The death of Muhammad Ali…
Ali has gone. Dead at seventy four years of age. A slow, painful journey for a man consumed by Parkinson’s Disease, it was the cruellest of blows for the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Was he the most famous man in the world? Quite probably. Unquestionably the most famous sportsman to have ever lived, a man whose talent, charisma and gravitas transcended sport, politics, languages and faith. He was a stellar figure in history and a man whose own history had many layers.
We are quick to gush plaudits on the deceased, it is easier to climb aboard the populist bandwagon than form a balanced opinion, we make humans appear superhuman, give their lives a gloss that those in the know would raise an eyebrow to and Ali was no different in that regard.
In the 1960s he was a magnificent boxer, as Cassius Clay he beat the world champion Sonny Liston in a fight many believed would end in the death of Clay. There was genuine concern that Liston would beat him to a pulp. Clay won and turned the boxing world on its head. He railed against the persecution of blacks in America, his stance on Vietnam was, in my opinion, his greatest moment. Why, he asked, should he, a black man, travel 10,000 miles to kill ‘brown people’ whilst negroes in Louisville are treated like dogs. He saw the worst of segregation and he became a loud and persistent voice in the fight for equality in the United States.
But, like any man, he had his flaws. His disgust at the names given to blacks didn’t stop him from describing fellow black boxer Joe Frazier as looking like a gorilla, a reference which deeply hurt and offended Frazier for many years to follow. He shared the Klu Klux Klan’s stance on interracial marriage and poked jibes at white people. He openly cheated on his second wife, his first marriage was dissolved when his wife refused to ‘behave’ in the manner expected of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, the separatist black sect which gave Clay his new name of Muhammad Ali. There were strong murmurings that had Ali continued to support Malcolm X then perhaps the assassination would not have happened but it was his anti-war stance which cost him most dear.
Refusing the draught cost him his heavyweight crown and stripped him of boxing for the next three years as punishment. He knew it would cost him a fortune but he stuck by his beliefs and history will show that he stood up against that most pointless and shambolic of wars. By the 1970s he was involved in some of the greatest fights of all time, they are well documented but by the end of the decade his boxing star had begun to diminish. For me, watching his fights came with the inevitable soundtrack of my father moaning at Ali for constantly holding his opponents, leaning against the ropes as they used up their energy trying to land a punch on a heavily guarded Ali. It wasn’t pretty for the average viewer, tactically he was brilliant but once a young Larry Holmes arrived on the scene it was over for Ali as he lost round after round in a fight Holmes himself wanted to end for his faltering opponents sake and safety.
In retrospect he was a man of many layers, he wasn’t superhuman or God-like, who really is? He undoubtedly inspired many, his presence lit up not just rooms but whole communities. People took his experiences as a young black man fighting injustice on his home soil as the ‘Olympic Nigger’ and credited him for what they would go on to achieve. What made Ali great was the simple fact that nobody wanted to diminish his standing. He called himself the greatest and everyone nodded in agreement. Would he have beaten Mike Tyson in his prime? we could never know, but Tyson’s ferocity at the peak of his powers was extraordinary. Yet the boxing world including Tyson himself refused to publically consider the possibility for a moment.
In sporting terms there have been comparable, arguably greater achievements than Ali’s yet nobody comes close as a global icon. He was a complete one-off, this century cannot produce another like him, if the sporting world could take one thing from Ali’s legacy it would be to put some personality back into this increasingly dull, sterile and PC fearing world. Ali didn’t give a damn and we’ve lost that.
Categories: Retro Heaven