The Greatest is gone.
The flame that roared furiously throughout the 1960s and 70s, that faded but continued to burn brightly over the following four decades, is extinguished.
But Muhammad Ali’s light will never truly go out, for his extraordinary life and achievements will continue to spark a fire of inspiration in the hearts of people across the globe.
Millions of words have been and will continue to be written about this great man; what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I can say what he meant to me. And in considering the huge influence that this one man has had on an ordinary, everyday life such as mine, we can gain the merest glimpse of the incalculable impact that this one life has had.
If Rocky Balboa opened the door to my lifelong love affair with boxing, it was Muhammad Ali that ushered me through. Whilst watching the early Rocky films my Dad would always be telling me that Apollo Creed was a real person; his name, Muhammad Ali. As I set out on my boxing education with The Pictorial History of Boxing as my first and most trusted guide, it quickly became apparent that far from a Hollywood exaggeration of greatness, Creed was but the merest approximation of the real-life fistic superman upon whom he was based.
I read and reread the stories of his bouts with fearsome adversaries – Liston, Foreman, Frazier, Norton, Shavers – a murderers’ row of heavyweights, each of whom could have reigned as champion for a very long time in less formidable times. And, in the days before Youtube, a VHS video called Champions Forever introduced me to the incomparable skill, grace and beauty of the man who stood above them all. One champion to rule over them, on an unprecedented three occasions.
I learned that here was the most uniquely gifted heavyweight to ever step between the ropes, a dancing master of precision punching, gliding around the ring whilst delivering blurringly fast combinations of punches, almost exclusively to the head of his opponent. Arms by his side, leaning back from punches, allowing himself to take brutal punishment on the ropes from some of the hardest punches ever delivered on a man – Ali defied all conventional boxing wisdom, using his unique gifts to show the world just how beautiful boxing could be.
In perhaps his most celebrated performance Ali produced a dazzling display to take apart Cleveland ‘Big Cat’ Williams, dismantling and dispatching his opponent in 3 of the most breath-taking rounds of virtuoso boxing skills that you could ever wish to see.
In watching this performance we see something else too, something that made Ali not just a great fighter, but an even greater man.
For this mesmerising display of clinical punching was born of compassion. Compassion for a fighter whose once intimidating prowess had been blunted by the bullet that had ripped through his abdomen in 1965, almost killing him. Ali knew that the Williams he would be facing was no longer the man that Sonny Liston considered the hardest puncher he ever met. And so he set out to stop Williams early, going about his work with a beautiful brutality that dispatched of his opponent in three rounds, saving him the punishment of a prolonged beating.
Liston, Frazier, Foreman: any one of Ali’s victories over these tremendously powerful men would be enough to secure a place amongst the fistic immortals; five victories, and in some of the most memorable fights in boxing history, place Ali on a summit that nobody else could possibly approach.
And yet, for all of these towering achievements, it is what Ali stood for outside of the ropes that secures his place not just in boxing history, but in human history. This man that achieved so much in his chosen endeavour, a man who plied his trade using unique tools fashioned with an individualised brand of the rarest craftsmanship, will be remembered above all for his strength of character, the power of his principles, and for his dignity in facing the erosion of his physical prowess as Parkinson’s disease ravaged his once supremely able body.
In refusing to be drafted by the US Army to fight in Vietnam in protest at the treatment of black people in his home country, and in standing by the principles of his religious beliefs, Muhammad Ali gave up everything that he had worked so hard to achieve in the boxing ring, becoming a social and sporting pariah as he was sentenced to jail and stripped of his heavyweight title. Ali was robbed of three years of his physical peak but remained unwavering in his commitment to his ideals, refusing to compromise his principles for the more comfortable acceptance of the morals of his time.
In doing so Ali gave voice to and became a symbol for the dispossessed and downtrodden, becoming the people’s champion that refused to buckle to the demands of the establishment and refused to be what they demanded him to be.
Following retirement from boxing Ali faced his greatest battle as illness stripped him of many of the things that made him great, including his voice and his physical grace. As this once supreme athlete became a prisoner in his own broken body he continued to fight and refused to hide his debilitating condition from the world. In his disability Ali continued to represent himself as he had in his extraordinary fistic ability: with dignity, grace and courage. Never was this more apparent than the night he stood before the world, the once great athlete shaking against his volition, as he lit the Olympic flame to open the Atlanta games of 1996.
Ali showed me that boxing is beautiful. He showed me that even The Greatest can lose, but that defeat is not disaster and that failure doesn’t have to be permanent.
He taught me that all the material goods and titles in the world mean nothing if having them means compromising your principles.
He showed me that you can lose so much of what makes you ‘you’ – status, reputation, livelihood, health – and use these challenges to live more fully in love and in faith.
For all the joy that Ali has brought to my life one story stands above all when I think of him. It is a story that played out far from the glare of media and away from the spotlight of success.
“There was a boy, maybe twelve years old. He was in one of the local hospitals, dying of leukemia and he asked his father if it would be possible to visit Deer Lake (training camp) to see Ali. The father told me later that he’d been reluctant to do it because he didn’t like Ali, but this was his son and the boy was dying.
“I happened to be in the camp when the man drove up. He said, ‘Pardon me Mister, I don’t know whether this is possible, but I know the champ trains here. Do you think there’s any way he could see my son? He’s dying of leukemia. The doctors say he doesn’t have long to live.’ I said, ‘Sure, he’ll see him.’
“Ali had just finished training, I explained the situation. And the champ told me, ‘Bring the boy in.’ Well, he spent all afternoon, talking with that boy, playing with him, joking with him. The boy went back to hospital after that. But the father came to see me later, almost in tears. He told me, ‘Mister, I never liked Ali. I’ve hated him ever since I knew about him. I was always hoping someone would beat him, and beat him badly. But I’ll never forget what he did for my son. He’s a good man, and I’m sorry for the way I felt about him.”
(Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser)
The Greatest is gone, but as long as there is boxing and as long as there is injustice, stigma and discrimination, the example of this beautiful, brilliant, boastful, and blessed man will live on.
God bless you champ, and sleep well. You’ve earned it.
Champions Forever (Song at 1:45.20)