I have a horrible feeling that we will lose Muhammad Ali in 2015. The obit writers are going to have a problem as the word legend has been so debased that it’s devalued currency for the greatest sportsman ever. Even this does not him justice as he was the most famous American ever, the most famous man on the planet. This is Muhammad Ali.
The other day I was in ASDA supermarket looking for a Xmas DVD. I hardly recognised the titles but there in the bestseller list was “I am Ali”. He has not fought for over 35 years and has advanced Parkinson’s – who would be interested in him nowadays? I finally saw the DVD last might . It’s impressive. Ali recorded many conversations with his children which we heard. Somehow you do not think of this brutal but graceful fighting machine as a soppy father but all of his children – Hana and Laila from his marriage to Veronica are the most articulate – attest to this.
I never met Ali but I feel I did. In 1978 I had my first job on a boxing magazine called Round One and was billeted at the Statler Hilton opposite Madison Square Garden with another cub reporter Chris Seale-Hayes. We would pick up the morning papers from a kiosk. It was the night of Leon Spinks and Ali rematch and conversation turned as to whether he could reclaim his title for a third time. The vendor, in a Brooklyn nasal drawl, became expansive: “I know Ali. He stops here to get his papers”.
‘A man of the people’ is a cliche but that Ali is. In this DVD a man from South Shields (Russ) met him there, stayed in contact and was invited to his Fremont mansion. Another child with leukemia visited Ali. Ali wrote him a card with the words that “you are going to beat cancer and I going to beat Foreman”. The condition worsened so Ali visited him in hospital. The kid knew he was going to die but said “When I meet God, I’m going to tell him my friend is Muhammad Ali” Ali drove back in total silence. That is why when asked if he was the greatest fighter ever, George Foreman, whom he humiliated, replied “No ,the greatest American ever”. His daughter Laila said he cried when he heard that Joe Frazier’s children were so upset by the stuff Ali said of their father. The rapprochement, with Smokin’ Joe hand in Ali’s hand, was so moving.
He has this great love of people, a facility to connect with them. However much he humiliated a boxer beforehand he had the utmost respect afterwards. In England, where he was always loved, he beat up Henry cooper and the fight was stopped as he predicted in the fifth stanza Vut after praised Our Enery as the first man to fell him properly.
As a fighter he was peerless. His footwork was like a disco dancer with the trademark shuffle, he could take a punch, his hand speed was bewildering, he had great ring craft and guile. The only problem he went on too long, thinking he could regain the title a fourth time. Yet if he did not have his best three years taken from him for refusing to fight in Vietnam he may well have got to contenders earlier and been even more durable.
The documentary is a series of interviews with his family, business associates and fighters. The only great man that I could compare him to who had similar touch and accessibility was Nelson Mandela, himself no mean boxer. Ali’s legacy of giving the black American self confidence surely was bestowed in his own lifetime with Obama as President. It may be a tad ghoulish to say it but I enjoyed this documentary all the more as it was not tinged by any mourning.