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Declan Lynch: Without doubt, Ali is 'The Greatest' TV star


Reading various tributes to Muhammad Ali at 70 last week, I had no problem with the Muhammad Ali part, it was the 70 that jarred with me.

Maybe it's just because he started out in the time of black-and-white television, but Ali seems to have been around for a lot longer than 70 years. When you consider that most of us were not aware of him for the first 20 years of his life, and he has been retired for what seems like a very long time, it doesn't quite seem to add up.

In fact, I saw him on black-and-white TV only the other day and I found it enthralling.

I happened upon the ESPN Classic channel, which was showing Ali fighting Sonny Liston in Miami, Florida, to win the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time, when Ali's name was Cassius Clay.

ESPN Classic is one of those stations you always mean to watch but you never get around to it. Until one day you simply can't stop watching. This was it.

And though I had probably seen parts of the Clay-Liston bout before, many times, I still found myself absorbed by it, mesmerised even, by the magnitude of the moment when Liston wouldn't come out to fight in the 7th round, and it suddenly dawned on Ali that he was the champion, that he "shook up the world".

Again and again he yelled his statement, "I shook up the world, I am the greatest, I shook up the world," already far gone beyond any mere questions that the commentators might ask him, anything that would bring him back down.

It was fascinating, too, to see the old hero Joe Louis, thought by some to be an even greater champion than Ali, trying to make sense of the occasion. Not the most loquacious of men, Louis was apparently employed as a TV pundit of some sort, a task which he attempted with much sincerity but to little effect, as Ali's voice dominated all, demanding every bit of the attention that was his due.

Watching Ali bulldoze his way through the conventions to which Joe Louis was still deferential, the world must have known that nothing would ever be the same again. No more would a black man, however distinguished, be anyone's humble servant. America, it seemed, was meeting the new boss.

These are seminal moments in the modern world.

It happened for us in Ireland a few years later when we started to get our own black-and-white televisions and we saw for the first time in our own homes this magnificent man, this hilarious fellow, beating some other fellow whose name does not matter now, and did not matter much then either.

Or maybe it would be in somebody else's home, the people of Ireland brought together by their profound admiration for a black man from Louisville, Kentucky, who had about as much in common with us as any other black man from Louisville, Kentucky -- which, on the face if it, would be nothing whatsoever.

We would eventually learn that Ali's roots were in Ennis, Co Clare. Which still could not fully explain the connection that everyone felt with him.

He was also inordinately witty, the way that a great actor can somehow be witty, even in the darkest roles.

And unlike some mythical god, we could see him doing it on these primitive little television screens of ours.

Indeed, any media student could construct an argument that Ali was essentially the first great master of television, with the boxing merely a vehicle through which he could display his genius as a communicator.

Tiger Woods is as god-like as Ali, as a sportsman. But Ali has the edge as a star of the small screen, if only because he got there first, when that world was young.

They brought Ali down, of course, as they brought Tiger down, for different reasons ostensibly, but ultimately for the same reasons -- the terrible curses of badness and eejitry.

But of course you cannot keep such men down.

Even now, with the surprising news that he is only 70, Ali seems to be on a different plane, causing us to question our mundane concept of time itself.

Despite his otherness, we still feel that primal connection, a sense that this man has elevated our species itself in some entirely original way, that as human beings we have been watching one of our own trying out a few new things. And succeeding in the most remarkable style.

Sunday Independent