I had a post all sorted for today, but in light of the passing of one of the most influential people to have ever lived, I felt like I had to put that on hold to pay tribute to ‘The Greatest’.
Anyone that knows me at all knows that I love sport. I love sport so much that I actually can’t quite identify with people that don’t. I genuinely don’t understand how someone can not love the competitiveness and drama that sport provides. It’s like a drug to me. I’m always reading articles, or checking websites for the latest updates; even moments after one event has ended I’m looking for information on the next one. I’m not really selective either. I have my favourites, but really I can watch any sport and certainly will play absolutely anything. I’ve done football, rugby, tennis, badminton, athletics, swimming, golf, hockey, cricket, volleyball, baseball, basketball, American football, boxing, MMA…I even played darts a few times. Basically anything competitive, and I’m there. Of all the sports in the world however, there are four that stand out for me: football, athletics, American football and boxing. These are the sports that I identify with the most and the ones that I simply cannot live without. Of these four, football and American football are both sports that are wildly popular with the masses. Athletics and boxing on the other hand are more marginalised, often attracting arm chair fans for the big events but not as popular on a regular basis. Athletics has always been something I love, but I must admit that I don’t follow it as closely as I used to, at least not as a whole (I still check the track results every week during the season). Which leaves boxing. Boxing is a sport to which my affection has never wavered and my knowledge is sizeable. I love it. I can’t get enough. It is a love I share with a select few friends. Friends who watch on beyond the hyped up box office events to the weekly undercards and upcoming prospects. Friends who love the sport, not just the spectacle. It is a sport that has held my attention my entire life and that will continue to do so long after this post has disappeared from memory. And my first memory of it? Muhammad Ali.
See my Grandad boxed in the RAF during WW2 and so introduced me to boxing from an early age, despite the objections of my parents. He was pretty good by all accounts, being tall and rangy whilst weighing not very much, but had no misgivings about his limitations. He used to tell me this story that went like this;
“I was once boxing this fellow, a real short notice fight. He was a lot heavier than me but I found myself giving him quite a beating. I remember telling myself ‘You’re doing a splendid job here Tony’ and then the next thing I knew I was waking up in my corner having been knocked out with one punch.”
He was funny like that, very humble, but his passion for the sport was unmistakeable. Still is today at the age of 92. I remember being very young, maybe 5 or 6, when he gave me a book by Sir Henry Cooper called ‘The Great Heavyweights’, a book I still have today, which was my favourite thing to read growing up. I must have read it 50 times in my life.
The book told how in Henry’s eyes the 5 greatest of all time were Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and of course Muhammad Ali. This was where I got my first glimpse into the controversial man they called ‘The Greatest’.
I was hooked from the first page and thus began my lifelong fascination with boxing history, but it was in the story of Ali that I was most enthralled. And how could it have been otherwise? The man’s story couldn’t be more epic if it had been written by a Hollywood screenwriter. From his humble beginnings as a poor boy in the racially segregated city of Louisville, to his gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, to his eventual rise as the heavyweight champion of the world and then his fall from grace as the country that he called home turned on him due to his political and moral conviction, costing him the best years of his career, to his eventual professional redemption and status as a hero throughout the world. It is a story of how one man’s courage and strength of character were able to change the world. Big words. But I write them with no hesitation. Muhammad Ali changed the world, the imprint of his life will forever be upon our history.
I’m sure that each person who has been impacted by Muhammad Ali can give you a different set of reasons or things that were most special to them. For me it is quite clear. I can split it into two categories; his boxing achievements, and what he achieved as a man outside the ring and how it speaks to me.
As a boxer, I find his story to be nothing short of amazing. To have been robbed of your prime and then come back and beat the most fearsome champion there had ever been to that point, when in the eyes of most you are over the hill? Amazing. I only wish I would have been alive to see ‘The Rumble In the Jungle’ live. As for his boxing talent, it really cannot be overstated. Ali moved like a lightweight, but weighed nearly 16 stone. Never before had that kind of movement and hand speed been seen on a heavyweight. Thought of largely as a hype man when he was scheduled to face Sonny Liston, Ali was given no hope of prevailing. His pre fight shenanigans and verbal tirades that derided Liston, seen only as a cover up for the fear he must be feeling at the prospect of facing such a dangerous man. And yet, as he told the world he would, he systematically destroyed Liston with his speed, accuracy and movement. When I look back at his early fights as champion, I can’t help but think that if he had possessed one punch knockout power, he would have been as close to unbeatable as there has ever been.
