Boxing: The birthday that rings through sport

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The Independent Online

Ali at 60. The thought dates all of us because Ali and time seemed to enjoy a special relationship. Even now, when the Ali shuffle has taken on a poignant new meaning and his life has been memorialised by Hollywood, the face remains untouchable, the eyes stay bright.

Some of Ali's true character can be distilled from the testimonies of those who knew him well and from the anecdotes of those who thought they knew him well, a far bigger regiment. The rest of us have to make do with the mere nobility of a great boxer, to accept that what he gave us in the ring was canvas enough for a detailed portrait. It is quite a body of work, but, in the current rush to ordination, there is a temptation to forget that Ali's true greatness was defined by the dimensions of the boxing ring.

The danger is that we, and future generations, will turn Ali inside out. Turn him into a politician, a civil rights activist, an anti-war hero, an orator, a profit, a statesman or, as the revisionists would have it, a womaniser, a puppet and a sham, and forget what really made him one of the most recognisable faces of the 20th century. "He was born to the ring and loved it," as Angelo Dundee, his trainer, once said. Or, as Ali himself said when explaining the pathetic shambles of his final comeback fights with Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, "this is my stage".

Whoever scheduled a documentary on Naseem Hamed before When We Were Kings, the epic account of Ali's fight with George Foreman in Zaire, one night last week on Channel 4 had a twisted sense of humour. Even on television, Naseem did not deserve a place on Ali's undercard. Hamed was pictured wearing a shirt adorned by Ali's face, but the hour-long glimpse of his posturing before defeat by Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas last year only served to show how brutally boxing, of all sports, exposes a fraud. As Ali approaches another week of adulation, capped by a glittering industry-sponsored, celebrity-studded party in Hollywood on Wednesday night, it has been long forgotten that much of America, and not just white America, longed for Ali to be similarly cut down.

Ali knew that and encouraged it. In Zaire, by conservative estimate, he was fighting for half the population on the planet and against the other half. The most compelling frames of the documentary capture Ali's face at the end of the first round. Some at ringside reflected later that it was the one time they detected fear in the eyes of the champ.

At that precise moment, Ali understood with utter certainty that he could be exposed, not as a fraud, but as a failure, and that all the pre-fight sermonising about the winos, the pimps, the prostitutes, the dispossessed, the addicts, the black people "who don't have no knowledge of themselves", and the African nation born into slavery, all of whom had become part of Ali's growing constituency before the fight, would mean nothing without victory. He also knew with terrifying clarity that his legs could no longer carry him out of danger.

If the fights with Joe Frazier explored Ali's will to the point of mutual extinction and his fight against the military establishment elevated him to realms of influence previously unexplored by a sportsman, that moment of unimaginable coolness and courage proved the real launch pad for the legend. Without it, there would be no Hollywood spangles this week.

Hollywood, needless to say, has come late to the party and its attempts to strengthen the Ali myth are as doomed to failure as recent attempts to puncture it, notably in Mark Kram's book, The Ghosts of Manila. Ali needs no mythologising or debunking because Ali's image is a self-created illusion. Peter Bonaventre, the correspondent of Newsweek, recalls driving out to Ali's training camp in the aftermath of the victory over Foreman. He found Ali sitting on the verandah doing tricks for an audience of African children. It was five o'clock in the morning. "He was doing a rope trick, where the rope is cut in half and then, suddenly, it's back together again. And it was hard to tell who was having the better time, Ali or the children."

Ali was like the rope or the vanishing handkerchief, another trick in his repertoire. He was who you wanted him to be, for better or worse: for black, white, Islam, Christian, blue-collar, white-collar. Ali was not precious about his audience as long as people listened. He enjoyed as strong an appeal in English public schools as he did on the streets of Alabama, could espouse the cause of black consciousness quite happily to an audience of middle-class white journalists or Ivy League students. And when one Ali vanished, another appeared as if by magic.

Only in the ring was Ali truly himself. That is one reason why he demands no pity now. For all his mastery of the soundbite, he knew that boxing would always be his main means of self-expression. He just had too much to say. So, on Wednesday night, Ali will be the chief guest at his own birthday party, the faithful Lonnie at his side, and the tributes will be many and heartfelt. And Ali will work the audience as charmingly as he always did, a half-smile frozen on his face. It is fitting that he should be embraced so warmly by Hollywood. For Ali was the greatest actor of them all.