Muhammad Ali: the man who became king of the world

In modern culture, few figures have been as popular and for as long as the late boxer

My 12-year-old son has a Muhammad Ali poster on his bedroom wall. It is the black-and-white image of Ali gloved up and in white shorts looming over the stricken Sonny Liston with the right fist at his left shoulder in flamboyant follow-through and proclaiming his greatness to the world via John Rooney's camera lens.

Over the weekend, my son mentioned that on Friday afternoon, on the first day of the school holidays, a few friends called around and they ended up studying the poster and talking about how much of a legend Ali was. They also sought out a few clips on YouTube. They were particularly taken with the 20-second clip in which Ali ducks and weaves through 20 thrown punches and then shakes his hips: they loved the lightness and the chutzpah.

It was only after Saturday morning’s news of Ali’s death went around the world that it struck me as unusual that a group of 12-year-old boys in the west of Ireland should be mesmerised by a man who was now 74 years old and, as it turned out, on his death bed.

None of the boys’ sports includes boxing and none was born when the concerted Ali revival occurred in the mid-1990s through the documentary When We Were Kings and David Remnick’s celebrated account of his ascension to global icon, King of the World. None is interested in the title of heavyweight champion with which Ali held the world spellbound as he chased it, won it, lost it and won it again in the 1970s.


Kids don’t care as much about heavyweight champions of the world now: that idea has largely lost its potency. Ali has been a reclusive figure throughout their lives and yet of all the popular cultural figures of the 20th century – and the 1960s and 1970s were dense with vivid pioneers – Ali’s reach has travelled more clearly and further than the others of that time. He continues to appeal to generations in a way that is mysterious. The announcement of his death was a hardly a surprise given the heavy indicators of the headlines on Friday but it still felt like a stop-all-the-clocks, cut-off-the-telephone moment.

Even as the world mourned one of the most celebrated and scrutinised lives of the 20th century, people were still trying to figure out why he meant and means so much to them. All day on Saturday, the reflections and tributes kept coming. On RTÉ Radio 1, Dave Hannigan of this parish talked passionately of his enduring fascination with Ali, while Jimmy Magee recalled his famous visit to Ireland.

At the Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal on Saturday afternoon, one visitor stood out among the new agers and ageing rockers with a well-worn T-shirt which read "Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee". If you flicked through the radio channels at any time on Saturday or Sunday, you were as likely as not to hear Ali's voice, rhapsodic and rhyming, sometimes riffing and sometimes delighting both himself and his audience with his poetic compositions which can still make listeners laugh out loud.

It has, of course, been so long since anyone heard him in full flow. He has spent so many years in a state of dignified silence that it easy to forget that Ali’s natural compulsion was to never shut up. He won the world over slowly and then all at once.

Youthful bombast

Of the many memorable pieces of writing Ali inspired – and provoked – over the course of his boxing life, Murray Kempton’s piece for the New Republic in 1964 got to the heart of the naked antipathy towards Ali as he was making his outlandish, boastful pronouncements.

The scene is the morning when Ali – then Cassius Clay – prepared to meet Sonny Liston.

"He had come in pounding the cane Malcolm X had given him for spiritual support, chanting, 'I am the greatest, I am the champ, he is the chump'," Kempton wrote.

"Ray Robinson, that picture of grace who is Clay's ideal as a fighter, pushed him against the wall tried to calm him, and this hysterical child turned and shouted at him, 'I am a great performer. I am a great performer'. Suddenly, almost everyone in the room hated Cassius Clay. Sonny Liston just looked at him. Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he was our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line and was just waiting until his boss told him it was time to throw this kid out."

When reading about Ali’s youthful bombast, it is easy to understand how the older generation of Americans who were raised on the image of the stoic and graceful Joe DiMaggio (“The first time I was asked for a quote, I thought it was some kind of drink”) as the emblematic sports star, must have loathed him.

