Absurdly talented and oozing charisma, Ali's magic cast a lifelong spell
The greatest boxer who ever lived opened up another universe for us when we saw him on TV
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
I was telling my daughter this morning about this great man, and the first thing that came to mind was a night long ago when Muhammad Ali was fighting - and it happened to be on television.
But it was so long ago that most people in Ireland didn't have television, especially people in Athlone. We didn't have it in our house, so we all went to the nearest house which had such a thing, and we sat there in awe watching Ali beating some white man - Jerry Quarry, perhaps - but it doesn't really matter who his opponent was, we were there for Ali.
What a thing it was, what a scene - as if Athlone was some place in the jungle with little access to the technologies of the world, and its inhabitants were naturally going to be transfixed by the amazing things that we were seeing coming all the way from America. By this amazing person.
So Ali was not just a phenomenon in himself - he arrived into our lives along with another phenomenon, that of television, and together they were an almost unimaginably potent combination at a time when being heavyweight champion of the world really meant something.
When we look back on our childhood we tend to remember very few things with much clarity, but the things we do remember never leave us. They stay in our heads as if they are trying to persuade us to go back there for a few moments, as if they have something important to tell us.
That night has not just stayed in my head, it has been burned into my soul.
Two families, nine people, all together in the Irish midlands, looking at these black-and-white pictures from another universe, mesmerised.
How did he do it? What the hell drew us all to him, what was that electrifying connection he made with the better sides of our nature?
Obviously, he was massively talented in ways that perhaps no man has been talented before, combining the physical prowess of the champion fighter with the gifts of an artist. His was not just an ordinary sense of humour, but such a sophisticated one, a wit that was not far off Wildean - but perhaps even more impressive for the fact that Wilde, after knocking out a few epigrams, did not have to get into the ring for 15 rounds with Joe Frazier.
And that deep humour of his had a conspiratorial function, it drew us into his confidence, telling us that he knew the inherent absurdity of what he did for a living, but he would keep doing it anyway, because he was so damn good at it.
So he was better than most of us at most things, that was the simple attraction.
But in a more complex way he embodied the best energies of his time, the best energies of the 20th century, because it seemed that everything came together in Ali.
He was also one of the great celebrities, yet we were lucky enough to have such a celebrity, such a star, such an astonishingly gifted man out there.
And I guess that is the feeling that remains from that night in Athlone a long time ago, watching Muhammad Ali on television, a feeling that seems to be shared today by much of the world.
How lucky we were.