There is no point trying to write anything biographical about Ali, who sadly passed away earlier today.
There is no point in analysing his boxing style and record.
Nor is it worth trying to articulate profound thoughts about his celebrated (and flawed) life outside the ring, and his long decline in the face of Parkinson’s disease.
In short, there is simply no point in trying to write a ‘statement piece’ about Ali, because it has all been said over many decades by some of the truly great writers, Ali’s peers and by the man himself.
I am not a particular fan of boxing, but I have long thought that the best of boxing writing is some of the most mesmerising material you are ever likely to read. The great writers talking about the legendary fighters is a truly wonderful combination. And as we have seen in today’s countless tribute articles, Ali has received some absolutely magnificent coverage which is every bit as vibrant as he was at the peak of his powers.
Bravo to the world’s sports press!
What I will say however, is that Ali matters to me because he was a remarkable man living in turbulent times, who didn’t duck a challenge in his professional or personal life, and who put his ‘money’ where his considerable mouth was in every single thing he did.
A loud black Muslim man giving up the title he had striven so hard to win, so as not to be drafted into the US Army and sent to kill in Vietnam at a time of high racial domestic tensions was truly extraordinary. The fact that he stuck to his principles when he could have become a cowed pariah, and then (quite literally) fought his way back to the top of his sport and ultimately into the hearts of millions of people was just remarkable.
And to then conduct himself with such magnificent grace, fortitude and concern for others (expressed through his charitable work) when the things which most defined him – his physical prowess and razor-sharp banter – were slowly and horrifically stripped away from him… Well, you can only salute the man.
Ali is not the only person to suffer from degenerative illness, and we should remember that and applaud others who battle on with just as much determination and dignity. But that should not detract from the scale of Ali’s own personal achievement in the painful years since he retired from boxing.
Ultimately, however, think we should (and will always) go back to the boxing. I don’t see a lot of point in trying to compare sportsmen and women in different eras. Ali certainly said (and doubtless felt) he was The Greatest. In terms of ‘pound for pound’ technique, power and talent he may not have been the best of all time. Nevertheless, when you take all of his life achievements together when compared to other boxers, no one comes close.
But in Ali’s case, comparisons don’t really matter. What we have is a young kid winning Olympic Gold in 1960 and then forging a mesmerising, sport-changing, era-defining career which included some of THE great sporting contests of all time.
Ali, Liston, Frazier and Foreman. What names and what talent! And Ali – who in his prime looked like the very definition of the perfect athlete – ultimately came out on top. Not by ducking fights and going a roundabout way to the title, but by going toe-to-toe with the very best in some of the biggest ‘events’ any sport has ever known. Ali’s was a magical era when the eyes of much of the world were on epic contests between some very talented, powerful and brave men.
These were fights you would look forward to for weeks, and then follow in the middle of the night. These were duels which became legendary the moment they ended. If not before.
The conclusion of The Rumble In The Jungle in Zaire in 1974 (complete with perfectly awestruck Harry Carpenter commentary) is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Almost no one fancied Ali to beat Foreman. But Ali found a way. A punishing way that could only be attempted and be successful if he had supreme faith in his own ability, and the talent and strength to back it up.
And when the flurry of punches came at the end of the 8th Round, Foreman had no answer.
Ali undoubtedly suffered for his art. And he suffered over long decades as the Parkinson’s took hold. He should have stopped fighting after the Rumble In The Jungle, and certainly after the Thrilla in Manilla. But – even if the people around him had tried to force him to give up – how can anyone stop a force of nature?
The Answer? You can’t.
Muhammad Ali was an astonishing human being. Flaws and all. He knew it, and he tried to do something – everything he could – with his ability. I am not going to begrudge him one second of a life lived to the absolute full.
I hope he is now enjoying a well-earned rest, free from pain.
The Greatest? You bet.
Thanks for reading.