Now whether or not he is the greatest fighter of all time is subjective. I’ve always watched the fights with Frazier and thought that if Ali struggled against ‘Smoking’ Joe, then surely he would have not been able to handle a primed Mike Tyson. But then who knows, because look what he did to Foreman. Whatever the case, his skill was supreme, and let’s not forget, when he fought Frazier he had been out of the ring for nearly 4 years, robbing him (and us), of what would in my mind have led to one of the greatest undefeated streaks of all time. One only has to look at what was left of Tyson after a 4 year exile to see what damage father time and inactivity can have on a boxer. And yet somehow, even after all that, he came back and crowned his comeback with the most improbable of victories that magical night in Zaire. It is simply the stuff of fairytale. Such redemption is what you see in Rocky movies, but not in real life; but then would we have a Rocky if not for Ali? Certainly there would have been no Apollo Creed!
Which brings me to the part of his boxing legacy that is perhaps even greater than his actual performances. The man could sell a fight! ‘The Louisville Lip’? You bet your arse he was! The man could talk from night until dawn, and despite not being an educated man, was without a doubt the best talker in boxing history.
“If you even dream of beating me you better wake up and apologise!”
I could go all day on Ali quotes. From his rhyming, to his knockout predictions, to his way of talking non stop without needing to pause for thought; he was quite simply the greatest showman the sport has ever seen. The legacy of his showmanship can be seen throughout sport today, and I’m not just talking boxing. Forget the likes of Tyson Fury and David haye, does anyone thing we would have The Rock or Connor McGregor if not for Ali? Eubank, Wilder, Mayweather. All descendant of the Ali mouth. It’s something we take for granted today, but the idea of smack talking to promote a fight was not a thing before Ali. He pioneered the art. In short, he was the first box office star, and most of that was because of his ability to get under people’s skin and sell a fight with his arrogance and showmanship.
“I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”
And bam. People will pay to see you get beat! Genius!
Whilst his boxing achievements are undeniable and his place amongst the greats of the sport was assured long before his career ended, it is what he achieved outside the ring that made him one of my great heroes. There were black sport legends before Ali of course. Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens; but none of them had the impact of Ali, and the reason is simple. He was his own man. Ali had no interest in blending in or being accepted as the black champion in the white mans game. He would not bend at the knee and would not be intimidated into turning his back on his beliefs; a conviction which cost him dearly, but which only served to increase his legend. No greater example exists than the parallel between Joe Louis and Ali, specifically with regards to their army induction. Louis, a genuine contender to be called the greatest fighter of all time, went into the army and was used as a PR puppet to increase morale. When the time came for Ali to be inducted, even given the same promise that he would not see active combat, the choice for him was simple. He would not fight for a country in which he was still regarded as a second class citizen. Especially against people against which he had no quarrel.
“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”
The power and reach of this simple choice cannot be overestimated. Ali was stripped of his title, banned from boxing and faced 5 years in prison. Unable to make money and facing the prospect of no longer being a free man, he was offered deals that would have meant he could join the army but spend his time touring the country and boxing much in the mould of Joe Louis. But he refused. Why? Principles. Moral conviction. The impact of this simple choice was so powerful that it even resonated Martin Luther King Jr who stated that Ali’s defiance gave him the courage to confront the injustice of the Vietnam war. On a larger scale, he represented a hope for the black population that change could come if only there were those willing to fight for it. The unpopularity of the war in Vietnam along with the rising tide of positive sentiment felt toward the Civil rights Movement meant that Ali’s stance singled him out as a hero for those who felt oppressed or ignored. He became ‘The People’s Champion’. Whilst people marvel at the legacy he has left on the boxing world, consider the wider ramifications; would we have had a black president if not for Muhammad Ali? Impossible to tell of course, but such is the enormity of his societal contribution that it’s a fair question to ask.
After his retirement from boxing, Ali devoted his life to charity work and other humanitarian efforts. Despite his body being ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, he maintained a public profile and continued to give his time to those that needed it.
“I’m gonna dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people.”
This is where I draw the most inspiration. Because for all the good this man did, for all of his achievements, all of the moral conviction, all of the sacrifices and all of the humble servitude to his religion; he was not a perfect man. A serial adulterer and often a neglectful father, the sins of his private life run deep. But in that I find a sense of hope, because if a man as imperfect as Muhammad Ali can do such great things, then why can’t I? Why can’t we all? I love reading quotes from Ali in his later years in which he talked about his failings, because it reminds me that even the best of us falter. The multitude of celebrities that portray an image of perfection does nothing for me because it’s as real as an airbrushed picture. The story of Ali is real. It’s one of defiance. Conviction. and yes, imperfection. But I find almost as much motivation in Ali’s weakness as I do his strength, because it reminds me that I don’t need to be perfect to still achieve. To make magic. To leave a mark. To be great. Maybe even the greatest.
That is Ali’s legacy to me.