Richard Lutz pays homage to the great Muhammad Ali, who died earlier today.
Get ready for media overload: Muhammad Ali has died. Front page splashes, double page spreads, tv documentaries, old interviews, back page memories, major obituaries.
Why the fuss? Because Ali was a luminous star.
And in his day in the sixties, he was an overpowering major figure up there with JFK, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. He exuded iconic character. Whether you liked or loathed him- and those were the two camps- you could not ignore him.
I grew up in that fevered era. At first, he was Cassius Clay or simply The Louisville Lip because he was mouthy. He had won the Olympics light heavy gold and, as Clay, at a mere 18, wanted to turn pro.
Everyone- I mean everyone- thought he would be pummeled into the ground. All mouth, it was said, heading south.
But a group of white businessmen formed the Louisville Syndicate to direct his fortunes even though America saw a pugilistic pretty boy clown. Slowly disentangling himself from establishment direction, he rose in the rankings and took more control of his own management.
But as his fortunes improved as a boxer, he simply would not play the game expected of him. He turned his back on the white Anglo world to join the controversial Nation of Islam (later becoming a Sunni). And he also turned his back on the military draft because he “…ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…”
He confounded all – except himself.
Here was a black man that wasn’t the soft spoken boxer Floyd Patterson or the gentleman Archie Moore or the sullen Sonny Liston. Here was a young man, a beautiful looking guy, who charged in front of the TV cameras ready to rock’n’roll, mug with The Beatles, pontificate on politics, make America question itself and play with the illuminati.
Here was a guy who was a Star.
In that mid-sixties era, two people, both famous, could blast electricity from TV’s semi-comatose crystal screen. Both Ali and John Lennon refused to comply with the simplicities thrown at them. They took control. They questioned the media, the viewers and the people who paid to see them. They controlled.
And as for that boxing: He floated like a butterfly, and stung like a bee.
With Ali as heavyweight showman, if you weren’t appalled by boxing as a dangerous sport, you loved watching him. He smashed through the strict cultural colour bar in the States. Every boy wanted to be Ali.
Our playground was filled with kids back-pedalling, bouncing off imaginary ropes, doing the double shuffle, feinting, side stepping and trashing each other with slam poetry on the bus home each day. He was Fred Astaire with the body of a god and the smile of the cheeky boy next door.
The military bust-up in ’67 meant he was stripped of his heavyweight crown three years after beating Liston. But after a lot of hassle and Supreme Court hearings, he was allowed back into the ring. In the 70’s, having lost the prime of his career because of the fight with the Army. He battled the powerhouses of the heavyweight ring: Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, George Foreman. He turned boxing into mass entertainment – The Rumble in the Jungle, The Thriller in Manila – and starred in some great documentary films about his life. Will Smith did an admirable job, too, in the movie Ali.
After retirement, which came after a saddening couple of defeat at the hands of former sparring partner Holmes and then Trevor Berbick, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome, a disease linked to head injuries. But he remained active in public life, still a Muslim, still speaking out about what he perceived as mass injustices.
As a matter of fact, one of my first memories of moving to Birmingham was walking into one of that city’s famous curry houses to be confronted with an overpowering photo of Ali hanging from a wall. “He visited us,” said the Muslim restaurant boss. “You have to put his picture up.”
He’s right. You had to.
Want to read more? Try Tom Hauser’s book: Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
(Sections of this article first appeared in February 2013)