I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Muhammad Ali was the most famous person in the world, never mind the most famous boxer. He transcended his sport, he truly was the greatest. For a time, he really did define boxing as the sweet science. Ali was a heavyweight boxer who danced through fights, at least in his early days. And, at a time when the blacks of America were still horribly oppressed, he really did begin to change the world. Now he is no more.
I was young, too young to remember his early years in boxing. I only saw his victories against Sonny Liston on newsreels much later on. I recall, just, his pre fight pronouncements, wildly over the top, yet often very funny and always entertaining. He would even call, in advance of fights, the round in which he expected to win.
His refusal to fight in Vietnam stole from the world his peak years and when he returned, his dancing days were over. But he was still a great fighter, the greatest who ever was. He fought the giant George Foreman and Smokin’ Joe Frazier, he fought and usually beat them all. But the sweet science of boxing caught up with him, as he developed Parkinson’s Syndrome (not disease), caused by repetitive blows to the head. The symptoms were talked about long before he fought his final fights in the ring, against opponents who would previously have been regarded as bums, a slurring shadow of his former being. The damage had long been done.
If you get the chance, read Thomas Hauser’s definitive account of Ali’s life, ‘Life And Times’. It is right up there with the best sports books ever written, in my view one of the bets books full stop. Painstakingly researched, often very funny, later sad, even tragic but always, always Ali was The Greatest.
Boxing made Ali. The noble art brought him to the world and for that we should be grateful. Without it, Cassius Clay from Louisville would not have been a speck on the landscape. Because of boxing, Muhammad Ali shook the world, he changed the world, his presence was immense and he did much to change the life of the black man in America and the black man all over the world.
His decline was a terrible price to pay, but an inevitable one. The wars against Foreman and Frazier took a toll, as did the fights he took on when he should have been advised to call it a day. Ali brought joy in a sport where the aim is to render your opponent unconscious.
Boxing gave us Ali and it took him away. RIP Champ, simply The Greatest.