In a toweringly tragic year for the loss of some of our greatest heroes, the king of all of all them is no longer with us.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, he left us in 2016, as a King called Muhammad Ali. If ever a generation saw a true sporting superhuman, it was Muhammad Ali.
And this is not a time for sadness, it’s a time for reflection and celebration. We should even be thinking about how we can learn and improve ourselves while remembering the battles he fought for himself and others.
Hundreds of thousands of people lined streets to catch just a glimpse of him. Dhaka, Bangladesh; Kinshasa, Zaire; Jakarta, Indonesia; London, England; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Dublin, Ireland. One can go on forever and the scene was still the same. Huts in rural villages in Africa and Asia hang his image. Official residences of Presidents, past and present, boast their proudest moment in meeting Ali. Then Russian president Leonid Brezhnev met Ali at the Kremlin in 1978, remarking to his closest aides beforehand: “Who is this Muhammad Ali? I want to meet him”.
His uniqueness lay in his extraordinary humanity. He was superhuman but never more or less than the rest of us.
He saw himself and the wider world in full Technicolor and five-dimensional. He looked into the sky as a child, saw himself in the stars and made his dreams happen. Ali’s is a story that captures every facet of the potential of humanity, and yet he never lost his human touch nor love for mankind.
In an era synonymous for the fame of the meaningless, he stood for far more substantial stuff.
He stood for principle. He announced himself as a Muslim in February 1964 and built that into his core values. To him, he was first a father and Muslim, everything else came after that. He gave up his World Heavyweight crown in 1967 for his refusal to fight what he considered an unjust war in Vietnam. Not only did the decades prove him right but the Supreme Court upheld his decision to refuse induction in March 1971. Who now remembers his detractors and those who called him a traitor?
His judgment was unerringly right-on. Whether it was an opinion of his opponents or whether it was his view of the way the world should operate. His take on the racial context of 1960s America was profoundly prescient. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X courted him. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad won him over. Heads of State in the 1960s and 1970s – in Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Qatar, even Gerald Ford in 1975 – all invited him to visit their countries and enlighten them.
Whatever the racial doggerel of those two decades, he established himself as a hero to all of us – whether we were Asian, African, European; Christian, Muslim or Jew; indigenous or immigrant.
All the while, Ali created an industry around himself. He built the greatest sporting brand in history, simply on instinct and an innate sense of self and core values. Later in the 1990s, some brand management came in. Starting with his igniting of the Olympic Games at Atlanta in 1996 and continuing with the multi-million dollar sporting endorsements for the likes of Adidas, IBM, Apple and, more recently, Porsche.
He built a money-making industry in modern boxing. Without him, forget the likes of Don King, Bob Arum, Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Cosell, Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson and so on even existing in quite the form that they have. Each was a byproduct of Ali. Even George Foreman’s career was boosted by Ali. Who would have heard of Sonny Liston now, were it not for Neil Leifer’s iconic image of Ali Over Liston? Even his opponents and their kids worshipped him.
Superstars attached themselves to Ali and developed some of his swagger into their own personas. The much-missed Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson, Jay Z, Kevin Hart and Tom Jones have all channelled an inner Ali. Hip-hop and R&B owes him a debt of gratitude: ask Dr Dre, Pharrell Williams, Ali Shaheed Muhammad or Kanye West.
I was lucky to meet, then work with him in the 2000s, through coincidence and synchronicity. I wrote to Mike Fox, then Director of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville and he not only wrote back, but allowed me to represent the Center internationally in its fundraising efforts. Parallel to that, I got a call from Taschen, the German publishing powerhouse and there began a one-year journey of working with Ali and his marvellous wife Lonnie on “GOAT – A Tribute To Muhammad Ali”, a herculean 792-page, 34kg photographic and literary celebration of Ali’s life. Ali himself signed all 10,000 copies over months, the signing itself a form of concentration therapy as his Parkinson’s took yet firmer grip.
If ever meeting a hero was affirmative, this was it. You stood in awe of his patience, humour, unwillingness to yield to his limitations and the sheer impact he had on others. From boardrooms in the US to huge press conferences and events in Germany and Ireland, people from all walks of life would wait hours to see him. No-one showed tears or felt pity for him in during his illness, they all saw themselves in him and celebrated his resolve by cheering as he walked.
He was truly a great man and The Greatest of us all. But remembering him for his values is, I believe, the single biggest way to make a difference, especially in these fractured times. In the words of our Zairian brothers: “Ali Bomaye!”
Muhammad Ali: our brother, we love you and you live in all of us.
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.
My idol has left us. I will always remember you as the best & will follow ur example. Your legend will live forever pic.twitter.com/v9X8Y3S6Xk
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.