Muhammad Ali: An unrivalled blend of charisma, talent and historical influence
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
In Muhammad Ali's great life, "King of the World" turned from a boast to a fact. No other sports star could have self-applied that title without sounding ludicrous. With Ali - prize-fighter, political activist, humanitarian - it came to describe a level of fame that made him known in every town and village.
Today's megastars have immense commercial reach. Technology has fired their images to almost every patch of Earth where humans are. Plenty can claim to be adored. But none can match Ali's blend of charisma, athletic brilliance and historical influence.
He leaves us not only with great sporting memories but some of the most resonant social messages of our age. Chiming loudest of all, perhaps, is his declaration to America during the civil rights struggle: "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be me."
With his Motown footwork, his rubbery defensive work and flashing fists, Ali was a heavyweight who transferred the skills of the finest middleweights to boxing's marquee weight-class. He was so fast - he liked to joke - that he could turn off the light switch and jump into bed before it went dark. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was his immortal mantra.
He was a one-man cabaret who invaded the big fight circuit with his poetry and braggadocio. He was a gleaming, hyper-active symbol of youthful promise at a point where America was heading deep into a decade of political, racial and social turmoil. Rather than win his fights and count his money, Ali headed to the front-line of these battles, converting to Islam the day after he deposed Sonny Liston as world heavyweight champion, and refusing the Vietnam war draft: a stance that halted his boxing career for three and a half years.
As with his pronouncements about personal freedom ("I'm free to be"), his reasoning on the war in Vietnam strikes modern audiences with a timeless clarity. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," he said, thus casting America's war as a needless enterprise. For a man defined by legalised violence, to take up the position of a principled pacifist was to gamble with his status, his credibility and his income, not to mention his liberty.
When Ali turned his back on the Vietnam war, a judge granted him conscientious objector status but was overruled by the government, who sentenced him to five years in prison and stripped him of his title as well as his licence to box. The US Supreme Court later reversed that decision and Ali returned to win the world title not once but twice, ushering in the age of the global super-bout.
Ali's stance on Vietnam caused him to be hated by many Americans. But Bertrand Russell wrote to him to say he had spoken for "the oppressed everywhere". Ali remained unrepentant throughout his ban and the risk he faced of going to jail. "I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs," he said. "We [black people] have been in jail for four hundred years."
With respect to the other great sporting figures of the last hundred years, Pele, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Jack Nicklaus, Sachin Tendulkar, Tiger Woods and the rest are not in Ali's league of historical importance. The miracle is that he combined a job as sport's No 1 entertainer and showman with a role as political protester and catalyst. The price he seemed to pay for living so many lives in one was to spend his last 32 years tormented by Parkinson's disease, which was almost certainly exacerbated by the hundreds of blows he took to the head, especially in his final, money-chasing years inside the ropes.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, Cassius Clay was the grandson of a slave. His father, Cassius Clay snr, was a sign writer; his mother, Odessa, cooked and cleaned for upper-class whites. The couple bought a small house in the West End of Louisville in their mid-twenties and were regarded as financially comfortable by the standards of the time.
Young Cassius began boxing as a means of self-defence. A Louisville police officer and boxing coach, Joe Martin, came across the 12-year-old Clay vowing to "whup" the thief who had stolen his bike on the streets. Martin advised him to learn how to box before attempting such a mission.
Ali soon demonstrated a magical talent for jab-and-move (or jab-and-dance). His fluid skills in the ring might have been an extension of his garrulousness. His refusal to play the part of the silent and grateful black prize-fighter was the first sign that he intended to challenge white American society on all fronts.
In high school he graduated 376th out of a class of 391 and struggled with reading in his early adult life. Yet his mind glowed with a fierce natural intelligence. Even in the days when he was arguing for a black homeland in America and calling white people "devils" he displayed a subtle and intuitive grasp of how power worked. Boxing can be seen as a metaphor for his grander struggle. Courage, willpower, perseverance, the ability to withstand setbacks and pain: there was a unifying theme in the two halves of Ali's life.
