The phoney Republic of Bophuthatswana was a sham sovereign state declared independent by the apartheid regime of South Africa, in a duplicitous attempt to fool both the international community and attract well-meaning athletes and entertainers to unwittingly break the sports and cultural boycotts of the age.
The international community wasn’t fooled by such hollow decrees: South Africa controlled Bophuthatswana’s defence, police, civil service and currency and, safe in this knowledge, no other country in the world recognised this professed independence. Yet the world’s superstars proved easier to convince. Frank Sinatra, Queen, Diana Ross, Elton John and The Beach Boys among others all performed there, sticking to the party line and insisting they were not actually in South Africa.
And in 1978, Muhammad Ali came perilously close to joining them.
Bob Arum was to blame, having reached a pencil-thin agreement with a South Africa hotel chain to stage the Leon Spinks rematch in ‘Sun City’, a stage-managed Las Vegas imitation with legalised gambling and lawful race mixing. Ali mulled it over. And after pressure from iconic civil rights leaders George Houser and Tilden LeMelle – not to mention The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ambassador Franklin Williams – he wisely decided against the idea.
Just one year later and a newly educated Ali took some time out from his attempts to win a fourth heavyweight world championship to stand in front of the United Nations General Assembly, to campaign against apartheid and injustice. Afterwards he presented then secretary general Kurt Waldheim with one of his drawings, entitled “Peace!”, and smiled and waved and posed for pictures.
Some 39 years later, and Ali’s name was being loosely banded around on the opposite side of the United States, by a blushing blogger with love hearts dancing in his eyeballs and tongue lolling halfway down his chest, like a character straight out of Looney Tunes. “Conor, Dana said in New York that he feels like your mental warfare game has surpassed even Ali,” he drooled. “I’m curious about your thoughts about that comment.”
Let’s be fair here: McGregor demurred, temporarily restraining his vaulting self-worth to jabber something about Ali being a “special, special individual”, somebody he “was not even close to”. Maybe he cannot be blamed for the misplaced adoration he receives. Nevertheless, this rare nanosecond of humility was immediately lauded by his wide-eyed ensemble, proof that – after everything – McGregor was still that likeable chancer from Crumlin with soaring dreams but a solid grounding.
Presumably those supporters had briefly unglued their eyes from their screens while McGregor called his absent opponent, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, a “mad backwards c***”. Or a “smelly Dagstani”. Or his Egyptian-born manager “a f****** snitch terrorist rat”.
Or any of the other racially and sexually insensitive and downright crass comments he has made on his rise to the top. There was the time he called Dennis Siver, a German of Russian descent, a “Nazi”. And that moment last year when he told Floyd Mayweather to “dance for me … boy”. But, really, what is the point in even bothering to list these constant controversies in the current climate? Those who biliously defend McGregor across the far reaches of the Internet see no problem. Those who simply enjoy the show have already decided that the bright lights and drama justifies the nastiness.
No, what is both unsettling and downright troubling is the grubby comparison with Ali, a man who took a leave of absence from his sport because he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong”, rather than an overwhelming desire to “triple my net worth” in a grotesque Punch and Judy parade with a retired domestic abuser.
Ali was a man who stood for something and lost everything. McGregor is a man who pointedly stands for nothing and yet has gained everything he ever dreamed of.
Tellingly, UFC president Dana White, a man whose pre-fight histrionics make Eddie Hearn look like a stoic philosopher, is not the first to reach for such a colourful comparison while waxing lyrical over McGregor. In fact, Rasheda Ali – daughter of Muhammad and his second wife, Khalilah – is a fan, telling Fox News ahead of the Mayweather sham that the two men had comparable ‘personalities, charm and wit’.
It goes without saying that Rasheda is in a far better position than any time-starved blogger or hack to make the comparison. Yet, perhaps, it is her informed opinion that is the most damning of all, a sign of just how low the expectations we place upon our public figures has dropped, in a culture where he – and it is always a he – who shouts the loudest generates the most content, clicks and controversy.
Nothing reinforces the point that subtlety is dead quite like McGregor threatening to “dint his knuckle into Khabib’s orbital bone”.
It makes you wonder what publicity Ali – christened the Louisville Lip in an age when people were still prepared to listen – would generate now. Whether he would brazenly walk up onto a brightly-lit stage in front of an avalanche of camera phones, speaking in his famous doggerel verse, only for us all to regard him as impossibly quaint.
Or maybe he would disregard all of that, and incessantly yell the word bollocks instead, and spitefully insist that he was looking forward to smashing Sonny Liston’s nose into the nosebleeds. And we would cheer, and reward him with a standing ovation, and proclaim him The Greatest.
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