Boxing: The Greatest and a great indignity

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The Independent Online
BEFORE FRIENDS, family and anxious sponsors bent his ear and persuaded him that he was behaving more like a prat than a prince, Naseem Hamed liked to brag that he was better than Muhammad Ali. In your dreams, Naz, in your dreams.

We are assured that Hamed has been re-educated at charm school, so no doubt he - and let us hope certain others - who have been lately dismissive of Ali will welcome a timely reminder that The Greatest really was as good as his words.

Last week academics from Britain gathered at the American Embassy in London to confer by video with counterparts in the United States on the cultural and historical significance of a figure who was not only the most garrulous, but the most gifted athlete of his time - perhaps all time. It is already established that Ali is the sports personality of the century and it would be no shock if by the end of this year his name is lodged among the top 10 of those who have influenced the shape of the past 100 years.

Christopher Brookeman, a senior lecturer at Westminster University, has no doubts. "Ali is one of the greatest men of the 20th century; he was as important as Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights struggle." Professor John Walter of Washington University argues that Ali broke down prejudice simply by refusing to be bound by the limits of white society. Like King and Nelson Mandela, Ali will be forever linked with the fight against discrimination, though it is equally for his more physically confrontational fights in the ring that he will be remembered amid an aura of affection that can never embrace sport's latter-day idols.

Ali once said that he could parachute into "High Street China" and they would know who he was. His was the most familiar face on earth, and that still holds true today of the shuffling, muted colossus who once bestrode the world with such grace, guile and impudence.

Yet as the years pass, the danger is that the world will forget just how wondrous Ali's talents really were. David Remnick, the latest of his score of biographers, ranging from Schulberg to Mailer, says Ali "managed to reach a level of global idolisation in a manner that can be described as transcendental".

Sad then, that the images of Ali we cherish, the magic of his personality and the audacity of his mind games, should have been diminished by the recent attempts to drag him into the debate of the Holyfield-Lewis result. "I was humiliated as an American and former professional boxer," he is purported to have written in a lengthy missive to a US senator. "What occurred will go down in boxing annals as the biggest fight fix in history... this terrible travesty has to be righted."

Remarkable sentiments coming from someone who is at present incapable of putting pen to paper or even expressing such phraseology verbally, because of the degenerative effects of Parkinson's and 10 fights too many. The word in the business is that they were, in fact, penned by one of his more learned friends - in the legal sense, that is. "They are still using him," a former member of his entourage said last week. "They don't care what they do."

Then there is the matter of Lewis's manager, Frank Maloney, suggesting that Lewis would have beaten Ali, even in the great man's prime, because of his size. Baloney, Maloney. If Lewis had adopted the same predictable tactics against Ali as he did against Holyfield, he would have been jabbed, cuffed and finally sliced into submission. Ali beat bigger, better men, and no heavyweight had a bigger heart or quicker feet.

With so much chicanery and dross in boxing these days, memories of Muhammad are a happy invasion; the world's children trying to get a foothold on his lap from Atlanta to Zaire; his urging of a ringside TV producer in Munich during his fight with Richard Dunn to "get those commercials in quick - I can't hold this sucker up any longer".

Ali could never resist an interview, nor did he ever request a cent to give one. Flu-stricken, he took to his bed just before we flew in to Dublin for his fight with one Al "Blue" Lewis. "Can we talk to him for just five minutes?" we beseeched his trainer Angelo Dundee. "No chance," laughed Dundee, picking up the hotel house phone. "He never talks to anyone for less than an hour."

For two decades Ali turned boxing, a thing of booty, into a thing of beauty. Between now and his engagement in Manchester on Saturday, Naseem Hamed could do worse than mug up on the life and times of the old master. He might learn how to keep his mouth open, yet still become a legend; and even a little more loved.