But he was a boxer, first, and undoubtedly a great one. His blessing, and his curse, was to share an era with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote of the mega-fights that held the world in awe: "These somber and terrifying boxing matches make us weep for their very futility." They also lent a bleak majesty to the ancient trade of pugilism.
After working his way through the amateur system, and winning an Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960, Clay, as he still was, set off into the ranks of professional heavyweights in the toughest era the sport has known.
In his first fight with Liston, Ali, 22, wore a robe with 'The Lip' stitched on the back and played up to the role of skittish kid who would be dispatched to the local hospital by the seemingly invincible Liston, who represented darkness to Ali's light. In the preamble, the consortium of Louisville businessmen who had financed his rise to the status of challenger hoped only that Clay would emerge "alive and unhurt".
In the event Ali so demoralised the defending champion with his hand-speed and elusiveness that Liston quit on his stool after six rounds. In the rematch Liston was felled in the first by a so-called "phantom" punch to the temple and seemed to lose the will to continue. As Carol Oates observed years later: "A new era in boxing had begun, like a new music."
If taunting the boxing press and declaring himself 'King of the World' was not enough to create a stir, Clay converted to Islam the day after the first Liston fight, rejecting his slave name and becoming Muhammad Ali: a title some media publications refused to acknowledge. Ali was now the master of heavyweight boxing while posing a direct challenge to much of America's most sacred religious and political beliefs.
At his most radical, Ali supported the Nation of Islam demand for a black homeland on the American continent. "Black people in America will never be free so long as they're on the white man's land," he said. "We can't be free until we get our own land and our own country in North America. America, rich as it is, was made rich partly though the black man's labour."
As the '60s expired, Ali moderated those views to bring them into the mainstream and became an inspirational figure in American life. Boxing helped him make that transition. For many, his epic battles in the ring defined his character more effectively than any political speech, even if the cost to his health turned out to be ruinous. In the final decades of his life he emphasised peace and reconciliation, turning up at major sporting and cultural events long after the power of speech had deserted him. As David Remnick writes in his brilliant book, King of the World: "Of all the '60s icons - the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Mickey Mantle - only a few are left, and Ali is, by far, the most adored among them."
He was an electrifying presence. Known as The Louisville Lip, The Greatest and The People's Champion, he brought Vaudevillian verve to the business of selling fights. An example, chosen at random from thousands of great lines, was his quip: "If you sign to fight me, you need speed and endurance. . . but what you need most of all is to increase your insurance."
The dark side of his promotional zeal was taunting opponents, such as Frazier, who he called a "dumb tool of the white establishment", and Foreman, who he parodied as a shuffling Egyptian mummy. He sometimes overstepped the line between hype and personal abuse and Frazier, for one, harboured a grudge for many years.
The fights themselves, though, were seldom contrived. The Rumble in the Jungle with Foreman in Zaire was a masterclass of psychology, bluff and physical self-sacrifice, in which Ali lay against the ropes until the fearsome Foreman had punched himself out, then attacked with a flurry of unanswerable blows.
Ali's bouts with Frazier were even more apocalyptic, with both men skirting the line between life and death in a battle of styles, temperaments and character. The first, at Madison Square Garden in 1971, was dubbed 'The Fight of the Century' after Frazier knocked Ali down in the final round with a vicious hook. Though he was back on his feet within three seconds, Ali endured his first loss as a pro.
His second, in 1973, after a run of six straight victories, was to Ken Norton, who broke his jaw, before the chance of a rematch with Frazier a year later caused Ali to abandon his plan to retire. Frazier had lost his world title to Foreman. This time Ali was more successful at evading Frazier's trademark left hook and prevailed by a unanimous decision.
Boxing abhors a one-all draw, and the decider, in the Philippines in 1975, entered folklore as 'The Thrilla in Manila'. In between, Ali had dethroned Foreman in Kinshasa, but this bout was to be far more savage, until a moment of compassion by Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, elevated the fight to a kind of hallowed status. At the end of the 14th round Frazier was spent, his eyes swollen and shut. Futch refused to let Frazier come out for the final round, telling him: "Sit down, son, it's all over. But nobody will ever forget what you did here today."