Plenty has and will be written about Ali’s shortcomings. It could be argued that nobody was ever as dazzled by Ali’s beauty as the man himself; it’s common knowledge too that there were times he could be hurtful to people; and, of course, there was no way he could box at the level he did for so long without having the killer hunger of an insatiable competitor.

The thing is, even for the millions of us who just knew Ali through the film clips, it is impossible not to understand that even at his most vainglorious and preposterous, even when he is bragging to Parkinson or to the reporters in Manila and Kinshasa, he manages to let us, his audience, know that deep down, he isn’t serious. By some mysterious process, he manages to let the millions of strangers he held spellbound in on the joke.

Even those who had no time for Ali when he was the most compelling athlete on the planet had no choice but to acknowledge that in the grip of Parkinson’s disease, which steadily eroded that floating grace and irrepressible chatter, he found his true voice. The spirit and appreciation of life compensated for the slowing limbs, the stutter and the long silences. What boxing gave him in one hand it took away with the other. He accepted it and the last thing to leave his face was the warmth and laughter at the heart of him.

On the night in Washington in 2005 when Mike Tyson fought – or at least showed up – for what turned out to be his final heavyweight bout against Kevin McBride, all of us in the auditorium were thrilled to discover that, as rumoured, Muhammad Ali would be sitting ringside. His daughter, Laila, was fighting on the undercard and the champ was there to support her.

Golden age

The main event was about as far removed from the epic bouts in which Ali had engaged Foreman and Frazier as could be imagined. Tyson was a parody of himself and McBride bludgeoned the last few ounces of fight out of him and won the belt. There was mild pandemonium afterwards near the press room as McBride and Ali crossed paths. What seemed like hundreds of people swarmed around the pair. Everyone was spellbound by being in the same place as this mythical figure.

For McBride, it must have been a waking dream. He leaned into Ali and said something about how honoured he was to follow in his footsteps. In the days afterwards, the fight was ripped apart as definitive proof that the golden age of heavyweight boxing had passed. But that night, with scarcely any words, Ali made McBride feel like a million dollars. Everyone knows that Ali delighted in doing magic tricks for people but he possessed another kind of magic in his ability to make people feel somehow anointed with just a look and a touch.

That’s what he did to McBride, a journeyman boxer who was in the right place at the right time, that evening. I’ll always think of that moment when I hear of Ali or read about him or happen upon the many documentaries that cannot quite get over how young and vivacious and beautiful he was.

I'll think too of George Kimball, the late and greatly missed sports writer who collected some rare and valuable curios and mementoes in his hectic life. When visiting Kimball, he was always proud to show a picture of Ali posing with his children when they were very little.

Kimball was healthily sardonic at the best of times but he was like a kid when it came to describing how this picture came to be taken, presumably because he knew how precious it was as a family keepsake, as it will undoubtedly be passed on through generations to come.

Just as Ali’s story will. No figure in popular culture has had such a fantastical reach or automatic appeal as Ali has had. The heroic image of the heavyweight boxing division which he transformed is long gone, perhaps irrevocably so. But even as its perpetual figurehead departs the world, he leaves future generations the gift of discovering his life in all its flawed glory anew. Remember what he says at the close of Thomas Hauser’s compelling oral history, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.

Who can read these words and not smile?

“So I’m sitting here with the most recognisable face in the history of the world. I’m the only man in history to become famous under two different names. And I feel like I should be doing more with what I’ve got to help people. My main goal now is helping people and preparing for the hereafter. I’m working harder now than I ever worked in boxing. When I was in boxing I used to get up at six o’clock in the morning to run. Now I’m up at five o’clock, praying, signing pamphlets and reading the Qur’an. I’m not looking to be idolised. Maybe I was great in the ring, but outside of boxing, I’m just a brother like other people. I want to live a good life, serve God, help everybody I can. And one more thing. I’m still gonna find out who stole my bike when I was 12 years old in Louisville, and I’m still gonna whup him. That was a good bike.”

Better hurry, champ, better hurry.