Muhammad Ali was many things to many people but first and foremost he was a prizefighter – perhaps the bravest and certainly the most entertaining that boxing will ever know.
Ali’s magnetism, good looks, intelligence, charisma and wit could have made him a star in any walk of life but the most profound of his many talents was for fighting and he took his sport to heights never before seen and, sadly, in 2016 there’s precious little to suggest they’ll ever return.
The great HBO commentator Larry Merchant perceptively pointed out that when it comes to boxing: “Nobody can kill it and nobody can save it.”
Merchant was absolutely right to skewer the omnipresent narrative that boxing is a dying sport as there will always be someone willing to part with their cash to watch a good old-fashioned tear-up.
But the icons who elevated boxing to a global fascination just don’t exist anymore, and reflecting on the heyday of Ali’s glory years also serves as a reminder of how barren the landscape looks right now.
Of course his movie star persona was like a tractor beam drawing new fans to the sport but every hero needs a villain and Ali fought them all. The greats of boxing find their careers woven together by their battles and it’s exactly why George Foreman on Saturday described himself, Ali and Joe Frazier as being one person.
Ali fought the biggest and baddest opponents, one after the other and then again for good measure. The tougher the challenge, the bolder and braver Ali would become. It’s little wonder DC Comics produced a special edition where he actually defeated Superman.
Nobody gave him a prayer when he faced Sonny Liston for the title in 1964, while obituaries were being scribed four decades too early when he signed up to face Foreman in Africa.
He suffered a broken jaw and came up short against Ken Norton only to bounce back and edge a rematch. In 1978 he won the title for a third time, once again avenging a loss as he beat Leon Spinks, a man nearly 12 years his junior.
On multiple occasions Ali defied the consensus, found himself written off only to leave critics eating their words.
Needless to say, so many of the combatants we see in the ring today have been inspired to take up the sport by the ‘Louisville Lip’.
And among the tributes being paid Saturday one in particular stood out for its sheer irony, the heartfelt offering of Mexico’s Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez below.
That’s the same Alvarez who last month dropped the middleweight championship of the world in the garbage rather than face his own Foreman – the hard-hitting Kazakh Gennady Golovkin. Is that really following Ali’s example?
WBC light heavweight champion Adonis Stevenson tweeted his favourite Ali picture with some kind words. What would Ali think about his sustained and blatant refusal to take on Sergey Kovalev?
How about welterweight title holder Danny Garcia, whose father and trainer openly admitted they are happy to bank the cash from easy fights?
Boxing’s most recent megastar Floyd Mayweather has often absurdly claimed to be superior to Ali and he of course had his say.
But, again, what would a man Mayweather labelled as “a pioneer, true legend and hero” make of his five-year avoidance of Manny Pacquiao until he deemed the Filipino sufficiently ring-worn enough to represent a safe victory?
That 2015 bout was laughably labelled the ‘Fight of the Century’, and that’s an insult to the last showdown to have assumed that tagline: Ali/Frazier I.
The fighters of today may well have been inspired by Ali but few possess his boundless ambition and boxing is poorer for it. The sport will never die, but it will also never ride as high as it did upon Ali’s shoulders.