(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures
The world seems a smaller, sadder and quieter place after the passing of boxing superstar and all-round sporting legend Muhammad Ali yesterday.
Smaller, sadder, quieter and also less eloquent, less witty and less entertaining: for Ali was a rare thing, a sportsman who’d honed his words to be as devastating as the way he’d honed his body. You could fill a book with his pronouncements, witticisms and (usually) good-natured insults. Of Sonny Liston, he said: “The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.” Of George Foreman: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.” Of Joe Frazier: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.” On his refusal to serve in the US Army and fight in Vietnam, he said bluntly: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” On aging: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” (Well, that’s me told.) And of course, on his less-than-modest self: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double-greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”
In his prime, his gob was massive and his patter was relentless; but still he was an idealistic man who wasn’t afraid to make bold and unpopular decisions. However out-of-favour he temporarily became, though, through actions such as affiliating himself with the Nation of Islam or refusing the draft, he still ended up the best-known and best-liked American on the planet. I got a sense of his universal appeal one winter’s day in 1996, while I was living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Out on a freezing ice-and-snow-covered street I encountered a prim, middle-aged lady whom I knew as the mother of one of my Japanese friends. Where, I asked, was she off to on an inhospitable day like this? Oh, she said with an eager gleam in her eyes, she was going to the cinema — which was showing When We were Kings, the acclaimed and just-released documentary about Ali’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, i.e. his bout with George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974. The fact that a Japanese housewife could be hurrying to see a documentary about a black American boxer who’d fought his last fight 15 years earlier was a sign of the weird and wonderful world that Ali had created.
And in fact I remember that Ali-Foreman fight of 1974 – when it rumbled, in the jungle. I was a kid in Northern Ireland and no doubt all sorts of Troubles-related mayhem was happening that day, as it seemed to happen every day back then. But the Rumble was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about the next morning. We were discussing it, my eight and nine-year-old compadres and I, in the primary-school classroom. Why, even our primary school teacher – another prim middle-aged lady – was talking excitedly about how Ali had beat Foreman. And it was the same a year later when he took on Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’. The next day we were rabbiting on about that too.
He was a divisive figure for a long time in the US, but 1970s Britain loved him. He never seemed to be off British telly. (Did Ali apply his publicity machine equally to every country in the world, I wonder, or did he just get a special kick out of indulging the limeys across the Atlantic?) He was interviewed several times by Michael Parkinson. He appeared on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews. He sent a cheeky filmed message to English football manager Brian Clough, a man who famously produced as much hot air as he did: “Clough, that’s enough. Stop it!” Christ, he even turned up on Jim’ll Fix It and I seem to remember him giving Jimmy Savile a friendly, joshing tap on the chin. It’s just a pity he didn’t punch Savile’s horrible greasy face down his throat and out of his arse.
Ali’s boxing career didn’t end happily. His 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, for instance, was a horror show. It’s said that afterwards Holmes felt so bad about beating Ali so humiliatingly that he sat crying in his dressing room. Thereafter, of course, Ali had to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease – an affliction whose worst crime, perhaps, was to rob him, the most articulate of men, of the ability to articulate himself.
So it’s best to remember him by watching When We Were Kings, a documentary that captures the glory (and, admittedly, some of the grotesqueness) of the Rumble in the Jungle. It shows you Ali at the peak of his greatness and a surprisingly dark and threatening George Foreman. (This might come as a shock to a younger generation who know George primarily as the patron of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.) It also allows you to see the 20th century’s most opulently corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d arranged the staging of the fight in Zaire. And some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, like James Brown and B.B. King, whom Mobutu had flown in for a musical gala to accompany it. And the 20 century’s biggest literary ego, Norman Mailer, who was there to report on it.
Norman Mailer, actually, got a book out the event, 1975’s The Fight, which is well worth a read. It provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who believed he was the greatest. (It also mentions Muhammad Ali.)
(c) Penguin Books
Muhammad was a giant but he achieved his worldwide celebrity on account of his talents: his athleticism, his grace, his wit, his humour and his bloody-mindedness. Which puts the modern-day celebrity of, say, Kim Kardashian into pitiful perspective. And as someone who eventually became one of America’s greatest ambassadors to the rest of humanity – regardless of the often uneasy relationship between him and his mother country – it’s worth remembering that he was a Muslim. Donald Trump, take note.