Muhammed Ali RIP.
Aged 74…ten years older than me. And I think thats important because most of the tributes I see on TV News…Sky, BBC and even Fux News are recollections of people (men) in their 20s, 30s, 40s ….and all tributes are complimentary ….even the 30 something woman on Fux News looks like she will start crying.
But for a person like myself, who watched the BBC News in the days before Ali (then Cassius Clay) fought Sonny Liston and listened to the fight on the radio (at about 3am), it seems that Ali’s life had distinct phases ….all of which have been diminished by the past thirty years….a long goodbye….where Ali is totally rehabilitated as an elder statesman, civil rights activist and I think ….History has been re-written. The celebrities paying tribute on Twitter seem to be more familiar with the myth than the reality.
Certainly the “Cassius Clay” persona circa 1963 was amusing. Young, handsome and articulate…and the arrogance seemed like a faux arrogance. “Clay” seemed to enjoy it as much as the journalists.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is how I remember him and the predictions of the round he would win. But there was a nastier side. “Clay”, the Olympic Gold medal winner could not get service in diners in the segregationalist South. Famously and understandably that Gold Medal is in the Mississippi River but it seems to me that he (initially) targetted the wrong people. Floyd Patterson was a blameless, well respected boxer….Sonny Liston was classical badass from Central Casting but he was as much a more a victim than his tormentor, in and out of the ring. Liston deserved better.
Yet that is not how I saw it in in 1963/64. Handsome Youth versus Ugly Middle Age. No Contest.
I was much too young to fully understand the name change from Clay to Ali but old enough to appreciate that nobody had a right to criticise. Nor….based on his political stance had any nominally “World” Body, the right to deprive Ali of his world title.
So Ali deserves credit for the dignity of those wilderness years and his single-minded determination to win the Heavyweight title back. It was the time of Rumble in the Jungle, Thriller in Manilla….the years when Ali was claimed to be the most famous person in the world.
Yet while there was a lot to admire about Ali in the 1960s, I was young and unquestioning. Much of Ali in the 1970s is not admirable. Boxing is a unique sport, especially at Professional level. Very strong fit men hurt each other. The Dignity, the Ethics of the amateur game are sacrificed. Not only do people get hurt ….they get damaged. Certainly Ali was damaged and he damaged others. And too much of it had a cruelty attached. Yes it sold tickets and while “Rope A Dope” might be tactically justified, there were too many “Bums of the Week” in a career that included in Kinshasa and Phillipines.
But a good insight into 1970s Ali would be the hour long interview with Michael Parkinson. It was effectively a well-researched ambush. Ali clearly expected something more lightweight. At one stage, he looks like he might punch Parkinson….watch Parky retreat back into his chair.
For all his eloquence, Ali was barely literate and Parky embarrassed him. Much more importantly, Ali advocated a form of segregation…”blue birds fly with blue birds, red birds fly with red birds”. It was disappointing.
Just how Ali emerged as a credible spokesperson for Civil Rights has a lot to do with being an icon of Dignity thru his thirty year battle with debilitating illness.
But the Establishment’s respect for Muhammed Ali seems like a long and very belated apology.
There is an apology due to the 18year old Olympic medalist who found that his achievement was not enough to be allowed to buy a burger in a diner in Louisville, Kentucky. An apology is due to the young champion exploited by his white management. An apology is due to the man who lost his title due to political discrimination. An apology is due to the chat show guest, who was exploited as a man who could perform in TV studios all around the world.
Part of the apology should not be glossing over Muhammed Ali’s very public flaws.
His private flaws are not relevant.