I woke up this morning to the headline “Boxing legend Muhammad Ali dies aged 74” and like millions the world over I mourn the death of this sporting legend, who once described himself as “The Greatest” and many would have agreed with him. Wikipedia on Ali begins and in my view quite appropriately: “Muhammad Ali born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016 was an American professional boxer, generally considered one of the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport. Early in his career, Ali was known for being a controversial and polarizing figure both inside and outside the boxing ring. He was one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years”.
I have no doubt that there will be many memories shared and tributes played to the great man over the next few days but here are a few of my own. I well remember the fight that brought Ali to prominence in 1964, against Sonny Liston, although it should not be forgotten that he won the Olympic gold medal in heavyweight boxing in 1960. The general verdict of the kids in the playground was that a Liston win was a foregone conclusion and, moreover, since he was cocky, the then Cassius Clay did not deserve to win.
He did win and did so in style. Who could forget the Ali shuffle? From that point on he became a prominent personality, never far from the headlines and never short of words. Some were deliberately provocative but often one came to realise there was a lot of wisdom behind them. As for memories there are many: his conversion to Islam yet respect for true spirituality e.g. his meetings with Billy Graham; his digs at English football manager Brian Clough (another cocky …) for trying to steal his thunder, his vehement opposition to the Vietnam war; his fight against the appalling racism he saw (this caused him to throw his Olympic medals in the river but later was welcomed backed at the Olympics as a hero) and for civil rights for all; his willingness to suffer for taking the stands that he took, the saga behind the fights he had with Joe Frazier and George Foreman (who he later became friends with) and Britain’s own Henry Cooper; his originality, being his “own man” and memorable one liners (who can forget his description of himself: “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” or not be stirred by: “he who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life” or “if my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it” or “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth“).
Ali was a deep and an original thinker who could truly be described as a philosopher poet of quality, and along with it there was his wit and humour. One of my contemporaries reflected that: “he was an iconic legend of the 60s subculture of my teens and early adulthood, on a level with the Beatles and lunar landings“. In his old age as he was beset by Parkinson’s disease, reminding us all of our mortality and life’s fragility, this having been brought about, some would say, by his boxing (and this is what contributed to his death). In his later years he came to be seen as a dignified and inspirational older statesman, and was someone much sought after and respected. He was a true ambassador, not just for boxing but for sport and life generally. I suspect, and I think the evidence bears this out, behind that brash and cocky exterior was a man that had compassion, who could empathise with the poor, oppressed and lowly, and while oozing confidence he was clearly driven to realise his life’s goals and overcome life’s obstacles, and was also a humble man. There is no doubt in my mind that the list could be extended.
These are just a few of my memories of a man that I have been strongly aware of ever since my boyhood days, who was to become my sporting hero. I like many was prepared to overlook his brash cockiness, realizing Ali was one of a kind and whatever his faults he was prepared to stick by his opinions and principles (which time was to show were sound) regardless of the cost, and he was a fantastic boxer at the same time. I suspect like most of us he mellowed with age. He was a complex character; he was no saint (he was a serial adulterer for example). He was angry (and arguably rightly so given the injustices he had witnessed) and in his early days could divide rather than unite. Yet he understood how his (negro) people had been oppressed and how they self destructed, and saw fighting for justice and freedom to be his mission in life. Yet to use the accolade “the greatest” somehow does not seem inappropriate in the case of Ali. I can think of a number of sporting heroes in my lifetime and Ali was there among that elite group, along with the likes of some of the iconic figures I have also followed in their careers: like Pele and Sobers, possibly leading it (he was BBC’s Sports Personality of the century). And he was far more than that: he was an inspirational role model outside of sport, making ordinary folk realise they can be great and realise their dreams, and can stand up against powerful oppression. As one person put it: “the world has lost a champion. Muhammad Ali was considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time … my prayers are with his family as they mourn this loss.”
While I am looking forward to reading and hearing what others have to say, I would like to say thank you Muhammad Ali for all you have given and for inspiring us, which is a lot, and now rest in peace.