Tommy Conlon: Muhammad Ali was living proof that one man can change the world
No one is guaranteed their measure of dignity in an ending but when Muhammad Ali left the ring for the final time, it was in circumstances that thoroughly degraded his sovereign eminence as a titan of the 20th century.
His departure from prizefighting took place in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, in December 1981. He was beaten on points by the Jamaican Trevor Berbick, a cumbersome and indolent journeyman who trundled to a points victory in a desperately mediocre confrontation.
The organisers of the event had been so inept that they famously neglected to provide a ringside bell. They mustered instead a cow bell that tinkled feebly at the end of each round. Ali was five weeks short of his 40th birthday.
Stripped of the dazzling speed that had made him such a revolutionary heavyweight, and eroded by the ravages of 61 fights during a 21-year pro career, Ali shambled passively to the final stop on the line in this Caribbean outpost. And when the bell tolled at the end of the tenth round, it tolled with a sound more familiar to cattle than to champions.
“To see him lose to such a moderate fighter in such a grubby context,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney for The Observer, “was like watching a king ride into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.”
On Friday night last in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, Muhammad Ali’s permanent exile became eternal. He died at the age of 74. He will be buried in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky.
But this time his leaving will not be a dethroning. It will rather be akin to the last coronation of a king before he is released into the afterlife which his faith assured him would be his ultimate destination. If he is not carried to his final resting place on a royal bier to the sound of golden trumpets, it is only because there is less taste for such ceremonial extravagance in the contemporary culture.
But the world will be watching in any case. For those too young to remember him in his incandescent prime, it will be a history lesson passed on by their parents and grandparents, a fable with a moral message at its core. The message being that one man can change the world; that one woman can change the world; that the power of one exceptional human being can move millions of people to a better consciousness, a higher level of enlightenment.
And Ali achieved this not through the medium of politics or law or literature or art but through the proletarian opium of sport. And not just sport in its more refined manifestations but in a genre notorious for its cruelty and corruption. “The fight racket,” wrote the legendary American sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, “since its rotten beginnings, has been the red-light district of sports.”
But it was out of this degenerate universe that a singular beacon for humanity emerged.
If this emergence could have a birth date, it would probably be February 25, 1964. He was still known as Cassius Clay when he defeated Sonny Liston on that day in Miami Beach, Florida. It was a sensational outcome. The world had a new heavyweight champion, at a time when this title was still the most prestigious designation in all of sport across all of the globe.
If Clay had been as humble as someone like Joe Louis, his victory would still have catapulted him into headlines across the five continents. But of course the newly-minted world heavyweight champ, just turned 22, was anything but modest, humble or deferential.
He was a delirious braggart who at his moment of apotheosis lost himself to the power of his own mythology. For he believed profoundly in his own myth before anyone else even knew about him — and long before he had laid down the first blocks in this towering edifice to his own greatness.
At the weigh-in in Miami, Clay told all who listened that he was about to make history. “Cassius had an African walking stick,” recalled the veteran fight writer Jerry Izenberg, “that he was banging on the floor, running back and forth, screaming, ‘This is my destiny’.”
But Sonny Liston at that time was the very incarnation of pugilism’s brooding heart of darkness. He was the silent, fearsome ogre of the ring, who was then considered nigh unbeatable — and certainly beyond the immature powers of the loudmouth from Kentucky. At the end of the sixth round the indestructible Sonny Liston quit on his stool. Clay had left him bewildered by the sheer speed of his hands and feet. He had picked him off repeatedly with piercing jabs and combinations.
“As the defeated champion spat out his mouthpiece,” wrote Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, “Clay rose with both arms in the air. To say he danced would be an injustice. His feet skimmed back and forth with incredible speed, barely touching the canvas, as though he was levitating.”
And in those crazed moments of vindication he delivered a torrent of praise that would not have been out of place in a Baptist church in the American south, with a euphoric preacher issuing hosannas to the Lord. But of course Clay’s ecstatic litany was dedicated to himself.
Interviewed in the ring by Howard Cosell, the great grandee of US television sport, he unleashed his delirium. “I am the greatest! I shook up the world! I must be the greatest. I showed the world, I shook up the world. I’m the king of the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
He shook up the world. It could be the epitaph on his headstone. But the thing is, he was only beginning to shake up the world.
Soon afterwards he changed his name and converted from Christianity to Islam. It was the beginning of a long confrontation with the American establishment, and the beginning of his long contribution to the education of a white universe. He was hated for it. He brought the wrath of legions down upon his own head.
Uncowed, undeterred, he threw an even more radical gauntlet down when he refused to be drafted into the American army to serve in Vietnam. “Why should they ask me,” he demanded in the spring of 1967, “to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
On April 28 of that year he attended an army station in Houston, Texas, where he was due to be inducted into the US military. When his name was called, he refused to step forward. He point-blank refused to join. It was an incendiary moment that connected with the wider civil rights protests and anti-war campaigns that were raging across America at the time.
A boxer, of all things, had become a symbol of the times, in the same way as Bob Dylan had and many of the other leading lights of the counter-culture. But for Ali, being heavyweight champion of the world carried responsibilities that he could not in his conscience ignore.
“I am proud of that title,” he said in Houston that day. “The holder of it should at all times have the courage of his convictions and carry out those convictions, not only in the ring but throughout all phases of his life.”
The price he paid was to be stripped of his cherished heavyweight crown. The first great exile of his career had begun. It would be three years before he fought again.
The second act of his boxing life was where he began the journey from national outlaw to international secular saint. It encompassed the epic battles against Frazier and Foreman which enshrined his legend as a fighter and his reputation as an extraordinary human being.
When he dethroned George Foreman as world champion in Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974, the man became the myth he had always envisioned in his wild imagination. Everyone knew that Ali was past it by then. Everyone knew that Foreman was invincible.
“We should have known,” wrote McIlvanney from Kinshasa, “that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.”
One year later, in the broiling heat of The Philippines, Ali and Frazier would take each other to the brink of mortal destruction. Again, Ali’s unconquerable heart and will carried him to victory. But it was a victory savagely earned. The crucifying damage he sustained that night perhaps triggered the symptoms — if they were not already nascent — that would develop into the full-blown Parkinson’s condition that would progressively envelope him over the following decades.
He should, of course, have quit long before that undignified exit in the Bahamas. But perhaps it was his own sense of divine destiny, which propelled him to greatness in the first place, that left him believing he could be immune to the frailties of ordinary human flesh.
In any event, the physical infirmity that so tragically reduced him in later years was somehow replaced by a charisma and aura that in the end bordered on spiritual. The athletic greatness was overtaken by a simple sense of his human greatness.
He was a complicated man and in the fullness of time all his mistakes and vanities and contradictions will be put on the record. Ali hurt a lot of people over the years, in public and in private, and his sins should not be forgotten either. But this is hardly the occasion for a full reckoning of his life and times.
Those who knew him are in mourning; those of us who didn’t will still lower our heads as his cortège moves through the virtual world in the coming days.
Howard Cosell said that Ali was “a figure transcendental to sport. He’s important to the history of this country (America) because his entire life is an index to the bigotry lodged deep within the wellspring of this nation and its people.”
But if the epicentre of his humanity was located in America, it was witnessed by the rest of the world too. “I don’t have to be who you want me to be,” he once said, “I’m free to be who I want.”
And in fighting to assert this personal freedom, he fought it for all those who could never quite match his incomparable courage.