It has frequently been remarked that 2016 is a year of living dangerously for celebrities. One had expected that to be invoked again following the death of Muhammad Ali last weekend, but this writer hasn’t encountered any such talk. It’s as if Ali is in a category of his own, or hors catégorie, as the mightiest mountain passes in the Tour de France are nowadays defined. It’s perhaps apt to describe such a transcendent figure thus. Yesterday he was laid to rest in Louisville, and, given how much he suffered throughout his mental and physical decline after retirement – or perhaps it would be more apt to trace his degeneration to that brutal contest with Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975 – one is tempted to regard his passing as a mercy or release. But any questioning of the extent to which one should feel sorrow is mitigated by knowledge of the absence of regret from Ali himself throughout his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Of course it’s a time to be sad for this 20th century titan.
In diverse and profound ways, Muhammad Ali bestrode the times he lived in. He was not merely the most exciting exponent his sport of boxing had ever seen. He wasn’t merely possessed of a peerless charisma allied with a genius for exploiting the new age of celebrity that coincided with his arrival on the boxing scene. He was living testimony to what are now truisms of effective civil rights struggles, most especially that power gives nothing without a demand. His superiority in his craft gave his refusal to conform greater potency. Nobody could look at him in the ring, or witness his eloquence either in promoting himself or decrying the evils of racism, and plausibly claim to be superior. Just as notably, he was an important anti-war activist at a time when leaders found it much easier to win popular support for their barbarism. Today, though atrocities still happen, killing civilians is almost universally considered a war crime, and those who commit it resort to moral gymnastics, technocratic euphemism or outright lies to deny their culpability. In his own time, when it came at considerable personal cost, Ali exposed the essential unjustness of the Vietnam War, and put himself on the right side of history.
It should perhaps be acknowledged that, while affirming his own identity, he could be mean towards some of his opponents, notably Ernie Terrell in their bad tempered encounter in 1967, and particularly Frazier in their encounters in the 1970s. it was unworthy of Ali to bait Frasier in the manner he did, even if it can partly be excused by the nature of boxing promotion and the mental attitude boxers usually need to adopt in the run up to a fight. His life outside the ring was characterised by a universal concern for man’s dignity and emancipation, and his religious convictions never spilled over into contempt for other creeds. The flaws were more than compensated for, and for the people who were inspired by him, particularly the people he came from, what matters most about Ali is that he showed that anybody was entitled to take pride in their origins.
For this writer, there is one regret in considering his life, however. It is the regret that vindictive authority robbed Ali and his public of probably the greatest years of his career. To watch his fight against Cleveland Williams, which resulted in a third round TKO, was to watch a supreme athlete at the height of his powers. While he reinvented himself after his enforced hiatus, and created further momentous events in boxing history, he wasn’t as good as he was before. Maybe he would still have found himself drawn into those destructive late contests – that third fight with Frazier, that gruesome encounter with Earnie Shavers, that humiliating defeat to Larry Holmes. But history could have taken a different turn again, perhaps one in which Ali wasn’t imprisoned by a terrible disease in his later years. These could be little more than the plaintive words of somebody who realises Ali had given so much, and wishes
The incomparable distinction of The Greatest
he’d been able to give more, but I know there are plenty more like me.