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Ali: Athlete, activist, artist, innovator and inspiration

INFLUENCE: The pugilist was a humanitarian

THE PASSING of Muhammad Ali has given us pause to reflect upon the seismic impact this remarkable man made during his lifetime.

But how does one begin to assess an athlete and humanitarian activist who has occupied millions of words from the pens, typewriters and tablets of literary giants, whose image was universally recognised before the prevalence of the in- ternet and the proliferation of selfies?

Ali’s exploits, both in and out of the boxing ring, have had a profound effect upon millions of people worldwide. And yet - as I suspect is the case with every Ali aficionado - the connection I felt with Ali is one best characterised as deeply personal.

Ali has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My sports obsessed father practically taught me how to read using his boxing books and magazines from that era. My ABC’s came not from Peter and Jane (or Ken and Joy), but from Ali, Frazier and Foreman.

I’ve since spent an inordinate amount of time being preoccupied with Ali’s fights and his philosophies. He’s a significant factor in my enduring passion for sports in general and boxing in particular.

The linchpins of Ali’s boxing legend are writ large. From taking up the sport at the age of 12 after having his bicycle stolen at the Louisville home show, to winning Olympic gold as an 18 year-old in Rome, to battling and beating formidable foes such as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman en route to becoming the first man in history to win the heavyweight championship of the world three times.

Yet these empirical accomplishments don’t begin to illustrate his brilliance or explain why Ali is regarded, as he told us throughout his career, as ‘The Greatest’ heavyweight of all time. Such lofty praise has more to do with the manner of his victories and his style of being, where the Ali tsunami of charisma, intelligence and wit saturated each of his boxing events with a sense of showmanship usually associated with vaudevillian acts.

His daring, dazzling boxing style defied convention and consistently overcame apparently insurmountable odds. Whether as the seemingly skittish, light-hitting, pretty boy, or as the wilful obdurate who invited and absorbed sledgehammer blows, Ali repeatedly found a way to win in the most dramatic circumstances, leaving hulking heavyweights in a heap at his twinkle-toed feet.

Ali’s extraordinary ability to do the impossible time and time again is perfectly exemplified in his defeats of Liston and Foreman at opposite ends of his astonishing career arc.

His achievements in the ring made Ali the most famous figure on earth. Yet his impact beyond the confines of the roped arena is perhaps even more significant than his litany of fistic feats.

As the holder of what was then unquestionably the most important title in sport, Ali used the platform not to just enrich himself financially, but to embolden, inspire and uplift the oppressed. He was the first black champion to publicly battle the demeaning social ills of bigotry, racism - and their ugly handmaiden, persecution - being endured by black people in the United States, and he did so with as much passion, panache, eloquence and élan as he demonstrated in the ring, making him impossible to ignore.

Just as Ali backed his pre-fight boasts by delivering decisive victories with his flashing fists, so his actions matched his firebrand rhetoric, marking him out as a man of unwavering principle.

He joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and voiced the fears, frustrations and systemic injustices felt by millions of black people across the diaspora, becoming an articulate, vocal, highly visible force of the black power and civil rights movements.


IT’S A KNOCKOUT: Ali puts arch enemy Foreman on the canvas during the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’

His conscientious objection to the Vietnam War saw him outrage white America and branded as an unpatriotic draft dodger. Uncle Sam threw the full weight of its authority at Ali. He was fined $10,000, his passport was taken away and he was sentenced to five years in prison, making incarceration a real possibility.

He was also stripped of his title and banned from boxing. But Ali demonstrated the strength of his conviction by standing firm, thus foregoing his athletic prime and giving up millions of dollars. Would any high profile athlete of this era, with their cabal of advisors and coterie of corporate sponsors, have the courage or consciousness to pronounce anything so heartfelt from their perch of prominence?

Would anyone, from any walk of life, willingly waive all they have worked to achieve on a point of principle?

As public opposition to the Vietnam War grew, Ali’s stance was ultimately vindicated. His conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1971 and the champ who was made a martyr found himself serving as a link between black extremism and white liberalism. From being a reviled figure of white America, the Ali who inspires universal reverence, love and adoration began to emerge.

In ensuring that his incredible legacy lives on, we should perhaps be mindful not to canonise Ali and his exploits. He was a man, not a deity and so carried the contradictions, complexities and imperfections inherent in the human condition.

But that doesn’t diminish the immense influence he’s had – and continues to exert – on humanity. We experienced 100% Ali, undiluted by brands, unfettered by political correctness, undiminished in his passion for social justice.

Ali was blessed with the body of an Adonis, the face of an angel and could fight like the devil.

Athlete, activist, artist, innovator, inspiration. His presence electrified the sport of boxing and enriched the lives of all who experienced him. May he rest in peace.

Ronald McIntosh is a boxing commentator and sports broadcaster

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