IN AN INTERVIEW with Parkinson in 1971, about six months after his first professional loss by the gloves of Joe Fraizer, Ali admitted he didn’t box because he enjoyed it; he merely used it as a channel to connect with an audience. To him, this talent he had forged in the gyms of Louisville was just a platform for his unique voice. He was a volatile cocktail of righteous aggression and boundless confidence, surrounded by an intangible aura of fluidity. From his motion to his words, there was a rhythm and flow to his every performance. As far as I know, there has been no other poet, prior or since, renowned for his 78-inch reach.
Muhammad Ali retired after losing three of his last four fights in 1982, and I was born in 1993, so I am by no means an authority on his life or career. My ill-preparedness is one of the reasons this story you are reading has been published so much later than other memorials and testimonies. I didn’t get up in the middle of the night to watch him dance across the canvas. I didn’t see the upsets he caused and the drama he brought to boxing at a time it was in danger of becoming a B-list sport, in danger of dropping out of the Olympic roster, relegated to gyms or the annals of history. I was only three when he fought through Parkinson’s Disease to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. This is the story of a man I’ve only heard of.
It is a testament to the impact he had on the world that this generation and those to come will still know him as ‘The Greatest’, using his name as a superlative, the final word in power, speed and finesse. Great sportsmen and sportswomen came before him, but none transcended their field in the same way; truly, he was the worlds first sports star. He was acting it before he even toppled Sonny Liston for his first reign as heavyweight champion of the world.
It was his exploits outside the ring that cemented him into the cultural consciousness of the 20th century. It would have been a starkly different media landscape without him in it, both front and back pages of newspapers would be empty for days at a time if he had never been. When he wasn’t asserting his heavyweight dominance against the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier, he was rattling their cages in interviews, heckling, goading his opponents. It seems almost benign now; not only because Ali was waxing lyrical 50 years ago, but because no one has done it better since. Stars are often revered as much more than just people, but Ali must have been more than a person, for no other body could surely hold that many diverse talents. If you’ve never seen him verbally dominate, an excellent example is his first Parkinson interview in ’71, ending with a performance of two poems targeting Frazier and Parkinson himself. For a snapshot, the BBC have a tribute to his way with words.
He won his place on the back pages with belts and titles, but stole the headlines with his mouth. He renounced his name, Cassius Clay, just days after becoming heavyweight champion of the world and announced his place in the Brotherhood of Islam. Reborn Muhammad Ali, he stood for what he believed to be right. He saw off eight challengers to the heavyweight title before being banned from competition, stripped of his achievements and threatened with a jail sentence. Such was the price of refusing to enlist in the Armed Forces in ’67. He never wavered in his appall of the Vietnam War, but lost three of what may have been his best years in his sport by the governments decision. The man was pure conviction. In his own words:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, and rape and kill my mother and father. Why would I want to—shoot them for what? I got to go shoot them, those little poor little black people, little babies and children, women; how can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Prolific in his civil rights campaigning, he was a symbol of resistance and hope for Black America, alongside Malcolm X he told the establishment what he thought with ruthless honesty. What should have been a jarring mish-mash of public personas – screaming his brilliance down a camera lens post-fight in the night, crusading for equality and the love of his fellow man in the day – could only have worked for a man like Ali, a black white knight, a superhero using his powers for good. As the tide of public opinion began to swing behind him, his ban was eventually lifted and he returned to boxing after a three-year absence. His first-ever career loss came shortly afterwards (though he tells the story slightly differently; he won the first nine rounds, Joe just won the last six), but it did nothing to dent his ego or his career. His resolve, like so many other characteristics, seemed to expand beyond that of a normal human being.
He continued to fight up to 1981, aged 35. He had lost just two fights in his life before his last four meetings, three of which he lost by decision, the other a victory over Leon Spinks to reclaim what he had lost to the same fighter just six months prior. Interviews and speculation followed, but it was not long until he announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, which to this day still has no established cause, genetic or otherwise. This mystery robbed him, took his balance and strength, and left him with tremors. For someone so physically competent for so much of their life the change seemed so much starker, making his efforts in Atlanta heroic. The humour and wit that served him so well was never shown to falter; accepting the award for BBC Sportsperson of the Century in 1999, in a weak voice he told his audience, “I had a good time boxing – I enjoyed it. I may come back.”
As a star it would have been likely that Ali would have split into public and private personas, living one life as a cocky, exuberant titan and another we would never see, but (until his waning years) he never seemed to want it that way. So colossal was his personality that it couldn’t be contained to just one place, he spilled from his own world into he public domain and just allowed the two to coexist. He lived in the limelight because it was drawn to him, not because he sought it out. There was a genuineness to his performances that led you to believe that this figure on the television, stood over his opponent roaring, was the same man you would meet on the street. He seemed to weave his poetry into his gloves and his aggression into his mouth so the two could never be separated. A lot has been said about Muhammad Ali, but this is the man that I’ve heard of, and we are all at a loss for not hearing any more.