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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."