROUND 3 | OVERCOME LIMITATIONS
Sometimes (read: all the time), life can get in the way of your fitness goals. A lengthy commute, extended workdays, families, tight budgets — your daily grind can eat away at valuable gym time unless you summon a stubborn, Ali-like determination. In Ali’s case, the obstacles were many.

“Ali stayed in Overtown, Miami, because most times [black] guys couldn’t be on the beach,” Dundee says. “And most of the time, he couldn’t get a ride, so he’d run across the MacArthur Parkway — about six or seven miles — to and from the gym.”

Round Summary: Don’t let anything stand in your way. If your gym dues become a burden, start funneling a few bucks into a home-gym setup. If your commute is long, get an earlier start and hit the gym before work — that way, you avoid traffic and get your workout in. If family time is a priority, find ways to make health and fitness a group activity in your home. If you are looking for excuses, you will find them.

ROUND 4 | LIVE CLEAN
Dundee points out that Ali didn’t drink or smoke. We’ll point out that most elite athletes don’t, even if some of his abstinence was related to his Muslim faith. Regular imbibing can cause sleep interruption, which impedes the release of human growth hormone. This can decrease protein synthesis, essentially stalling muscle gains and workout recovery. Alcohol also can inhibit the uptake of vitamins and minerals essential to metabolic functions and decrease muscles’ ability to produce ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, a key energy resource for short bursts of activity like, say, 10-punch flurries about the head and face of an opposing fighter.

Ali’s choice to avoid cigarettes was a smart one because smoke can drastically affect lung function. And if you’ve ever laced up a pair of gloves for a boxing fitness class, you probably know that any decrease in lung capacity makes things exponentially more difficult. Throwing punches correctly is a full-body activity, thus requiring a great deal of oxygen, something you want plenty of as you head into the championship rounds of a fight.

Round Summary: Ali took in the things that were beneficial to his trade and left everything else behind. The same goes for you as a hard-training gym-goer. Eating clean is absolutely essential if you ever expect to see or feel a difference in how your body looks and performs.

ROUND 5 | AVOID DISTRACTIONS
How much time do you waste at the gym over the course of a year? If you started adding up all the idle chatting, visits to the water fountain or eyeing the cuties on treadmill row, you’d be appalled at how many hours you’re giving up to things that don’t help you get better. For Ali, there was no such thing as a wasted moment in the gym.

Dundee recalls that Ali would go from station to station without rest — rope to bag to ring — with tremendous focus. And bravado. “One day during sparring,” Dundee recalls, “he told me to line up all my bums and that he was gonna knock ’em out one by one.”

Round Summary: Your time is valuable. Spend every second of each workout focusing on getting better. Need further motivation to condense your gym time? Newer research shows that heavier weight (reaching failure in the six- to eight-rep range) with shorter rest periods (less than a minute) is actually more conducive to fat loss and the release of muscle-building growth hormone.

ROUND 6 | PRACTICE PATIENCE
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, most people quit a new fitness program within three to six months, with many never returning to regular activity after that. Chief among the reasons for this drop in gym regularity is a lack of patience. In the win-loss column, Ali had to fight his way through the rest of the up-and-comer crowd before getting his title shot with Liston in 1964. He knew that stepping in with the well-muscled Liston would require more than tallying more rounds in his early career; he’d also have to narrow the weight gap a bit.

“Ali was 187 pounds when I took him in, and he got to be a 212-pounder,” Dundee recalls. “The weight came naturally. His shoulders grew. He was only 6’2”, but he looked like he was 6’10”! I had a cracked mirror, and he’d still work in front of it because he loved seeing how his body was shaping up.”

Ali weighed 210½ pounds the night he tangled with Liston for the first time, a fight he won by technical knockout when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. By all accounts, Ali’s performance heralded a new breed of heavyweight — an indefatigable, broad-shouldered big man capable of quick, fluid movement. It was his 20th fight. Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, put it simply: “When Ali was young, he trained rigorously and it showed.”

Round Summary: Don’t expect a championship build in a few weeks. Building appreciable muscle mass, shredding body fat and enhancing athleticism takes time. If you’re a beginner or coming back from a long break, expect to start seeing visible results (in the mirror or on the scale) no sooner than four weeks in. Then, from there, build on your successes by altering workout variables, such as intensity, to keep challenging your body.

ROUND 7 | BE INSTINCTIVE
Beginners would be well-served by strictly following a workout regimen. But more advanced trainers can take their cues from their body, a concept called instinctive training. For example, if your muscles are still sore from a previous workout, it might be better to forgo today’s scheduled lift and just do cardio and some stretching. Learning to listen to your body, as Ali did, can be a valuable tool for developing your overall level of strength and conditioning.

“I would never say do three rounds this, four rounds of that,” Dundee says. Instead, he says, Ali would work whatever he thought he needed to based on his performance in previous fights or with an eye toward upcoming fights.

“He was a natural gifted athlete, but in boxing, there’s nothing that comes naturally,” Fortune says. “It’s just about how much you can adapt, and he was just gifted at doing things that no one else can do.”

Round Summary: Learn your limits and how your body responds to certain stimuli. Build on things that are working, eliminate things that are not, but never get too comfortable in any one routine. Your body will adapt to anything you throw at it if you do it long enough. It’s a good idea to be honest about weaknesses so that you can address them through your training or nutrition.

