Muhammad Ali was laid to rest on 10th June 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was born 74 years ago on 17th January 1942. He was exceptional in all that he undertook – within or outside the boxing return in which he made his name.
There is no need for his fame to rise from the mythical ashes of (the) Phoenix, Arizona where he passed away six days earlier because the admiration, respect and love in which the former world heavyweight champion is held has not dimmed in the quarter-of-century since he had retired from professional combat.
His unique voice may have been diminished by ill-health but not so the character of the man. Muhammad Ali was held to be an inspiration to Africans everywhere, and more than just to Africans – to mankind.
Although he rose above being merely a boxer, it was boxing, and his mastery of that art, which gave him the platform to transcend the sport itself. Muhammad Ali may have been “The Greatest” of all pugilists, as he himself contended, and there would be many, very many, who would agree. By taking the world title from the mob-managed Sonny Liston, and thereafter defending it as his own man, he, alone, saved the heavyweight division, and, thereby boxing itself, when it could have been lost to the twilight world of gangsters and thuggery.
By then he was already the Olympic Games light-heavyweight champion (Rome 1960). His ring-record from the time he won the crown still only 22 years old – when he was still known by his birth-name Cassius Clay – in February 1964 to the time it was taken from him by the administrators three years later was exceptional.
After defeating former champions Liston and Floyd Patterson he took the title on the road, refusing no serious challenge. In 1966 Muhammad Ali, the name he took on announcing his adherence to the Nation of Islam immediately after he won the championship, fought four times overseas in five defences of the crown.
Always successful he ended the year with a three-round defeat of formidable-puncher in Cleveland Williams in Houston that is held to be the most complete destruction of one world-rated contestant by another.
Muhammad Ali had all the gifts a heavyweight could want. He was big – he was quick – he was versatile – he was intelligent – and he could beat opponents in their minds as well as with his fists.
Added to that there was his unique, engaging personality and a large element of luck: Muhammad Ali came to the fore at the same time as satellite-television developed sufficiently to carry his exploits into every corner of the earth. And he was known in very corner of the earth to a greater extent than any other figure of his time. Yes, he was lucky to be in the right body at the right time. Perhaps others could have done as well if they had been equally as fortunate. Maybe so. What is certain, however, is that Muhammad Ali took full advantage of the opportunities that were open to him, and not every-one has done that.
Nor was he prepared to sit on his laurels as a mere boxer. Muhammad Ali was champion of the whole world – not just the world of boxing. It was a time of social and political crisis, especially in the US. Those who spoke out against inequality ran the very real risk of being cut down by the assassin’s bullet – think of Dr Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert.
They were just the best-known of many victims. Americans of African heritage suffered huge disadvantage, discrimination and persecution that the white segregationists in authority, especially in the southern states, enforced with – well – extreme force.
Even Muhammad Ali’s predecessor, the fearsome Liston was cowed: he is quoted as saying that he did not take part in civil rights demonstrations because he did not have a backside that was immune to the bites of police dogs.
Nevertheless the new young champion took on the white supremacists – partially by playing their own game of advocating racial segregation (but not inequality) – and incurred the further fury of establishment America by refusing the draft to serve in the Vietnam War.
The anti-war movement nationwide needed a strong advocate, particularly after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and they found that in Muhammad Ali. From that moment the tide of opinion turned against the war, but the punishment of the court cost him, among much else, his title.n It was arguably his “finest hour” – or one of several finest hours.
There was then a less commendable side to the champion that cannot be overlooked. He was unnecessarily cruel in humiliating some of his opponents – Ernest Terrell comes particularly to mind – and his turning away from his soon-to-be-murdered former mentor Malcolm X was reprehensible, or, as he, himself, described it later, the act in his life he regretted most.
Even so, Muhammad Ali turned from that path by aiming for, and achieving, a greater appreciation of what it was to be “champion of the whole world” and by accepting Islam as a religion which guided his entire life rather than as just a political concept.
When he was allowed to box again Muhammad Ali had to re-establish his credentials to challenge for his former title. Even then he failed at his first attempt to do so – against Joe Frazier in New York in 1971, his first professional defeat – before regaining the laurels by knocking out George Foreman in Kinshasa four years later.
Those fights with Frazier (three of them, culminating in the legendary Thrilla in Manila), Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers, being the most notable, were heavyweight boxing’s historic high-water mark. Then, boxing on for longer than was medically wise, and having suffered unnecessary punishment, his powers waned and his career declined.
Would he miss boxing, he was asked when he finally hung up his gloves? “Boxing will miss me” he replied – and it has. Shortly afterwards, still in the early-1980s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was symbolically the cruellest affliction for a man whose physique and eloquence had touched perfection. Yet Muhammad Ali bore the suffering, and the indignity, with a dignity of his own.
His public appearances became increasingly rare, but his presence was always there. The bombast and the boasting of the young “Louisville Lip” had long since gone. They were, after all, as he said, a device to get himself noticed and his way to the top expedited.
An unusually high number of celebrities seem to have passed away this year. Even so the tributes to Muhammad Ali are distinct. Admittedly, because his death had been expected for some time, there has been greater opportunity to provide more worthy testimony than the usual reworked twitter hash.
And something very unusual has come out of all of them. These were not just members of his own profession, or of the press, saying what they thought they were expected to say about an exceptional sportsman, an exceptional personality. These people really liked him. Muhammad Ali was a “nice” man, in addition to all his other characteristics and achievements.
After watching the television feature “I, Cassius” where the then young champion spoke to commentator Harry Carpenter in the immediate aftermath of his victory over Sonny Liston, even a cynic such as myself was convinced.
President Obama has given his eulogy to the former champion, and former President Clinton, as well as the very administrators and politicians, or their successors, who had so belittled and denigrated his achievements.
It is not a bad record for somebody raised on the wrong-side of the segregation-line in Kentucky a generation and more ago. Muhammad Ali has proved that anything is possible – but you would have to have (and make full use of) exceptional talent, exceptional personality and an exceptional understanding. He had them all.