Muhammad Ali was the most controversial boxer in the history of the sport, arguably the most gifted and certainly the best known. His ring glories and his life on the political and racial frontline combine to make him one of the most famous, infamous and discussed figures in modern history.
During his life he stood next to Malcolm X at a fiery pulpit, dined with tyrants, kings, crooks, vagabonds, billionaires and from the shell of his awful stumbling silence during the last decade his deification was complete as he struggled with his troubled smile at each rich compliment.
In the ring he shocked the world to win the heavyweight world title in 1964, retained the belt in sweet win after sweet win, predicting the rounds and beating every man with ease. However, other heavyweights have won as underdogs and kept their title, but no fighter had ever delivered the glitz, the brilliance and the words like Ali. He was a one-man revolution and that means he made enemies faster than any boy-fighter – which is what he was when he first became world heavyweight champion – could handle. His hands and lips were quick, but in the end the government’s relentless machine caught up with the dancing and punching master and mowed down the boxer in his prime. His fans watched helplessly as their idol was stripped of his title and cast out.
His best years as a prize-fighter were denied him and denied us by his refusal to be drafted into the American military system in 1967. At that time he was boxing’s finest fighter, a man so gifted with skills that he knew very little about what his body did in the ring; his instincts, his speed and his developing power at that point of his exile would have ended all arguments over his greatness forever had he been allowed to continue fighting. Ali was out of the ring for three years and seven months and the forced exile took away enough of his skills to deny us the Greatest at his greatest, but it made him the icon he became. “We never saw the best of my guy,” Angelo Dundee told me in Mexico City in 1993. Dundee should know. He had been collecting the fighter’s sweat as the chief trainer from 1960 and would until the ring end in 1981.
The ban, which is what it was, lasted from 1967 to 1970 and when he returned he was, in many ways, far more entertaining to watch and a lot less elusive. He had gained universal respect during the break because of his refusal to endorse the bloody conflict in Vietnam, but he often walked a thin line in the 70s with the very people that had been happy to back his cause. He was not as loved then as he is now, and there are some obvious reasons for that. In 1970 there were still papers in Britain that called him Cassius Clay, the birth name he had started to shred the day after beating Sonny Liston for the world title in 1964. In America he still divided the boxing press and the people.
In the 70s he attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, accepted their awards and talked openly and disturbingly about mixed race marriages and a stance he shared with the extremists. His harshest opinions are always overlooked, discarded like his excessive cruelty in the ring, and explained by a misguided concept that everything he said and did, that was either uncomfortable or just wrong, was justifiable under some type of Ali law that insisted there was a twinkle in his eye. There probably was a twinkle in his eye but he had some misguided racist ideas back then and celebrated them.
In the ring he had hurt and made people suffer during one-sided fights and spat at the feet of one opponent. He was mean and there is nothing wrong with that in boxing, but he was also cruel to honest fighters, men that had very little of his talent and certainly none of his wealth. The way he treated Joe Frazier before and after their three fights remains a shameful blot on Ali’s legacy. I sat once in dwindling light with Frazier in Philadelphia at the end of three days of talking and listened to his words and watched his tears of hate and utter frustration as he outlined the harm Ali’s words had caused him and his family. Big soft Joe had no problem with the damage Ali’s fists had caused him, that was a fair fight but the verbal slaughter had been a mismatch and recordings of that still make me feel sick. I don’t laugh at that type of abuse.
The memory of that night talking to Frazier does not alter the heroics of the fights and the sacrifice of the third and final encounter in 1975 in Manila; it put an end in many ways to both of their fighting careers and undoubtedly brought forward their terrible endings when the pair were mirror-images of shakes and pitiful stares. It remains the greatest fight I have ever watched, the most brutal and tragic and magical, which only the finest prize fights can possibly be. If I watch the Thrilla in Manila I don’t hate Ali for what he said to Frazier, but I love him, like any true boxing fan, for what he is doing to Frazier in the ring.
Away from the ring excellence he went to cities in the Middle East to negotiate for the release of hostages and smiled easily when men in masks, carrying AK47s, put blindfolds on him and drove like the lunatics they were through bombed streets. “Hey man, you sure you know where you’re going?” he asked one driver. “I hope you do, coz I can’t see a thing.” He went on too many missions to too many countries for too long, his drive draining his life as he handed out Islamic leaflets. He was often exploited on his many trips, pulled every way and never refusing a request. On a trip to Britain in 2009 he was bussed all over the country for a series of bad-taste dinners that ended with people squatting down next to his wheelchair; Ali’s gaze was off in another realm, but the punters, who had paid hundreds for the sickening pleasure, stuck up their thumbs or made fists for the picture. The great twist in the abhorrent venture was that Ali’s face looked so bad that his head was photo-shopped for a more acceptable Ali face. Who could have possibly sanctioned that atrocity?
During his fighting days he had men to protect him, men like Gene Kilroy, the man with the perm, that loved him and helped form a protective guard at his feet to keep the jackals from the meat. When he left the sport and was alone for the first time in the real world, there were people that fought each other to get close, close enough to insert their invisible transfusion tubes deep into his open heart. His daughters started to resurrect their own wall of protection the older they got, switching duties from sitting on Daddy’s lap to watching his back like the devoted sentinels they became.
In the end it felt like the whole world was watching his back, watching the last moments under the neon of the King of the World.
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