The Greatest

The world is reeling today from the powerful haymaker that is the death of Muhammad Ali. 

You can’t open a newspaper without reading eulogies to this remarkable man, a legend in his own lifetime, and an inspiration to generations.

Growing up in Glasgow in the late seventies and early eighties, you simply couldn’t escape boxing. Jim Watt, the local hero, was the Lightweight Champion of the World, and most young lads involved in playground scuffles would fancy themselves cut from the same cloth.

Boxing was still regularly shown on national television. The powers-that-be in boxing’s hierarchy were still a few years away from the pay-per-view cash-cow that satellite television would ultimately prove, and the health-and-safety puritans that would slowly start eroding the popular view of boxing were still a long way off.

As a sport, boxing was arguably at its height. The BBC would show all the British bouts, but the big American fights were always on ITV’s World of Sport. Foreign fighters such as “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Wilfred Benítez, Roberto Durán, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, and Leon Spinks all became household names in the UK.

Yet above them all towered Muhammad Ali.

I was born in 1973, and by the time I was old enough to appreciate Ali’s skills his career was almost over. My Dad and Grandad would never tire of explaining to me at great length why Ali was the best of them all. They’d talk me through the early fights of the brash young Cassius Clay, and the later battles of the more mature Muhammad Ali. Whenever a re-run of an old bout appeared on the telly, the three of us would gather round, the pair of them joyously reliving the experience, while I would witness the pure magic of these epic gladiatorial encounters for the first time.

As a boxer, Ali was without equal. He defeated every major rival in his weight division, at a time that is widely acknowledged as the golden period of heavyweight boxing, and he did it in spite of being banned from boxing for over three years whilst at the peak of his professional prowess, owing to his stance on Vietnam, and his refusal to be drafted into the US Army. He participated in, and won, some of the most famous and iconic fights in history.

He was light-footed, and lightning-fast with his hands. Indeed his whole boxing ethos was built upon speed and nimbleness – “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” As he got older and lost that quickness of youth, he devoloped a totally new technique named “Rope-a-dope”, which consisted of waiting for his opponent to wear himself out by absorbing their blows, using the ropes to preserve his own stamina. The boxing world had never seen anything like it.

Boxing was, for him, a means of proving to the world that he was something more, someone capable of bigger and better things than those which fate had seemingly pre-ordained for him. To a kid growing up in Glasgow in the late seventies, that was powerful stuff. Dare to dream, and work your socks off to achieve it. Nobody thinks you can do it, so do it anyway. Ali seemed, to me, the ultimate self-made man.

He could take his licks as well. My colleague Neal Cooper’s famous Uncle Henry once floored Ali with his trademark left hook. Although Ali somehow managed to win the fight, he would later joke on television that Cooper “hit him so hard that his ancestors in Africa felt it”.

It was typical of Ali that, whenever he was put down or setback, he would somehow come back stronger. In his three fights against Joe Frazier, he lost the first, won the second on a judges’ decision, the bout having gone the distance, and won the third by technical knockout. It took him three fights to prove to himself that he was a better boxer than Frazier, yet he doggedly stuck at it, at great cost to himself. He proclaimed the third Frazier fight “the closest thing to dying that I know”. 

Everyone remembers the brash braggadocio that Ali exhibited wherever he went. As quick of mind as he was of fist, Ali always had the upper hand when it came to psychology. Poems, jokes, quips, insults, his verbal artillery was as impressive as his physical armoury. We now tend to regard this side of him as arrogant or boastful, but it’s worth remembering that, for much of his career, Ali was considered the underdog. Even those fights we consider to be the pinnacle of his career often saw him regarded as the potential loser.

The fight for which he is most famous – the “Rumble in the Jungle” – saw him painted pre-fight by such sportswriting luminaries as George Plimpton and Norman Mailer as a faded former champion who was going to be torn apart by the, then reigning, world champion George Foreman, to this day still regarded as one of the most powerful punchers the sport has ever seen. In the changing room before the fight, even Ali’s own corner team had fallen silent, fearful for what Foreman might do to him.

In his darkest hour, Ali was totally alone. All he had was his belief in himself.

And yet he prevailed. Impossible was nothing.

There’s a lesson in that.


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