When it comes to sports, there are a great athletes and famous athletes and then there is Muhammad Ali, the greatest and most famous of them all.
He stands apart from everyone else, occupying a unique place in history and culture, let alone his chosen sport, boxing.
The title of the new exhibition about Ali’s life at London’s O2 is, inevitably, I Am the Greatest. That was the boast with which he used to taunt opponents, part of his epic gift for self-promotion. But it also happened to be true. He was the greatest.
Not because he was the finest boxer who ever lived – there are enough experts who would dispute that claim – but because of the impact he had on the world. At one point in the 20th century, he had a strong case to be the most recognised man on the planet. And he achieved that exalted position with a mixture of astonishing ability, irresistible charm and a relentless determination to make a place for himself in the world that didn’t exist. Not surprisingly, given the fashion for petitions, all this has provoked a heavily-signed one, currently making waves, calling for Ali to be given an honorary knighthood.
“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” Ali once told the writer David Remnick. “I had to show that to the world.”
Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942 and grew up in a strictly segregated society in which African Americans were taught to know their subjugated place. The son of a successful signwriter, who was also something of a drunk and womaniser, Ali was blessed with a sharp natural wit but not much interest in academic pursuits.
He took up boxing, he later said, because he thought it was “the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country”. By the time, aged 18, he won gold in the light heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics, the distinctive elements of his style were already in place: the dancing, the lightning left jab and the cocky ring presence. Outside the ring, he was no less confident, informing any athlete who would listen of the greatness that awaited him. Such were his precocious media skills he was known as the “mayor” of the Olympic village. He had also by then developed an interest in black politics, specifically the Nation of Islamthat he was soon to join.
Over the next four years, he built his reputation as a heavyweight who fought like a bantamweight, a big man with the speed and movement of a Sugar Ray Robinson. But many observers were unconvinced. In 1963, he was knocked down by Henry Cooper at Wembley and legend has it that Ali’s cornerman, Angelo Dundee, deliberately split the young fighter’s glove to give him more time to recover between rounds. What’s sometimes glossed over is that he then came out and stopped Cooper in five rounds.
Both the glove and the stopwatch from that bout feature among the memorabilia assembled at the O2. With almost any other sportsperson, such collections could seem a bit cynical or, perhaps worse, naff. But Ali was always a master of iconography. Supremely photogenic – “Ain’t I pretty?” he would ask, admiring his reflection – he made sure to invest all public occasions with a grand sense of drama or, at least, showmanship.
If the first job of the boxer or any sportsperson is to win, the second is to sell tickets. Ali had an instinctive understanding of what was required in the modern era of mass media. He turned himself into a “brand” long before the Beckhams of this world adopted the word. And it wasn’t simply by selling a pretty face. He antagonised, mesmerised, demanded and always got attention. As Joyce Carol Oates put it, his was the rare feat in sport of defining “the terms of his public reputation”.
He first won the world heavyweight title in February 1964, beating Sonny Liston – the Mike Tyson of his day – in his first fight after the Cooper match. Many boxing pundits expected Liston, a prison veteran who was known for issuing fearsome beatings, to destroy Clay, as he was still called. Liston told the younger man he was going to kill him and Ali has said that it was the only time he was truly scared in the ring. But the 22-year-old danced around the tiring Liston, making him look like a relic from another era, before winning after the sixth round on a technical knockout.
Soon after, Clay ditched what he called his “slave name” and became known as Muhammad Ali. Over the next 10 years, he took part in a series of fights that remain, five decades on, absorbing spectacles of athletic combat. Arguably the toughest of the lot was with the American establishment.
At the height of the Vietnam war, he refused conscription, pointing out that “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger”. He was stripped of his title and prevented from fighting from early 1967 to late 1970 – from the age of 25 to 28 – the peak years of his career.
When he returned, he was a divisive figure. Many Americans saw him as a traitor, someone who had let his country down and besmirched its name. But to many other US citizens, who had become disillusioned with the war, and to a large slice of the world, he was a hero who had stood firm for his beliefs.
He had lost some of his electric speed, but made up for that with ring nous and the psychological power he was able to exert over most of his opponents. However, it didn’t work with Joe Frazier, not in the first of their epic three battles, which was billed, without too much hyperbole “the fight of the century”. Ali threw everything at Frazier, including the most demeaning of insults, unfairly characterising him as an “Uncle Tom” and a “tool of the white establishment”. It was nonsense, designed to unsettle Frazier, who, unlike Ali, really had come from the ghetto. And it backfired. Frazier fought like a man possessed and the two fighters exchanged devastating blows over 15 punishing rounds. Ali survived a knock down in the final round but lost on an unanimous decision.
Very few boxers would have come back from that kind of defeat. Physically and psychologically, it was a career ender. But three-and-a-half years, and several brutal fights later, Ali regained the world championship in one of the great sporting comebacks, by knocking out the giant George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.
That fight and its bizarre staging in Mobotu’s Zaire were the subject of the excellent documentary When We Were Kings, which, with its scenes of African children chanting his name, captured something of Ali’s extraordinary global appeal. Boxing’s opponents will rightly regard fights like that and those with Frazier as examples of the sport’s sometimes lethal levels of violence. And there is good reason to believe that the Parkinson’s that was diagnosed in 1984 was the result of the traumas his body, and in particular his head, suffered during those and other bouts.
But it’s impossible to look back on footage of Ali’s rope-a-dope victory over Foreman – in which he withstood the bigger man’s ballistic assault for seven rounds, before coming out in the eighth and knocking him out – without marvelling at the courage and commitment behind all the bombast.
Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”. Ali was certainly under pressure and while he was never an exponent of the humility that Hemingway prized, he always displayed enormous physical grace. Nowadays, his movements are severely impaired by Parkinson’s, but he has shown another kind of grace in dealing with that torment, most notably when, visibly shaking, he lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
A father to nine children, he lives with his fourth wife, Lonnie, in Arizona. He’s seldom seen in public, although there is talk of him attending the exhibition in London before it closes in August. Whether he makes it or not, Ali has already provided the world with a surfeit of memories.
He changed everything he touched: boxing, sport, celebrity, the black experience and self-image and, in no small way, America and therefore, of course, the world. It’s hard to think of the 20th century without Muhammad Ali. There would be a hole in it that not even the most exhaustive exhibition could begin to fill.
THE ALI FILE
Born Cassius Clay, 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a signwriter and his mother a cleaner. He has been married four times and has nine children.
Best of times Perhaps winning back the title that was taken away from him by the US authorities when he defeated George Foreman in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. But he was extremely proud of his role in lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics when obviously suffering from advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Worst of times Having his title removed in 1967 for refusing to serve in Vietnam, and then losing to Joe Frazier when he was eventually allowed to box again.
What he says “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
What others say “One of the great original improvisers in American history, a brother to Davy Crockett, Walt Whitman, Duke Ellington.” David Remnick
“I never liked all his bragging. It took me a long time to understand who Clay was talking to. Clay was talking to Clay.” Floyd Patterson
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010