Monday, 6 June 2016

Muhammad Ali: Without doubt the greatest

What a year 2016 is turning out to be with the loss of so many influential, visionary and legendary figures in music, sport and entertainment.

This weekend we said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, quite easily the greatest sportsman the world has ever seen.

For those people who aren't interested in sport, such a statement might seem hyperbolic and over the top but I'm in absolute agreement with all the tributes and reflections on Ali's life and career.



What made Muhammad Ali so special?

Looking at his career in sporting terms, he is arguably one the greatest boxers to have ever lived and probably the best heavyweight champion of the world. He won the heavyweight championship 3 times in an era that is regarded as the golden age of heavyweight boxing.

To be a true sporting great you have to transcend your sport and very few people can do this. This is what I think makes Ali so special. He became not just a sporting icon, but also a political, and cultural icon for millions of people around the world.

It's important to look back on the type of world the 1960s were when Ali first burst onto the scene. In America it was the time of the Civil Rights movement with African Americans asserting their rights to be treated equally and with dignity in America.

Ali emerged during that time as a talented, charismatic, funny, handsome, arrogant, loudmouth who wasn't afraid to tell the world how great he was. At the time Ali or Cassius Clay as he was still known, represented everything that White America feared and hated most about black men. His attitude, confidence, and outspokenness was a threat - particularly during a time of heightened racial tension.

When he beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight crown in 1964, nobody gave him a chance against the brutish Liston. But that fight announced him to the world and it feels incredibly sad to know that he's no longer here.

Converting to Islam and following the teachings of the Nation of Islam again showed that here was someone who was ready to stand up for his beliefs and values regardless of whether they upset or threatened the establishment.

The one thing that always stood out for me about Ali's greatness and influence was his decision in 1967 to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War. It's hard to imagine today any sports star deciding not to participate in say a World Cup or an Olympics based on a point of principle.

Ali refused to fight in Vietnam as he said he had no problem with the Vietcong. What I always found ironic about his decision was that there were many in America who accused him of being a traitor to his country, yet America continued to treat African Americans as second class citizens but still expected them to fight in foreign wars to protect freedom and oppose Communism.

That decision resulted in Ali being banned from boxing for 3 years and he essentially sacrificed some of the best years of his career. Just that act makes Ali a true hero in my eyes.


The comeback

When Ali returned to boxing in 1970 there was no guarantee that he would become heavyweight champion again. Some of the speed and grace he had in his earlier career was gone but he adapted. It was something he had to do if he was to take on the likes Joe Frazier and George Foreman. His fights against Frazier and Foreman are legendary, especially the 'Rumble in the Jungle' against Foreman in 1974.

With all great life stories there is triumph and tragedy and the tragedy about Muhammad Ali is that he continued to fight for too long into the late 70s. He really should have retired after his brutal fight against Frazier 'The Thriller in Manilla' in 1975.

Over the weekend I've watched clips of some of his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. What's really sad is in his final interview in the early 80s you can see the physical and mental deterioration in Ali. The spark, and the wit was just not there, he was a shadow of the man he had been. All those blows to head in the ring had sadly taken their toll.

His subsequent battle with Parkinson's disease almost adds to the mystique and respect you have for Ali. You could say it was a tragic way to spend the second half of his life but his first 40 years were so eventful so colourful and packed with drama that he'd done more in 20 years than most of us achieve in a lifetime.

My own personal story

I actually got to see Muhammad Ali as a small child growing up in Birmingham. He came to the city in 1983 to open a Community Centre called the Muhammad Ali centre in Hockley Birmingham.

My Dad took me along and he was a huge boxing fan. As a child I always knew who Ali was as he was the most famous boxer in the world. I remember the day he came to Birmingham quite clearly as I could sense there was this huge feeling of anticipation amongst the crowd as everyone waited for Ali to appear.

When I look back I feel proud to be able to say that I saw Muhammad Ali.


The icon

The tributes and accolades given to Ali over the weekend demonstrate that his greatness was a lot more than just being a talented and successful athlete. It's about who he was as a parson and what he represented. He was equally a political activist, poet and entertainer who challenged people.

We could never have another Muhammad Ali today. Our society is completely different and no sports star could emerge and be so outspoken, so charismatic and challenging as Ali was.

When we look for heroes in our lives and in our society I look at someone like Ali as someone who could do the things you can't do, say the things you would like or can't say. Be the person that you would like to be. At various times Ali was all of those things to me. There will never be anyone like him again.



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