A few months ago I gave up doing these little memorial posts, they were becoming all too regular and I would hate to be trite. Then I woke up to the news that one of my true all-time heroes had died. So here I am once more.
I don’t like boxing. In 2016 it’s an ugly, fractured, mostly very unclassy affair. I don’t like all the trash talking, the hype and the tragedies that are becoming all too common in the sport. I don’t like boxing but I loved Ali. He brought a grace, a fiercely instinctive intelligence and a larger than life swagger to his sport. When you look at footage of him and his contemporaries now they transcend boxing, they were bigger than it. Ali always looked amazing too in the ring, or out of it. Brutal though his sport can be, Ali occasionally took it into the realms of the sublime.
When I was growing up Ali was more of a celebrity and a pop star than a sportsman, in fact you can make a decent claim that he was the most famous man in the world for most of his adult life. His story fascinated me like no other, shot through as it was with a unique historical significance, the struggle for black civil rights and his conscientious objection to fighting in Vietnam. The latter continually fascinates me, here is a champion who gave up four years at his absolute prime on principle, at a time when boxers made a shadow of what they do now and his line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger” thrills me still. I could not imagine any other sportsman or woman taking such a stance. Ali did.
The Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s 1974 fight against George Foreman in Zaire is a major obsession of mine, thanks to the brilliant Norman Mailer book The Fight and the film When We Were Kings, the setting, the music, the hugely improbable outcome, it has the story arc of a fictional event rather than any of the dowdy, grinding trappings of real life. As does Ali’s life if you ignore the painful fact of his fighting on far too long for his own health.
But I prefer to think of him as the principled, funny firebrand who once claimed ‘I’m so mean I make medicine sick!’. A great sportsman, a great and righteous man, he was the greatest as far as I am concerned.
Musically I never got around to getting his Muhammad Ali Fights Mr Tooth Decay LP, my loss I’m sure.
665 Down (still).
PS – all pictures pilfered from the internet.
PPS – Totally recommend Thomas Hauser’s magnificent Ali biography.