Muhammad Ali died at the age of seventy-four; and, though he was an athlete of astonishing gifts, boxing was arguably the least of his talents. Not only was he an extraordinary pugilist – he claimed the world heavyweight championship three times – he was also one of the most remarkable advocates both for racial equality and against war that the world will ever see. He won perhaps the finest fight of all time – the Rumble in the Jungle, against George Foreman in 1974 – and yet his most majestic victories came outside the ring.
Muhammad Ali 1974 in Kinshasa
Image credit: SID
He made sacrifices few others on the sporting stage can contemplate even today. His refusal to fight in Vietnam, taking the stance of a conscientious objector, led to a four-year ban during his physical peak, a choice that cost him his title and untold amounts of money. In an age where white supremacists were murdering civil rights activists with abandon, he was unapologetically black.
The only words that can truly do him justice are those which make up his very own name. Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he later chose to call himself Muhammad Ali, signifying his conversion to Islam: an act of great bravery in an age where prejudice against those of his faith was exceptionally toxic. (Many people, noting the rise of Donald Trump, may wryly suggest that not much has changed). Ali wore his race and religion not as a burden but with a swagger that bigots found horrific. To racists, it was as if the slave had not only gleefully snapped off his chains but was now using them as a skipping rope.
A sporting superstar from the very beginning of his career – he claimed Olympic gold in 1960, before dramatically upsetting the world champion Sonny Liston at the age of just 22 – his tongue was just as fast as his fists. This man, who proclaimed himself so mean that he made medicine sick, remains more quotable than any rapper, his wit making him a literary figure. Spectacularly attractive, with a smile you could use as a searchlight, every one of his talk show appearances deserved its own trailer. His fighting style was so elegant that he probably could have entered the ring in a tuxedo.
Though unrivalled in charm, he was not without flaws, perhaps his lowest point being his description of Joe Frazier – his most persistent rival – as an Uncle Tom, the two never reconciling. This was an unnecessarily ruthless and hurtful slur, out of step with the vital activism Ali was doing elsewhere.
Despite that regrettable episode, few legacies will sing louder throughout the ages. Much has been made of the irony that a man of Herculean physique was struck by such a debilitating illness, yet this suffering was perhaps just another sign of a life lived fearlessly beyond its limits. Now Muhammad Ali now rests in peace, and there can scarcely have been a repose more deserved.
Mike Tyson Muhammad Ali
Image credit: AFP
Though, between the ropes, he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, his most devastating punches were always political; and as he jogged down that long road into the mist, that Afro rising high and handsome above a pair of the sturdiest shoulders in history, we sighed.