Fighter, Icon, Legend
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
If by some miracle of time and circumstance it had been possible to attend every significant sporting event in the 20th century with the single exception of the clattering, bawling emergence of the young black man from Louisville, Kentucky, who would come to call himself Muhammad Ali, there would be only one way to categorise such a fate.
Any doubts about this surely disappeared on this last weekend of dealing with his formal departure from a life which, for all its historic illumination, had become such a physical ordeal.
Missing Ali would not only have been a terrible impoverishment. It would have been an omission that scaled down all else you saw, which limited your understanding of the possibilities that lurk, improbably, in the human spirit, certainly in the arena of sport and also in a wider world still marked by the terrible disconnections created by racial prejudice and privilege.
For myself, I count my late escape from such a fate the greatest good fortune of a long professional life as a sports writer.
The occasion was Ali's last great performance in the ring. It came in September 1977, when he defined yet again - with stunning courage and a sublime re-invention of some of the best of himself - who he was and what he represented. He beat the formidably hard-hitting Earnie Shavers over 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden, New York, and the clarity of the memory of it is only enhanced by the most sombre implications of his victory.
It was the night Ali's medical advisor Ferdie Pacheco announced that he was leaving the camp. He said that such punishment could no longer be borne without the certainty of a shocking decline in the quality of the champion's life. The doctor's decision had been provoked by Ali's cries of anguish in the post-fight dressing room, where he screamed for the lights to be turned off because of the pain in his eyes.
Pacheco said that Ali was sustaining damage in every part of his body, right down to his bowels.
It was advice that Ali - and his manager Herbert Muhammad - chose to ignore, and down the years it hasn't been so difficult to count the cost. Back then, though, Ali still believed that he could make his own rules, and of course the problem was that so many chose to share his faith.
A few days earlier he had brought New York to a standstill when he marched with his entourage down Eighth Avenue. The traffic stopped, the sidewalks were awash with admirers. It was not a scene to encourage intimations of mortality or pain.
The desperate denouement came three years later on a cold desert night in Nevada in the open-air stadium of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Ali, with the help of a course of diuretics, looked to have won back much of his fitness, but if the image was still beautiful it was one that housed a shell. Over 10 rounds - before his devoted trainer Angelo Dundee threw in the towel - Ali was brutally beaten by his former sparring partner Larry Holmes.
There was no redemption, no psychological escape hatch this time. So strong, worldly men wept at ringside. They mourned not just the passing of a human phenomenon but some of the most heightened moments of their lives. They played back the meaning of Muhammad Ali - and it was no less vivid 38 years later with the news of his exit from the twilit world he had come to inhabit.
What is that meaning? It is not the legacy of a saint, because he was never that. He could be as cruel and vengeful as any man alive. No, his glory was not without its complications but always there was the supreme ballast of courage and humour and a willingness to defend the vast sweep of his individuality - and certain convictions born on the streets of his home town.
The record of his boxing career - and his life - is indeed a wonder. He took on the US government and ultimately won in the Supreme Court. He touched every corner of the world, thrilled it to its foundations with his epic performances in the ring. And always there were new twists and turns of an extraordinarily volatile nature. At the height of his powers, it was said of him, "He is a man who looks into the bathroom mirror each morning and re-invents himself."
As a fighter he best expressed his powers - and his competitive resilience - in three great dramas: at the start of his reign, when engulfing the ogre Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964; his near-death triumph in the ferocious trilogy shared with Joe Frazier; and, maybe supremely, his upsetting of George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974.
In Zaire, Ali indeed announced himself as the master of his universe. He did it with astonishing conviction and humour. It was not only a victory for nerve and skill but also intellect. He figured out the way to beat the huge and apparently indestructible Foreman, who later admitted, "I had good rounds, strong rounds, and then he whispered in my ear, 'Is that all you got, George?' And of course it was." Ali's rope-a-dope strategy was enshrined for all time in boxing legend. Almost as impressive, though, was his recruitment of the support of his 'African kinfolk.'
One of Ali's most faithful acolytes, Gene Kilroy, who fell under his spell when, as a young lawyer and US army officer, he saw the 18-year-old win Olympic gold in Rome in 1960, recalls a conversation they had as their airliner entered its descent pattern on the flight to Zaire.
"He was sitting a few rows in front of me and he summoned me forward," Kilroy reported. "He had a question. Who, he wanted to know, did the Zaire people most hate? I said I couldn't say for sure but it was certainly true that the Belgian colonisers had been hard rulers. He nodded and I returned to my seat."
When Ali arrived in Kinshasa he was greeted by a vast crowd, one which roared when he announced, "George Foreman is a Belgian."
There are hundreds of such stories and all of them speak not only of a sense of mischief but an effortless capacity to steal an edge, to capture a crowd of any number.
That talent, of course, faded with his long and painful physical decline but always there was the residue of a unique spirit.
If his ability to perform magic tricks became imprisoned, along with his articulacy, it was not lost as an emblem of one of his most insistent desires - to engage an audience, to assert that he was alive and still anxious to deliver an impact that would always linger in the mind of a world he had entranced so uniquely.
This week, in his native city beside the Ohio River, Muhammad Ali will become the object of world-wide mourning. He will be attended by presidents and people from all corners of the world and each segment of society. It will be an outpouring of affection and respect extraordinary in the wake of any single life.
It will be a tribute not only to the greatest prize fighter of the ages but a salute to a man who more than anything had a genius for celebrating the value of his own existence.