Ali himself described the most exhausting of his fights as "the nearest thing to death".
These debilitating contests left deep marks on him, but he fought on, for the money, facing Holmes in 1980, aged 38, and finally Trevor Berbick in December 1981. By then the signs of physical deterioration were obvious to his closest confidantes, especially his doctor Ferdie Pacheco, who refused to support his wish to go on fighting long after the danger signs were evident. He finished with a record of 56 wins and five defeats.
Fame was Ali's drug, but also his burden, because his sheer ubiquity rendered it impossible for him to move around America without being pestered. Women would burst into tears, men would hound him for autographs, opportunists would press business cards into his hand while he was trying to eat on planes and the whole country seemed to regard him as public property - in line with his own apparent wish to be seen and heard at all times.
Remnick writes: "He became so famous that in his travels around the world Ali could gaze out of airplane windows -down at Lagos, down at Paris and Madras - and be assured that almost everyone alive knew who he was." Hunter S Thompson, of all people, acknowledged the flip side when chasing Ali down to a New York hotel for an interview. He wrote: "We both understood the deep and deceptively narrow-looking moat that 18 years of celebrity forced Ali to dig between his 'public' and 'private' personas."
In 1983, Ali told Bob Greene of Esquire in a maudlin but revealing article: "This life is not real. I conquered the world, and it didn't give me satisfaction. The boxing, the fame, the publicity, the attention - it didn't satisfy my soul." Even in this melancholic state Ali would creep up behind strangers and click his fingers by their ear to make them jump, and then look innocent and oblivious when they spun round to find the culprit.
In a Playboy interview in 1975 Ali described the physical impact of his clashes with Frazier and Foreman: "You're just numb and you don't know where you're at. There's no pain, just that jarring feeling. But I automatically know what to do when that happens to me, sort of like a sprinkler system starting when a fire starts up. When I get stunned, I'm not really conscious of exactly where I'm at or what's happening, but I always tell myself that I'm to dance, run, tie my man up or hold my head way down.
"I get hit, but all great fighters get hit. Sugar Ray got hit, Joe Louis got hit and Rocky Marciano got hit. But they had something other fighters didn't have: the ability to hold on until they cleared up. I got that ability, too, and I had to use it in each of the Frazier fights. That's one reason I'm a great defensive fighter. The other is my rope-a-dope defence - and when I fought Foreman [in Zaire], he was the dope."
As an athlete, Ali was touched by genius. The first phase of his career was about exuberance, speed and mobility. He challenged all the conventions of the ring. After his enforced absence, he turned to the other great facet of his character: stubbornness and bravery. If he could defeat the American government, he seemed to say, he would not bend the knee to George Foreman.
Looking back on this second career phase, he said: "I was left for dead before the second Norton fight, because my jaw had been broken in the first one. One loss to Frazier, and Sports Illustrated ran a headline on its cover saying 'End of the Ali Legend'. And I was also left for dead against Foreman, who was supposed to be the toughest champ of all time.
"You know, I once read something that said 'He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.' Well, boxing is a risk and life is a gamble, and I got to take both."
Famously amorous during his boxing career, Ali was married four times and has seven daughters and two sons. His first wife, Sonji Roi, objected to Ali's demand that she observe Muslim customs, and he was unhappy about his daughter, Laila, taking up a successful career in the ring. His last wife, Lonnie, oversaw his final years in Arizona while trying to build his profile with a younger audience.
In his final years, as Parkinson's destroyed his faculties, Ali would appear at fund-raising dinners and promotional events but was unable to converse or move much. In February 2013 his brother, Rahman Ali, announced that his sibling was close to death, but he fought on for two more years. Ali was hospitalized in December 2014 with pneumonia and again a month later with a urinary tract infection. This week he was taken to hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a urinary tract infection and died late on Friday night.
For all the seriousness in his life, Ali was synonymous with comedy and joie de vivre, and had an unbreakable sense of fun. Asked in 1975 how he would like to be seen by history, he said he'd settle for being remembered as "a great boxer..and I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."