Ali and me: struck dumb by the presence of genius
Muhammad Ali shook up the boxing world one night 50 years ago – and reduced me to awestruck silence during a chance meeting in New Jersey
Paul Howard meeting his hero in 1992
Muhammad Ali introduced himself to the planet by beating Sonny Liston 50 years ago today. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
I can’t remember a time when Muhammad Ali didn’t mean the world to me. The man, who introduced himself to the planet by beating Sonny Liston 50 years ago today, first entered my consciousness as an eight-inch action figure with a little button in the back, which, when pumped, caused the doll to swivel at the hips and throw, alternately, a right jab, then a left uppercut.
While my brothers and I played with it, my mother would sing to us Johnny Wakelin’s Black Superman , whose reggae- tempoed chorus went: “Sing, Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Muhammad, the black superman, he calls to the other guy, ‘I’m Aaaliii! Catch me if you can!’ ”
Ali turned 72 just over a month ago. But today is also a birthday of sorts: the anniversary of his emergence as the greatest athlete of the 20th century and one of its most compelling figures.
There was no sense that history was being made when, on a stormy night in Florida in February 1964, in front of a half-empty Miami Beach Convention Hall, a 22-year-old no-hoper from Kentucky, with the physique of a basketball player, whom the press suspected of being mentally unhinged, stared across an illuminated square of canvas at Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion, an ogre and an ex-con with wrecking balls for fists.
I was born too late to enjoy those 18 minutes of fighting that changed the face of sport, but I’ve watched the fight at least a dozen times since, drawn as much to the bizarre circumstances of what happened that night as to the beautiful comic-book morality of watching the class clown beat up the school bully.
For the first time, but certainly not the last, Ali – on his final night as Cassius Clay – seemed to gauge the moment better than anyone else. He showed the TV audience the enormous vacuum of his mouth, and shouted, “I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
However, he had only just begun to do that, and to become a hero to generations of people as yet unborn. The first Ali fight I have a memory of was his second fight with Leon Spinks in 1978. By then, his powers were in sharp decline. After losing the first fight, he took an oath of silence in the lead-up to the rematch, comically refusing to say even a single word at press conferences. It was considered newsworthy enough to be the lead on John Craven’s Newsround . The great Muhammad Ali struck dumb.