Reports are emerging that boxing great Muhammad Ali is fatally ill. Richard Lutz reports on a towering life.
An old acquaintance of mine in what is left of Fleet Street says all the papers are lining up the Ali story right now prepared for the announcement that he has died. Front page splashes, double page spreads, back page memories, major obituaries. He is very ill, say news reports.
Why the fuss? Because Ali is a luminous star.
And in his day in the sixties, he was an overpowering major figure up there with JFK, The Beatles and Frankie. He exuded iconic character. Whether you liked or loathed him- and those were the two camps- you could not ignore this boxing king.
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 National 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 guy 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 too, who charged in front of the tv cameras ready to rock ‘ roll, mug with The Beatles, pontificate on politics 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 simplistic questions thrown at them. They took control. They questioned the media, the viewers and the people that 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 lads 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 on 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 fought the powerhouses of the heavyweight ring: Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, yes, even 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 The Greatest.
After retirement, which was sparked by a defeat at the hands of Holmes, 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 picture up.’
He’s right. You have to.
Want to read more? Try Tom Hauser’s towering book: Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.