2016 has taken quite a few of the world’s extraordinary people from us from all sorts of backgrounds. The acting world paid its respects to Alan Rickman, British comedy lost an absolute jewel in Ronnie Corbett, and the music industry has been hit particularly badly after the passing of icons like David Bowie and Prince. N ow, the boxing community joins the procession of mourners as it too loses one of its star individuals. Except, it’s not just the boxing community: the entire world will show up for this one.
I can’t remember the first time I heard Muhammad Ali’s name. He was one of these figures I just knew, which occasionally happens when someone transcends their field of expertise to become something else, something greater, something altogether bigger than just the product of their own excellence. Those who know nothing about physics nevertheless know who Einstein was. People who aren’t particularly fond of art know that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. You might not like soccer, but you’ve heard of Pele. There are also people who dislike boxing and have no interest whatsoever in the sport. But they know Muhammad Ali.
It’s hard to know what to write about such people. When he was competing his greatness was so huge, and so frequent, that there came a time when no one was surprised by it any longer. When he was speaking, you couldn’t help but pay absolute attention, and when he was arguing his case, you could do nothing but agree with him. Outside the ring, his famous opposition to the Vietnam War earned him cult status, and his advocacy for equal rights and pacifism was rewarded with respect and love from people who suddenly found themselves with a voice.
A phenomenal public speaker, he was excellent in pointing out hypocrisy in the American system. His response to the demands by the public to be drafted into the army exemplified this: “If I want to die I’ll die right here, fighting you. 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. You want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America”. Fierce words. But he could also be passive in his dialogue. In every interview he did, he had a calm, sharp wit that stemmed from total self knowing and complete confidence. “If I had a lower IQ, I could enjoy this conversation”, he quipped to Michael Parkinson, who once attempted to verbally joust with Ali on his talk show.
Inside the ring… well… there is nothing else left to say. The man was a genius. His speed and footwork would dazzle audiences, his punch power would light up entire arenas. Opponents would leave the ring utterly confused and outfoxed, unable to work out just what had happened to them. He combined all of the above elements to form that wonderful, unorthodox, swaying style that is so unmistakable, so inimitable and unique to the man, and it was this approach, that of the Ali Shuffle and of ‘floating like a butterfly’, that transformed the sport from a slug-fest to an art. Maybe not for the first time, but certainly in the most complete of ways that has ever been seen, in any era.
Whenever debates erupt concerning “Favorite Fight of All Time”, his matches with Joe Frazier and George Foreman are never far from reference. The Rumble in the Jungle, where he took on the big punching Foreman as a massive underdog, is seen by many as his finest hour, dethroning the ruthless champion in 8 rounds to reclaim his heavyweight title. A tactical masterclass, and one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. The trilogy with Frazier was ferocious. Ali lost the first fight in what was an absolute war, evened the scores by winning the second, then settled the series by winning the Thrilla in Manila, the rubber match to end all rubber matches, and considered by many to be the greatest meeting ever to take place in a boxing ring. It was through such efforts, says Paul Hayward of The Telegraph, that properly began “ushering in the era of the global superfight”.
And as a man of the people, every time Ali fought, we the people went in there with him. Some of my father’s friends remember listening to him fight on the radio as children, desperate to hear news of his victory. Like so many, Ali was their ultimate idol, and they remember writhing with anguish as his opponent of the night was reported to have landed a punch on him, and roaring with demented delight as Ali landed one back. When victory came, as it often did, euphoria ensued. “I felt every punch”, said one of them.
The debate of the Greatest Of All Time is, I believe, not at all a closed case. Trying to separate differences between Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson is in my opinion, like asking which is better, flawlessness or perfection? Either man is the right answer. If we must split hairs, I have always sided with Ali; I think his record was easily equal to Robinson’s (which, despite constantly facing the elites, also featured many novices and over-matched opponents), Ali’s defining fights were bigger, he had more doubters, he had to do more to prove them wrong, he won more fights as a bigger underdog, and he did it all during the cauldron of social upheaval that was American society in the 60’s and 70’s, and despite having his peak years robbed of him due to a 3 year ban for refusing military service.
What makes his record so incredible is that he shared his era with other legendary fighters from the heavyweight Golden Age. Have a look at all the various all-time “Top 10” or “Top 15” lists out there. Robinson tends to be the only man of his time included in the lists apart from Kid Gavilan at welterweight and maybe Jake LaMotta at middleweight (Henry Armstrong was there too, but you can’t have him – he was way past his best when Robinson met him). Now look at the Top 15 heavyweights. Several Golden Age fighters are there. Joe Frazier is always there. George Foreman is always there. Sonny Liston is often there. Larry Holmes is always there. Ken Norton sometimes makes a surprise showing. And this is all at the expense of guys like Earnie Shavers, Joe Bugner, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis… the list goes forever on, and Ali beat them all.
There is so much more to say, especially about his life outside the ring, but for the sake of length, I will stop there. But I will say this: what has been so lovely about this outpouring of emotion in recent days is that we are now finally, mercifully allowed to remember him not as a sufferer of acute Parkinson’s disease who couldn’t speak and who could barely walk, but as he should be remembered, as he has to be remembered. As the man who simultaneously changed the face of boxing, of sport, of society, of politics, and ultimately, of what it means to be human. Through his passing, we can now refuse to define him as the shell of a man he was in his last years, and instead travel back to a time when he was dancing under the lights, larger than life, igniting the world. The best boxer to ever lace them up.
He really was The Greatest.