Friday 28 October 2016

My hero may be gone, but Muhammad Ali's flame will never be extinguished

Young boxing fanatic Joe Corcoran takes comfort in the fact The Greatest's story shall always be remembered

Joe Corcoran

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

The greatest: Ali's first-round KO vs Liston in 1965 Photo: Associated Press
The greatest: Ali's first-round KO vs Liston in 1965 Photo: Associated Press

July 19, 1996, Muhammad Ali emerges from the northern end of the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the 26th Summer Games. At 55 years old, he is a shadow of the athletic phenomenon he once was. His face is expressionless and his whole figure shakes perilously as he raises the flame up before an applauding and, in many cases, tearful crowd of 85,000 people.

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Ali, the man, will live for another 19 years but this is the last chapter in his public story. It is the last time that the most famous man in the world will hold the entire world's attention. How poetic that he should finally relinquish that attention at the same event he first demanded it, 36 years earlier as a spry 18-year-old light-heavyweight boxer.

Crowds line the street in front of Muhammad Ali's boyhood home last Friday, as his funeral cortege passes by Photo: Associated Press
Crowds line the street in front of Muhammad Ali's boyhood home last Friday, as his funeral cortege passes by Photo: Associated Press

I was born exactly six months after that day in Atlanta. I never got to see Muhammad Ali fight. I never got to see him interviewed live because, by then, he could hardly speak. My mother was less than a month old when he won gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. My father was born five months after he was stripped of his title for refusing to participate in the Vietnam war.

His joining the nation of Islam, his epic trilogy of fights with Joe Frazier, his impossible victory in Zaire over the mighty George Foreman, his slow decline in performance and the betrayal of his body to Parkinson's disease, his final tragic beating at the hands of Larry Holmes and his long overdue retirement. I have no first-hand experience of any of these events. I missed everything that made Muhammad Ali "The Greatest", everything for which the world has mourned him. Yet for 20 minutes last Saturday morning, I wept alone in my bedroom at the news that he had died.

Like everyone, I have seen footage of the man, gotten some taste of his magnetism and electricity, the positive energy he seemed to inject into every room he entered. As a boxing fan, I have retrospectively viewed the majority of his fights. His movement, especially during the first title reign, is still dazzling. He was light years ahead of the current diminished batch of heavyweight prizefighters, but I did not weep for a man who was simply good at fighting.

Immediately following Ali's death, our newsfeeds were flooded with countless personal stories of the little ways in which he had touched so many people's lives. At the risk of continuing this trend, I will mention something my granny said to me roughly four years ago during a long conversation we had together in a holiday home in Sligo.

I was wrestling at the time with the notion of mortality and I mentioned to her that the idea of death was not nearly so disturbing to me as the idea that one day everything about me, every word I'd spoken, feeling I'd had and event I'd experienced would be forgotten. She responded by saying that while that idea itself was not so disturbing to her, the idea that the same thing could happen to someone like Muhammad Ali was. Because, if the day came when a figure that immense would cease to be spoken of, then what chance would anyone else have?

It was this memory that I first recalled that Saturday morning, and the weeping that accompanied it was not so much for sadness as for fear. In that moment, I was struck by the terrible idea that Muhammad Ali would never again be able to remind the world that Muhammad Ali existed. The idea that, from now on, his legacy was diminishing and that we had once and for all set course upon the journey of time that would lead to his being forgotten was an immensely troubling one.

The sad truth is that day, the day on which, for all intents and purposes, the story of Muhammad Ali will cease to exist, will come, but it will only come on the day the man as we know him ceases to exist also. The legend of Muhammad Ali is only in its infancy and it will continue to grow for well beyond the foreseeable future. Death may be the supreme fact of life, but Muhammad Ali is a close second.

What a bizarre and wonderful world it is, in which the exploits of a braggadocious black man from Kentucky who punched people in the face for a living are more prevalent than entire civilisations and even some scientific laws.

The earliest memory I have of Ali is from a book of trivia questions we used to own when I was hardly three years old, which asked what his original name was.

Though I hadn't much understanding of what boxing was at that time, I was still well able to answer: "Cassius Clay."

Though I hadn't any notion of what religious or racial discrimination meant, I still knew he had changed it once he became "the champion" and got some sort of "belt", because Muhammad Ali was his real black Muslim name, whatever a Muslim was and for whatever reason a black person needed a different name notwithstanding.

We are a storytelling people first and foremost, and so it is only natural that before I had any practical knowledge of the society in which I lived, I would know the greatest stories to have emerged out of it. Six months after having lit the Olympic torch and written his final chapter, the story of Muhammad Ali already held firm position in the greater canon of stories that will continue to be handed down for as long as man exists, through the same oral tradition that has preserved all of the great myths, legends and fairytales.

His was the story of a poor young black boy who came from nothing to fight for his kingdom, became revered for conquering the great monster Sonny Liston, was exiled for disavowing and embarrassing the king after being given a morally duplicitous command, had his actions ultimately vindicated and was brought back, only to find he had lost a step physically, rebuilt himself anew and conquered an even scarier monster in George Foreman with a newfound wisdom he had gained with age - all the while spreading love and helping to improve the status of his marginalised and oppressed people.

He was also a man who suffered for his craft - the Job or the Icarus of his day depending on how you want to view it - who lost a more potent capacity for speech and physical control than most people could dream of, and, so doing, gave us a vital awareness of the dangers of brain damage and, moreover, whose dignified and spiritual outlook on his great misfortune was perhaps even more impressive than what he achieved in the ring.

It is in these kinds of legends, these epic tales of human spirit, that the essence of an era lives on long past the point at which the last books are written about them. It is for this reason that they are so important. We as people need them in order to gain our insights into what it means to be human and try as we might, we cannot change that.

As technology advances, the footage and photographs we have of Ali will cease to be any more evocative than cave paintings are today, but his story will never diminish in vitality. It will only continue to grow with each passing generation.

Before my children learn to read, they will know of the man who proclaimed himself The Greatest years before the rest of us realised it. When their children's children struggle to conceive why anybody would ever want to watch people punch each other in the head until one of them could not stand up anymore, they will still know of the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

My granny need not worry about anybody forgetting Muhammad Ali, if only because we have no choice but to remember him.

Sunday Independent

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