The life of Muhammad Ali

A brilliance that lit up the world

 

Greatness in sport is rightly measured by supreme ability and success at its highest level. The best teams and athletes carve their place in sporting folklore with sublime skills and mesmerising talent. No individual towered over the world of sport and beyond like Muhammad Ali. His career inside and outside the boxing ring defined an age and left a mark which will carry forward for generations. Matching brashness with brilliance, Ali captivated the global imagination with an audacity that confounded opponents and thrilled the sporting public.

Heroes were expected to conform to type in the 1960s when Ali emerged, particularly in America, where great value was placed on humility and knowing your place in the sporting order. As Cassius Clay, the young Louisville fighter lit up his sport by winning an Olympic gold medal in Rome at 18. It marked him out as another great prospect in the brutal world of professional boxing but nobody – bar himself – believed that would be merely the first step to his emergence as the greatest boxer to ever climb through the ropes.

His stunning victory over Sonny Liston to capture the world heavyweight title in 1964 opened the eyes of the world to a boxer whose mouth was as fast as his fists. His entertainment value was a godsend in a new media age where television was opening up to hundreds of millions. Naturally charismatic, the exaggerated chiding of opponents became as much part of the Ali routine as the famous shuffle in the ring. Recognising the changing order, Ali saw his influence could be utilised to confront the authorities on race and political issues. His conversion to Islam was followed by his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam war. His objectionwas memorably summed up by the fighter himself : “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong – they never called me nigger.’’

That stance cost Ali dearly in his career – losing over three years in suspensions at the peak of his powers – but copperfastened his status as a leading figure for the black rights movement. Having split American public opinion, his comeback in 1970 was not universally welcomed. If Ali was less fleet footed back between the ropes, his extraordinary ring mastery, innate survival skills and huge courage carried him through some of the most celebrated fights in history; first against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden and later against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle’’. These were followed by one of the most compelling but savage fights in the history of heavyweight boxing when he went head to head again with Frazier in the Philippines. His eventual victory in the “Thrilla in Manila’’ became the most storied in his long career but also highlighted a deep flaw in the man as he treated his opponent with a contempt that should have been beneath him.

The toll these fights took could never be accurately measured but the ferocity of punches he took were factors in his decline. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the condition stripped Ali of many of his faculties but never his dignity. He travelled the world as an ambassador for many causes, including the 2004 Special Olympics in Dublin, but his physical majesty had long since passed. That majesty should be the abiding memory of a colossus. As US President Barack Obama said: “Ali shook up the world and the world is better for it.’’

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