Muhammad Ali — Still The Greatest

  By VennerRoad, 13th Sep 2016

Muhammad Ali who died earlier this year was more than a mere sportsman; he was a man ahead of his time.

Muhammad Ali in London, 1992

I can’t really claim to have met The Greatest although I was once in the same room as him. I took this photograph of him (right) when he visited the UK in 1992; the dude in the foreground is my colleague Mark Taha.

Although I was never tempted to take up boxing, I did develop a love for the sport and indeed became quite knowledgable about the history of it, due entirely to Ali, a love affair that was ended abruptly when I saw Herol Graham knocked spark out by Julian Jackson, but that’s another story.

My first memory of Ali was when as Cassius Clay he defeated Sonny Liston. I was very young at the time but remember distinctly seeing him with his man pinned on the ropes and throwing perhaps 12 or 15 unanswered punches. I think there was a knock down if not a knockout. Liston was not knocked down in the first fight, of course, and having reviewed it this memory is not from that, so I can only assume that at the time footage of at least one previous Cassius Clay fight was shown.

After the first Liston fight, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali; that and more significantly the reason he did so were regarded as controversial at the time; throughout his life, Ali and controversy were never strangers. The inevitable rematch with Liston was even more controversial than the first fight when the then champion quit on his stool. There has been much talk about Liston going down from a phantom punch, taking a dive, etc, but although Ali was never known as a big hitter, all heavyweights can punch. He had previously scored a first round knockout, in his fourth fight, albeit against a terrible fighter, and went on to score several early stoppages including a third round technical knockout of Cleveland Williams, a fight the referee could easily have stopped earlier.

There was really nothing suspicious about the Liston rematch, it was not as if Ali had come from obscurity, won the world title then disappeared; let us not forget he’d also had a glittering amateur career crowned with an Olympic gold.

I’m fairly certain I don’t remember seeing his first fight with Henry Cooper at the time, although I did see the second fight, and at that time footage of the knock down from the first fight would have been played. Ali was a fighting champion, but his career was rudely interrupted by his most controversial stance - his refusal to answer the draft.

Like Elvis Presley a decade before, Ali could have donned an army uniform and flown off to foreign lands where he would undoubtedly have been given a commission as a boxing trainer, sports coach, or something of that nature. There was certainly no risk of him being sent into combat, as he would surely have surmised. He realised though that the war was wrong in principle; as he said famously no Vietcong ever called him nigger.

After his three year layoff during which time he became a cult figure with the anti-war movement, lecturing at universities and more than holding his own against the literati, he was allowed to return to the ring, and lost a close decision to Joe Frazier, a loss he would avenge in both the rematch and the rubber. This was held at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, overnight in the UK. At the time I was a paperboy, and expected him to win, but when I asked another paperboy - who was in my class at school - in what round he had stopped Frazier, he replied simply “Clay lost”.

My passion for boxing cooled somewhat after that but it was rekindled a few years later. The thing that impressed me about Ali initially was his arrogance, but it was not the sort of arrogance that makes people detested, rather it was a schoolboyish arrogance that was never to be taken too seriously, even when he was making what were often interpreted as anti-white statements. Ali was not anti-white, of course, it was always clearly the white establishment against which his anger was directed, and not white people per se. He would eventually reveal that his antics were influenced by the wrestler Gorgeous George. Having said that, arrogance is something all professional boxers cultivate consciously, it helps build confidence and motivate training because they all realise they are only ever one punch away from defeat.

Some people have claimed Ali had a low IQ or even an exceptionally low IQ. How this came about I know not, but the idea that intelligence can be distilled into a number is an enormous fallacy. It may have been that he did not excel at for example mathematics or the usual abstract tests that are associated with assessing IQ, but anyone who has heard him speak on subjects other than boxing will surely be disavowed of that notion. He was right about the Vietnam War, and on race issues he had a simple, irrefutable philosophy that left white liberals looking sheepish, as in his classic 1971 interview with Michael Parkinson.

With his claim that “Bluebirds fly with bluebirds”, Ali gave the world a simple truth that were it acknowledged today would solve all the world’s race problems including the current crisis in Europe and those created by the misnamed civil rights movement in the United States.

In his personal life Ali was far from perfect, he was married four times, and could be uncharitable towards his opponents, but unlike his successor Mike Tyson, he was never at the centre of any genuine scandal, and his humanitarian work has long been recognised as every bit as significant as his career in the ring and his philosophy. In 1999, Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by the BBC. He was also clearly one of the men of that century, and of this one.

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