I woke up early this morning (Saturday 5 June) and, as usual, I immediately turned the radio on. Within a few minutes of my starting to listen to the Naked Scientist show on BBC Radio 5, at about 5:20am, they interrupted the show to announce that Muhammad Ali had died.
I am not even much of a fan of boxing, but I was a huge fan of Muhammad Ali. In fact, I don’t think I have ever watched a full boxing match unless it has involved Muhammed Ali. Yes I know the names of Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Calzaghe (he’s Welsh!) etc.; but Ali is the only boxer whom I have ever watched. In fact, I vividly remember the infamous Rumble in The Jungle in October 1974. I was 10 years old, and captivated by the idea of a boxing match in a place called Kinshasa, Zaire. The name alone conjured up vivid images, and I remember my father showing me on a map where Kinshasa was prior to the fight.
Muhammad Ali was, however, so much more than a boxer. He was voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Century by the British public as we moved into the new century, and Sports Illustrated Magazine called him the greatest sportsman ever. It was said in the mid-1970s that his face was the most recognised in the entire world. He was world heavyweight champion on three separate occasions, the only boxer to ever achieve this. Yet, despite being a leader in his sport, I suspect history will remember him as someone who achieved more outside of his sport than in it.
In 1964 he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay (his “slave name” as he called it) to Muhhamed Ali, becoming a member of the Nation of Islam. This did not go down well with the majority of white Christian Americans. But, he was to antagonise these people further when , in 1967, he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam war. He quipped “No Viet-cong ever called me nigger”. He was stripped of his world boxing title and banned from the ring. He was also sentenced to jail (the jail sentence was overturned on appeal).
What courage it takes to stick to one’s beliefs, knowing that you will be barred from your profession, from earning your living, and also knowing that you will probably go to jail. This was the mark of Muhammad Ali; he put his principles and beliefs before any concerns about his boxing or his popularity.
He was also one of the first black Americans to embrace his African roots. When Don King organised the Rumble in The Jungle in 1974, Ali went to Zaire (now the Congo) months before the fight, and spent time in the country meeting children and normal people. He was treated like a hero there, and did so much to raise awareness of Africa amongst black Americans, building bridges which have lasted to this day.
Of course, in that fight, against the undefeated and reigning world champion George Foreman, Ali was given no chance. A 32-year old fighting against a younger, stronger and fitter champion; most experts expected Ali to not only be beaten but to be humiliated. But, Ali was a very smart boxer. In a masterpiece of tactical fighting he goaded Foreman in the first few rounds, sending Foreman into a rage. He then spent about three rounds letting Foremand hit him, leaning back on the ropes in what became known as “rope-a-dope”. By the 8th round Foreman was exhausted, and Ali went on the offensive and floored him with a hook. Foreman took years to come out of the depression of losing that fight, and never recovered as a boxer.
The whole Rumble in The Jungle, including the build-up and aftermath, is the subject of the absolutely fascinating documentary When We Were Kings – here is the trailer. I bought this movie about eight years ago and have watched it about 6 times since. If you haven’t seen it then I highly recommend it.
One of the most memorable and poignant sights of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was Ali lighting the flame in the opening ceremony. His body shaking with the Parkinson’s disease which was ravaging his body, despite this he showed immense dignity and courage; two characteristics of the great man which had been there since the 1960s.
He raised a brutal sport to an art form, but he was so much more than just a boxer. As a brash young man in the early 1960s he proclaimed “I am The Greatest”. He was, and also an inspiration to millions.