Today the legend that is Muhammad Ali turns seventy. The man once christened Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky who beat Sonny Liston in February 1964 to win the heavyweight title and in so doing 'shook up the world', is today celebrating yet another milestone in an epic, monumental and thoroughly remarkable life.
Known simply (and yet tellingly) as 'The Greatest', the man who once bestrode the world like a colossus - both throughout his long fighting career and then also in his subsequent role as universally revered, global elder statesman – demands our devout genuflexion and our ceaseless admiration. In short, his impact upon the twentieth century has been unparalleled, both inside and outside the ring.
Where does one even begin to pay homage to the many-faceted greatness of the man who 'floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee'? For me, Ali was the quintessential pugilist-penseur – a harmonious marriage of cerebral and physical, brains and brawn, at a time when fighting was ugly, predictable and conventional. A man who confounded stereotypes, Ali was like a black Olympian god, who walked serenely on a higher, more rarefied plane and seemed to verge on the immortal. The extraordinary pugilistic prowess, the athletic grace, the raw charisma, the verbal jousting, the love of linguistic felicity and the bellicose fury – all were mesmeric and all were spectacular.
As a consummate fighter, Ali has arguably never been bettered. Be it the lithe and graceful equipoise with which he seemed to dance around the ring, the controlled brutality with which he clinically dispatched opponents, the tremendous heart which he showed (most notably against George Foreman in the Rumble In The Jungle in Kinshasa in 1974 and against Joe Frazier in the Thriller in Manila in 1975), Ali had everything. The formidable strength, the sublime speed, the sheer nonchalance and bravado in the face of danger, the awe-inspiring mental fortitude which animated and drove him – one of these attributes alone would have been enough to make him a world champion, but Ali possessed them all in abundance.
As painful as it must have been to face him in a boxing ring, I'll wager that those who were on the receiving end of one of Ali's famous 'ass whuppings' are now supremely grateful that they had the privilege, despite the stinging blows they endured at the time, of just being serendipitously selected to be a part of history. And what a history it is.
Such was the Promethean nature of his genius, we are all able to remember Ali in different ways: as the brave and fearless young Turk in the early 1960s with his poetical, pre-fight braggadocio; as the cunning tactician employing the 'rope a dope' strategy with George Foreman in Zaire; as the lethally efficient, clinical punisher of lesser opponents; as the joker on Parkinson doing the Mummy walk; as the consummate wordsmith; as the inveterate showman, with the twinkle in his eye as he spoke to the TV cameras. Ali was the greatest for all these reasons, and many more besides.
The man who was, in his self-proclaimed fashion, 'so mean he made medicine sick' taught us a great deal about the art of boxing, but also taught us much more about ourselves, about the nature of our society and the world in which we lived.
In fact, it can be argued that it was actually outside the ring that Ali accomplished his greatest work. As a man of thought, moral stature and humanitarian goodwill, his eloquent words carried great weight. As a tireless campaigner for racial and social justice, his stance was always noble and dignified. His was the indomitable, lion-hearted spirit of both noble warrior and compassionate, loving human being, deeply offended by injustice and wishing to right the wrongs of the world. It was even said that in his prime during the 1970s, Ali's was the most familiar face on earth. Not bad for someone who started out life as a poor black boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Jim Crow-era Kentucky.
Ali was a man of huge integrity. In today's tawdry world, that word carries little weight or even meaning. But in opposing the Vietnam war in 1967 (an unpopular stance which saw him stripped of his world title and barred from fighting for three and a half years when he was in his prime), Ali resolutely stood up for what he believed in and, despite great personal hardship, remained true to his convictions.
His boxing exploits undeniably electrified the planet, and in so doing, afforded him the ultimate platform for his views. But it was his civil rights rhetoric and his trenchant critiques of the bigotry of white America which made the world listen up and take note of the wrong-doings in his country.
Moreover, as a redeemer of traduced dignity to black people the world over, Ali was not only a bona fide sporting legend, but a human icon to countless millions. He single-handedly restored dignity and pride to the black race at a time when, in the face of constant white oppression, it needed it most. There is a generation of black men in America and Britain right now walking tall who owe their self-respect and sense of self-esteem in no small part to the actions of Muhammad Ali. Watching those Ali fights in the 60s and 70s enabled a whole generation of downtrodden people to go to school the following day and deal with the taunts and racist abuse.
What's more, not only was Ali an icon to generations of black people. Many white people worshipped Ali too, recognizing in his effortless greatness, rare eloquence and towering humanity an incontrovertible parity between the races. In so doing, they had their views on race challenged and positively influenced. To use the phrase that is now said of novelist Lee Child's protagonist Jack Reacher, when it came to Ali, men of all races wanted to be him and women of all races wanted to be with him.
As his career progressed, each one of Ali's boxing victories became a victory not just for himself, not just for black people but also for the human spirit. Each adversary was an affront to justice and decency; each opponent symbolized something much greater and more meaningful than a simple boxing match between two handsomely remunerated prize-fighters. Each fight was a duel of Manichean polarity, good versus evil. And the world needed evil to be resolutely vanquished.
Today, in his dotage, Ali cuts a demure yet strikingly dignified figure. Admittedly softened by too many blows and continuing to valiantly struggle against Parkinson's disease, his frame is weak, but his unyielding spirit is still intact. Lighting the Olympic torch at the games in Atlanta in 1996 showed Ali to be frail but essentially unbowed, determined as ever to fulfil his champion's role. He might have been struggling against a medical condition more debilitating than any of his fearsome punches, but, as the eyes of the world watched, he did not give up and managed to succeed in lighting the torch.
Many have deemed it deeply ironic that a once recalcitrant firebrand and scourge of racist America has been officially welcomed into the pantheon of All-American heroes and is now firmly ensconced at the very heart of the establishment that once callously ostracized him. To think in such a way is to misunderstand the greatness and the subtlety of the man. Societies thankfully change. Ali himself played a formative role in that change. But Ali transcends nationality, colour, class and creed. Greatness that huge and magnanimity of soul that large cannot and should not be trammelled, compartmentalized and appropriated. Ali, just like Shakespeare, belongs to all men, all countries and, most definitely, to all time.
Ali has always been a messianic figure, a larger-than-life-itself man of immense talent, epicene beauty, immeasurable moral worth, resounding conviction and astounding human warmth. To paraphrase Tennyson's famous concluding stanza of his poem to Virgil, which I think is apposite on this occasion, I speak for millions, if not billions of people around the world in saying:
'I salute thee, Cassius Clay;
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the noblest spirit,
ever moulded by the lips of man.'
Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali! In you, humanity could not have asked for a finer ambassador - Daily Mail