I held this back for a few hours for fear that the regular obituary section of this blog may well paint me as the Grim Reaper’s PR man; but it’s hard not to acknowledge the passing of another giant of late twentieth century pop culture now that the death of Muhammad Ali has been announced. I use the phrase ‘pop culture’ rather than mere ‘sport’, for Ali was – like his near-contemporary George Best – one of those remarkable personalities sport occasionally throws up, those whose massive impact transcends a pastime that enraptures as many as it alienates.
The fact that his first four years in the public arena – from winning gold as an 18-year-old at the 1960 Olympics to capturing the world heavyweight boxing crown in 1964 – were lived under his birth name of Cassius Clay is something those of us who grew up knowing him only by the name he adopted shortly after his unexpected defeat of Sonny Liston can easily forget. I still think Cassius Clay is one of the greatest names a boxer has ever possessed; it evokes images of an Ancient Greek athlete immortalised in Colossus of Rhodes-style statues, a God amongst men. If Ali was a God, there were undeniably many times when his feet consisted of clay, Cassius or not; but he certainly towered above the competition for headlines in the 60s and 70s through force of both talent and ego, not to mention the saving grace of his humour.
It’s funny to think now that everything that later endeared him to the British public worked against him when he first swept into the country for his fight with Our ‘Enry in 1963; portrayed as a loud-mouthed and too-cocky braggadocio needing to be taken down a peg or two, the nation rejoiced with a collective punch in the air when a punch from Cooper floored the arrogant Yank in the dying moments of round four. It proved to be short-lived joy, but Ali never forgot Cooper was one of the few opponents to send him crashing to the deck when he was in his youthful peak and a firm friendship between the two formed thereafter.
Ali’s shock triumph over Liston in 1964 wrote his place in the history books as the then-youngest ever world heavyweight champion, but if America thought this ‘boy’ was going to adhere to the rule book now he wore the Lonsdale belt, it was in for a surprise. Ali converted to the controversial Nation of Islam movement more or less immediately after beating Liston and the name change came, even if it took a long time for the public and the media to truly acknowledge it. Ali’s association with Islam was often contradictory – and there’s no doubt his recruitment to the cause was exploited by others within it; but for him it seemed to serve as a bulwark against the racial discrimination he’d experienced all his life. Famously refused service in a segregated hometown diner upon returning from Rome in 1960, despite wearing his gold medal round his neck when taking his seat, Ali tarnished a degree of his popularity in the States by becoming an articulate spokesman for the civil rights battle and then for refusing to be drafted to Vietnam.
Exiled by the boxing authorities and stripped of his world title, Ali spent four years as a wandering showman effectively participating in exhibition bouts until the ban was lifted and he returned to the ring in the early 70s. By then, other gifted boxers, particularly Joe Frazier, had moved into the space vacated by Ali and were not willing to surrender it upon his comeback. The rivalry between the two, though regularly given a humorous edge courtesy of Ali’s theatrical ribbing, soon developed into genuine hatred on Frazier’s part, something that reached its apogee with the gruelling ‘Thriller in Manila’ of 1975, a clash of titans that neither man ever really recovered from. But when Frazier inflicted the first professional defeat on Ali in their inaugural encounter in 1971, it appeared as though Ali had a good deal more catching up to do than he’d anticipated if he was to recapture the crown.
Not until the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with another intimidating newcomer, George Foreman in 1974 did Ali regain the world heavyweight title, ten years after his defeat of Sonny Liston. From that moment on, Ali sealed his membership of the elite pantheon of individuals who are known to the public in virtually every country on the planet, a position he retained for the rest of his life. Ali fights on TV in the 1970s were major events, cup finals that everybody seemed to tune into, and to children in particular, Ali was an undoubted hero, the Man. Even when Bradford’s Richard Dunn fought Ali in 1976, I wanted Ali to win it – which he did, of course. Waiting to hear Ali’s pre-fight opinion of his opponent was as eagerly awaited as the fight itself; the whole spectacle was a fantastic circus that even filled cinemas in the days when fights taking place in the early hours were beamed live to your local Odeon.
Ali’s shock defeat at the hands of virtual unknown Leon Spinks in 1978 was to a young audience unimaginable, with the world only resuming its correct axis following a rematch seven months later, a fight that resulted in Ali’s record-breaking third capture of the world heavyweight title. And that should have been that. But, sadly, it wasn’t. A public unwilling to accept his retirement and the lure of the dollar persuaded Ali back into the ring when the physical damage of almost two decades as a professional pugilist was already taking its toll. By the time he was pulverised by Larry Holmes in 1980, the 38-year-old was a shadow of himself, with the onset of Parkinson’s syndrome making the fight the worst possible advert for a sport that has as many critics as fans.
In his later years, Ali became the curator of his own legend, still drawing huge crowds whenever he appeared in public, despite his increasing frailty; the passage of time – not to mention the paucity of superseding personalities able to fill his shoes – served to gloss over the less endearing aspects of his life and career; and while his long illness may have physically and mentally reduced him, the size of the mark he made in the 74 years that are now at an end will most likely grow in his absence as he recedes into history.
© The Editor