Beauty of a dangerous obsession

MUHAMMAD ALI
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Muhammad Ali appealed first to my curiosity. I cannot pinpoint the exact date or time or fight. But I can remember the source of the fascination. Ali - or Cassius Marcellus Clay as he was back then - was different. No one of that size had the right to move with his ease; no purveyor of his brutish trade had the right to talk with the fluency that he did, let alone write poetry and predict the rounds of his opponent's defeat with such assurance. And he fought with his hands at his side, relying on his reflexes to keep out of trouble. It was like watching a man hanging from a ledge. He broke every rule, an appealing trait for a teenager blinking into the bright lights of the Sixties.

Muhammad Ali appealed first to my curiosity. I cannot pinpoint the exact date or time or fight. But I can remember the source of the fascination. Ali - or Cassius Marcellus Clay as he was back then - was different. No one of that size had the right to move with his ease; no purveyor of his brutish trade had the right to talk with the fluency that he did, let alone write poetry and predict the rounds of his opponent's defeat with such assurance. And he fought with his hands at his side, relying on his reflexes to keep out of trouble. It was like watching a man hanging from a ledge. He broke every rule, an appealing trait for a teenager blinking into the bright lights of the Sixties.

Boxing was not a fit sport for a white middle-class public schoolboy. So when the transistor was smuggled to bed in a ritual usually confined to Ashes Tests and Ali's victory over Sonny Liston came crackling through the bed sheets in the early hours of the morning, something more than the fear of detection tinged the sense of adventure. This was immoral, illicit, dangerous. But we had found a new hero and, for a short time, this strange, beautiful, creature from a place called Louisville was ours and ours alone. Ali was quite possibly the first black man we had ever really noticed.

The first Ali-Liston fight in Miami was critical to the mystique. We wanted Ali to beat Liston without really knowing why. We were sucked irresistibly into the allegory of the fight. Liston was the ex-con, a man of appalling violence and inarticulacy, a perfect fit for the racist's view of the black man. Decent white folk would have to lock up their daughters with a man like Liston as champion.

No one quite knew what to make of Ali, which was attractive in itself. America wanted him to play the white man's black man, the Huck Finn sort of black man, much as Joe Louis had done before him. But they did not altogether trust his mouth or his boxing ability. Unpardonably, the majority of Americans ignored him in those early days. The arena in Miami was barely half full. Only later did they latch on to his genius, claiming, of course, that they knew about it all along.

He certainly had little in his record to make anyone believe he could beat an ogre like Liston. But Ali wore white trunks and Liston wore black, Ali was pretty and Liston was ugly, Ali danced and Liston plodded and those were good enough causes for allegiance on this side of the Atlantic. Ignorant of the complex racial politics of his rise, trusting only to the tender instinct of youth, we were the earliest and the purest of Ali's believers. And when Ali won, we were proud of him and said that we had known all along, though deep down, like Ali himself, we had feared Liston's brute strength.

After the second, controversial Liston fight, which nobody watched, it became a lot more complicated. Ali was no longer Cassius Clay and he was no longer the private property of a young English schoolboy. We didn't care much about his conversion to some strange black American religion and only later did we dimly realise his pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

When Ali came over to England for the first time to fight Henry Cooper, it was a difficult moment. Ali was not particularly generous to his opponent, a man whom he was clearly going to beat, and it was impossible to dislike Our 'Enery, so we decided that the correct stance for the duration of the bout was a studied neutrality. The sight of Ali dumped on his backside by the craggy, balding British boxer was not just the first dent in Ali's pride, it was a disturbing reminder of human weakness.

Cooper still believes to this day that he was robbed of victory that night. Ali's glove mysteriously split, allowing the champion an extra 40 seconds to recover his senses. He went on to pulverise Cooper, but the magic and the innocence vanished in the split second Ali's chin collided with Cooper's left hook. Until then, Ali had made boxing glamorous, invested it with an artistic gloss; with Cooper, Ali dumped boxing back on the streets. Only later did we understand that a very much more precious virtue had emerged that night. Ali's courage, like his ambition, knew no limits.

When Ali re-emerged, a decade had passed. We had all grown up. I wasn't much interested in Ali the politician, or even Ali the draft dodger, even less in Ali the religious leader or Ali the propagandist. It was only in the wars against Joe Frazier and George Foreman that he strode back into focus. These were battles which demanded a precise new allegiance. All the elemental forces so vaguely apparent in the Liston fights resurfaced in Zaire. Ali was the underdog again and he needed our support in this dark and fearful hour. The moment he recoils from the ropes to floor Foreman is the single most astonishing moment in the history of 20th Century sport and we felt part of it because we knew Ali from way back.

The face is fatter now, but has remained largely immune to the demands of time and the ravages of Parkinson's Disease. A smile from Ali can still silence a room. Yet the portrait of Ali by Neil Leiffer which adorns the front cover of David Remnick's excellent study of the Rise of an American Hero shows a meaner and moodier side. Ali's face was as much his fortune as his fists. Before he was the greatest, he was the prettiest, which would have seemed an outrageous claim for any boxer other than Ali to make. With Ali, there was no real denial, even down to his last sad, shuffling fight when his claims to greatness had passed from the ring and the poetic innocence of the early Sixties had long faded. He could still lay claim to being the prettiest.

I have never met Ali. My daughter has, at Sea World in San Diego four years ago. He asked for her name and said how pretty she was. Her camera was not working very well, so Ali is only just visible in the grainy photo still pinned to her bedroom wall. His face is the size of a baby's thumbnail but instantly recognisable on every street corner in the world. Now Ali is back in London, possibly for the last time, to receive his reward as BBC Sports Personality of the Century. There is no debate. But we knew that a long time ago.

Comments