Muhammad Ali is a hero - but not just in the ring

`It would be daft to adore Ali for his speed in the ring but take no interest in his ideas'

WHAT AN inspiring comment on the human condition, that a Black- Power-supporting, anti-war, ex-political convict overwhelmingly wins the vote to become sports personality of the century. Though what with his radical past and popularity, there was probably an attempt by Tony Blair to get Muhammad Ali's name taken off the shortlist. If the Labour selection panel had chosen the candidates, the vote would have been between Trevor Brooking, that posh bloke who commentates on the tennis, and Margaret Beckett.

It could be argued that most people who voted for Ali weren't doing so out of support for his political philosophy, and to an extent that's true. I was 10 when Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time, and in the week before the fight no one in my all-white class discussed anything else; all of us were desperate for Ali to win. But this wasn't because we were marching around the playground with placards that read "Saigon- Mississippi-Downsview Primary School - one struggle". Or "Napalm and Mr Turton's slipper - stop the violence now".

Even if Ali's popularity is just for his charisma, that's a statement in a world that celebrates New Labour spin-dominated blandness. The correct answer to the question "what is the opposite of Muhammad Ali?" is "Alistair Darling".

But Ali's charisma, boxing prowess and politics are not in separate compartments. To adore Ali for his speed in the ring, but take no interest in his ideas, would be as daft as saying, "I loved the way he read his poems, but I wish he'd stuck to that as I wasn't keen on him as a boxer".

His persona, his fighting ability and his beliefs dictated each other's technique. He argued as he boxed, allowing his opponents to exhaust themselves while responding with the occasional perfectly aimed jab before demolishing them in a flawless flurry that was too fast for the eye to follow. And his principles fashioned his boxing. "Stand up white America," he roared at the prostrate Floyd Patterson, after toppling the man who white America had hoped would win back the title from the Nation of Islam.

If corporate society can't ignore a hero's radicalism, Plan B is to integrate it into its own world. This has been the strategy with Ali. Clinton can embrace Ali, and applaud his opening the Olympic Games, because like any good fake liberal Clinton supports liberal causes, as long as they took place 20 years ago.

As Mike Marqusee points out in his splendid book Redemption Song, Ali wasn't just up against a handful of irrational rednecks. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, saying, "I have no quarrel with the Vietcong", it was 1966, two years before the first sizeable protests, when the No 1 record was Ballad of the Green Berets. When he declared his membership of the Nation of Islam, he wasn't just denounced by tattooed bikers and cross-eyed Texans. His album was removed from the shops by Columbia, and the boxing authorities sought to strip him of his title.

Western leaders can earnestly oppose the bigotry that Ali faced in the Sixties, wondering how anyone could be so dreadful as to refuse to serve him in a restaurant on account of his colour - then just as earnestly merrily bomb Serbia and fire teargas at protesters in Seattle.

Ali could only be so compelling, passionate, articulate and joyous because he was driven by his principles, and this underpins the extraordinary global adoration that surrounds him still. So, in India, a country that takes little interest in boxing, and isn't known for its warmth towards militant Muslims, he was voted sports personality of the century.

Winning the award in Britain could be seen as even more remarkable, given that we once gave the sports personality of the year award to Steve Davis. It's why the footage of Ali knocking over George Foreman is still one of the most emotional pieces of film in existence, representing a victory for guile, flamboyance and principled persistence against the odds, in a world that is increasingly dominated by the sycophantic. Somehow Ali could say, "I am the greatest", and still appear humble. It may also explain why we loved him so much at Downsview Primary School, sensing that he was full of the rebel spirit that occupies all healthy 10-year- old minds. And older minds, until the pleas for realism and pragmatism suppress it. Ali is popular because most people want a fight against injustice, even if they're not prepared to lead it themselves.

After all, would Ali have been as powerful if his speeches had been written by the hacks from New Labour? "I am looking into moving towards a situation in which I can take an informed decision as to whether to whop him or not, notwithstanding that I am too pretty. Hopefully at that stage I can, with the agreement of the business community, float like a butterfly."

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable