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
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week