AliI 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


  1. Does anyone know what caused him to convert to Islam? Cat Stevens did so too, in his case apparently because he was tired of the sybaritic western pop-singer lifestyle.

    Just curious.


    1. I suppose it’s possible his fame may have introduced him to the likes of Malcolm X, and at that time in the States for a prominent black man there was the choice of the Martin Luther King non-violent protest or the more incendiary Nation of Islam. I presume he was persuaded his profession meant he belonged to the latter.


    2. I think it was because he was a spiritual person but had experienced racism at the hands of Christians in USA, so sought guidance elsewhere.


  2. Clay/Ali’s impact at the time was far greater than ‘just a boxer’.
    Back in those early 1960s days, only the very occasional black folk rose to any prominence, and then only ever in their single skill-area, like music or sport – but Ali broke the mould. He was a black bloke who was not only a brilliant boxer, he was also bright, intelligent, sharp, witty, articulate, charismatic, principled, arrogant too, but a black bloke who possessed a portfolio of skills beyond that of almost any one white bloke at the time, and that was a helluva shock. It challenged the perception of inherent racial superiority which reigned within most white folk at the time, presenting them with a comprehensively formed black bloke, one they could not help but admire, grudgingly at first perhaps, for all his wide range of accomplishments.
    You can have all the Race Discrimination Acts and Equality Laws you like, but they don’t ever get to the heart of the problem or the people – Ali did that, he showed the old world that talent is not restricted to one race and that his race can have as many talents as anyone else and sometimes more, which he demonstrated with his combination of artistry both inside the boxing-ring and outside it, bringing ballet-like sporting skill, theatrical drama and populist poetry to his particular party. Even in his long and progressive demise, he brought a dignity and integrity to enduring the terrible effects of Parkinson’s disease which was to be admired.
    As for the sport of boxing, I’ve never liked it, in fact I disapprove of its basic principle but, despite that, Ali The Showman was perpetually watchable, even though engaged in the violent act of brutally beating the shit out of another human for no valid reason. Boxing changed with Ali and it’s never been the same since he left the scene.
    There will never be another Ali because those unique times will never be repeated, he arrived at a moment and delivered what was needed right then. His real legacy will be immeasurably bigger than boxing and I hope it lasts longer.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s true a lot of white working-class men who wouldn’t want any ‘coloureds’ moving in next-door idolised Ali. Certainly in this country, it was as though he’d completely transcended race altogether.


    1. I couldn’t tell you a single heavyweight boxer of today or the last ten years, whereas when I was a kid I knew them all; and that was solely down to Ali.


  3. Howsabout a bit of sparring between Muhammed Ali and, er, Jimmy Savile?!?

    It’s bloody great!

    (Trigger warning: several seconds of Andi [sic] Peters must be endured at the beginning; just fix yer eyes on his horrendous suit and breath deeply…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fantastic. I did wonder, though, if Andi Peters had ‘always known about Savile’ when clearly forced against his will to appear alongside him.


      1. Interesting fact (and yet another very good reason to loathe the loathsome bastard): Peters hammered nails into the coffin of the show Savile launched!

        “Another contributor attacked the programme’s new executive producer, Andi Peters, who devised the revamped format…”

        Surely the ‘whispers’ must have made their way to the executive producer’s lug holes? Maybe he was in on the ‘ring’?!?


      2. I’m lucky in having no memories TO suppress, living a television-free existence at that point…
        And why anyone thought that the format needed ‘revamping’ is beyond me – perhaps to try and salvage the show from damage inflicted by previous ‘executive meddlers’.

        There’s a good history of the show here:

        Andi Peters decision to ‘rebrand’ it as ‘All New Top of the Pops’ and introduce “competitions, interviews, phone-ins and features” tells us all we need to know about his ilk. God knows how such a crass, talentless fool could clamber so far up the ladder of success – certainly not with charm & wisdom. Bah!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Mudplugger wrote: ” […] even though engaged in the violent act of brutally beating the shit out of another human for no valid reason […]”

    No valid reason?

    Is not a very valuable “purse” presented to the winner at the end of a competition, valid reason enough?


    1. Although the scale of the ‘purse’ was undoubtedly an attraction to many boxing participants, I still regard that as insufficient justification for pummelling my fellow man to the verge of death, and in some cases beyond it.
      Call me a wimp, call me a pacifist, even call me rich-enough-already if you like, but it’s just the person I am.


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