ROUND 8 | IF YOU EXPECT MORE, DO MORE
Ali wasn’t training to look better in a sleeveless tee — he was training to be as effective as possible against men whose sole purpose in life was to put him to sleep by way of the glove. With that in mind, he never settled. If he had more left in the tank at the end of the day, he’d just stay longer. “Somewhere, Joe Frazier is still training,” he’d rationalize.

“His training was mostly old school, a tribute to the fighters in the decades before the ‘60s,” Fortune says. “He trained like you should train — like you were gonna be in a fight. His roadwork was twice as much as what he needed, his sparring twice as much as he needed. If he was gonna fight 15 rounds, he’d spar for 30.”

Round Summary: Former Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman famously quipped, “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights.” Eloquent in its simplicity, Coleman’s statement is extremely accurate. Your only competition may be the man in the mirror, but if you expect progression, you have to constantly do more than what you’ve done in the past. More weight, more miles, more reps. Pour all your effort into each session and leave your body no choice but to respond.

ROUND 9 | DON’T RELY ON GENETICS
In a world gone mad with moderation, Ali knew that he couldn’t rely on his natural talent to win fights — he had to leave no doubt that he was doing more to get ready than the other guy. “There are a lot of people with natural ability, but Ali trained his ass off,” Fortune says. “That’s why he was the greatest. Add work ethic to natural ability and the guy was unstoppable. He was even able to come in and kick ass as an older guy because he had a foundation of working hard and training hard.” Greatness isn’t chanced upon, it’s earned.

Round Summary: Are you blessed with a frame that carries a lot of muscle? Great. That doesn’t mean that you’ll look like this month’s cover model just by showing up. The thing that separates champs from also-rans in the physique department is the willingness to cultivate natural ability and the determination to systematically eliminate any weaknesses. You might be good, but what’s keeping you from being great?

ROUND 10 | ENJOY YOURSELF
Boxing workouts are certainly a welcome departure from the one-dimensional tug of weights against gravity, but they can be downright unforgiving. Shoulders burn, lungs ache, feet throb — it’s a wonder that anyone could ever survive three, three-minute rounds in a sparring session, let alone 15 on a grander stage as Ali did on more than a dozen occasions in his pro career. He relished the pain that came with eight hours of heavy-bag work because it meant progress, but Dundee says he’d have endured it anyway. “Ali just loved what he did,” he says. “He never played baseball. He couldn’t play basketball. He was just born with a natural ability to box. We had a lot of fun together from day one, and we still do to this day.”

Round Summary: Working out is about more than heavy sets and dripping sweat. It’s about seizing the ability to exact change in your body — making it do what you want it to do. As we learned from Ali, even the most torturous session in the gym seems a little less so when you stop to savor the opportunity. Biographer Hauser acknowledges that Ali’s ability to push hard in the gym waned as the years progressed, which may explain why he trained each day through his formidable years with such joie de vivre. How will you train today?

OLD-SCHOOL FIT
Perhaps the most surprising factoid about perhaps the most gifted athlete of the last 100 years is that Muhammad Ali built his physique sans resistance. Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee points out that Ali, originally a light heavyweight, started his climb to the top of the professional boxing world at 187 pounds, eventually topping out at 212 in his prime.

Those gains can be attributed to many things, like eight hours of explosive training per day in the gym or natural increases from age. But it can’t be attributed to weight training, push-ups or sit-ups.

That’s not the only way trainer Dundee was unconventional. For instance, Ali never used punch mitts to practice those silky smooth combinations. Dundee just put him in front of other pugs and let him go after a moving target instead. “I never used pads,” he says. “I would do heavy bag, light bag and sparring. I don’t like pads because the punches don’t go down the middle; they go wide. But that’s just my thing.”

MY DAD,THE CHAMP
In the ring, Laila Ali’s genes were always on display. In every fight, she looked every bit the slick, heavy-handed pugilist that her father was, and those skills made her an undefeated (24-0, 21 KO) middleweight champion. Though she’s now retired, she is still regarded as one of the best female boxers in the world.

Her boxing ability may have been hard-wired into her DNA, but like her dad, she had to learn how to channel that talent into victories in the ring. Here, Ali shares a few of the lessons she learned from her youthful, front-row seat to the life of “The Greatest.”

What do you remember about seeing your dad train when you were young?
I don’t remember [much], I was too young. I know from watching footage that he would do his entire workout before he got in the ring to spar so that he was already tired when he started. He would also jog in steel-toe boots in order to make his legs heavy. My father pushed himself to the limits and then a little further.

Besides giving you an interest in boxing, what did you learn about fitness from watching your dad?
I learned that in order to be the best, you have to work harder than the rest.

When you were pushing through hard workouts or were rounds deep into a tough fight, were there specific things you would try to remember about how your dad trained or fought?
My dad would always push past his pain. As an athlete, I know that it takes mental strength to push beyond the limits of the average person.

Do you think your dad’s training habits were ahead of their time?
I’m not sure, but my dad walked to the beat of his own drum. He was always his own man.

What was the greatest impact your dad had on you as an athlete?
Knowing that his blood runs through my veins makes me feel like I was destined for greatness. Confidence is embedded in my DNA.

For more info on boxer and TV personality Laila Ali, visit lailaali.com. Her fitness DVD, Sugar Ray Leonard & Laila Ali: Knockout 2-Pack, is available at amazon.com.