The great boxing icon Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3rd 2016 aged 74, the news heralding worldwide tributes to his legacy. I would like to add my own thoughts on the subject, having seen and heard only a little of the “official” news tributes.
At a very young age I began taking an interest in the noble art of boxing, and Muhammad Ali was probably the first “big name” I can remember hearing about and watching. Ali graced the ring with a swagger and an elegance that belied his heavyweight fighting category. Some of his battles would enter into boxing folklore legend, “Rumble in the Jungle” (Foreman v Ali: Zaire: 30th October 1974) and “Thrilla in Manila” (Ali v Frazier: Philippines: 1st October 1975). These took place well before my sixth birthday and helped foster in me a love of boxing as a sport. To me, no one could match Muhammad Ali’s greatness in the heavyweight ring.
I have always enjoyed good interview programs and Michael Parkinson’s encounters with Ali were particularly memorable. Muhammad Ali always came across as a supremely confident man (some would say arrogant), who was like a breath of fresh air, as he spoke his mind in a most articulate and mesmerising way. On discovering Ali threw his 1960 Olympic gold medal into a river after being disrespected in his native US, I felt he was a man of principal. That same principal saw him change his “slave name” Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali on his conversion to Islam. Ali also refused to fight in the Vietnam War in the late 60s, and consequently the boxing authorities shamefully banned him from the sport for 3.5 years, and stripped away his boxing titles. All these actions highlighted Ali as a man of principal in an era when the United States of America was still in the grip of deep racial inequality. Muhammad Ali was a man of his time and of his people, who managed to transcend the shackles of his country’s treatment.
Muhammad Ali was a once in a generation athlete. Like Eric Liddell a man who didn’t sacrifice his religious principles during the 1924 Olympics. Yet Eric ran to feel God’s pleasure in a 400m gold winning effort. Like Jesse Owens who by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, singularly routed Adolf Hitler’s belief in white supremacy. Ali was a man of his people, in a similar way I guess, to Cathy Freeman representing her Aboriginal heritage in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Ali was a man with an incredible aura who earned hard won respect from the sporting fraternity, rather like Sir Alex Ferguson. The boxer who described himself as “The Greatest” clearly had an ego as big as “The Special One” Jose Mourinho. In these two iconic men of football we see glimpses of the qualities of greatness that made Ali unique and a worldwide sporting phenomenon.
Muhammad Ali spoke his mind and didn’t give a damn who heard, or what they thought. Today’s sport is extremely sanitised and demands a universal conformity that makes athletes appear bland to the point of insignificance. As a result we can truly say there will never be a sports person like Ali again. And the world will be a poorer place for it. RIP Muhammad Ali your legacy will live on.