Since Muhammad Ali’s death was announced yesterday, there’s been a flurry soundbites, platitudes and #RIPMuhammadAli hashtags floating about on social media – and I confess, I’m responsible for a number of them. What can this blogpost possibly add to such a weight of collective emotion?
Well, this, I hope: It’s an understandable reaction to the loss of an icon of our times but it strikes me that it’s easy for most people to make the mistake of mourning the legend rather than man behind it. Only when you examine the context of Ali’s achievements do you understand how his sobriquet “The Greatest” was so deserved – and what we have really lost.
More than half of the world’s population would, like me, have to admit that Ali the fighter was before their time, his story having been built into a fable by the media and the generations who watched it unfold before them. From our perspective, the narrative is that Cassius Clay simply took on the mantle of historical figure, as though it was pre-determined. His own famous assertion of greatness at the age of 22 and his subsequent re-branding as Muhammad Ali only seeks to reinforce the scripture-like depiction.
Yes, if you know a little about the racial segregation of the Southern States in the 1960s, you’ll be aware of the infamous disopsal of his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river. That should add some context but paradoxically, it seems to act merely as another parable in the book of Muhammad. How must the reality of that felt, the institutional rejection of a man by the country he’d been proud to represent on that Tokyo podium? Imagine the sense of injustice that would arise from the juxtaposition of national achievement and the racial division espoused by that same nation.
It would have required a fighter’s courage to uphold his anti-patriotism in the face of pressure to support the war in Vietnam. There really are only two fundamentals in life: deciding what’s right and wrong and deciding whether or not to stand up for your beliefs. With his well-tested views of justice as his compass, he made a choice and he backed his choice. Despite the resentment it caused in an America unwilling to accept the consequences of its tolerance of segregation, Ali stood firm, risking his livelihood and his liberty. Being right and true was more important to him than being popular or even understood by mainstream opinion. Humanity and single-mindedness are both admirable qualities but they are invariable mutually exclusive; one usually being shown at the expense of the other. In making his lone stance, Ali exhibited both for all to see.
Received wisdom did eventually catch up with his views, decades later, when Ali had soaked up all of the punches that contemporary conventional opinion had to offer. It makes you wonder who the next public figure will be to show such leadership of thought and act against an orthodoxy in a changing world. Does such a person exist today? Will one ever exist again? It’s hard to say – although it’s easier to imagine that humanity will need someone like Ali again at some point – some might say the sooner the better.
Another context shift is the state of boxing itself. Today, we expect the whole package of trash-talking, pay-per-view, the ever-present disappointment at the bloatedness of the various authorities and the cynical challenger-dodging of too many a title-holder. I’m not claiming Ali exhibited a purely Queensberry ethos but without his part in boxing’s history, would it ever have become the spectacle that spawned the kind of ‘Rocky‘ exhibitionism that we later came to take for granted? The fact that today, we’ve seen it all before (and better) remains one of boxing’s biggest challenges – aside from all its politics, posturing and pomposity – and it’s why the sport is now such a shadow of its former self, and so vulnerable to being usurped by WWE, UFC and other combat sports.
You may stake a claim for the days of Marciano and Dempsey – even Tyson but you’s struggle to deny that the early to mid-seventies was heavyweight boxing’s golden age. There is simply nothing like the same cocktail of raw talent, matches and rematches and free-to-air coverage in boxing today. In fact, it’s difficult to refute the suggestion that the day Sylvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa, the decline of the sport he honoured had already begun.
When we say that we won’t see another of Ali’s like, in or out of the ring, are we effectively condemning boxing, and maybe even humanity to a future incapable of matching the achievements of the past?