Posts Tagged Cassius Clay

Review of Muhammad Ali, the Eight-Part BBC television series, currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer

Big George and the Nature of Religious Conversion

When the then twenty-nine-year-old former World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was laid out on the treatment table in his dressing following a shock twelve round points defeat by Jimmy Young (not that one), in March 1977, exhausted, suffering from heatstroke and feeling himself close to death, he had a full-blown spiritual experience, complete with visions of Jesus and the voice of God Himself. From that moment on, he decided to dedicate himself to the spreading of the Christian message, first on street corners, and then by forming his own church, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in is hometown of Houston, Texas. Within this church he performed the role of both ordained pastor and chief fundraiser. It would be another decade before, and at around three-stone over his old fighting weight, he returned to the ring. When he did so, beginning with small-hall fights against what are known in the boxing world as ‘trial horses,’ code for fighters who can be relied upon to put up a decent performance but almost invariably lose when facing decent opposition, he stated three clear goals for his unlikely comeback: 1) to continue to raise money for his church; 2) to defeat Mike Tyson, then not yet twenty-one yea’s old and at his seemingly invincible boxing peak, having just won the World Boxing Council version of the Heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick; and 3) to regain the Heavyweight Championship he’d lost to Muhammad Ali in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Republic of Congo, back in November 1974.

The first of these tasks was always going to be relatively easy. George still had his name, and was always going to make more money bowling over mediocre opposition than he would by passing around the begging bowl following his sermon in his little Houston church every Sunday morning. But defeat Mike Tyson? Regain the championship? Not even the most hopeful of long-shot-gamblers would have bet serious money on either of those things occurring…

Well, after his ten-year retirement, George continued to compete between March 1987 and November 1997, a second career lasting more than a decade, during which he scored a total of thirty wins from thirty-three fights, twenty-six inside the distance, and made enough money to build a whole empire of the kind of Super-Churches which would have made Billy Graham feel like he was slumming it. So, first task accomplished… But he never did get to fight Mike Tyson.

The story goes that as an up-and-coming, powerfully built but problematic teenager Tyson would spend his downtime between training and fighting watching old fight films with his manger Jim Jacobs, and his legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. Jacobs, in these days before VHS tapes were common, and when nobody had yet begun to compile old fights onto them in any case, was said to own perhaps the most extensive collection of reel-to-reel old fight tapes in the world. One of the fights Jim and Cus would regularly ask the young Tyson to watch and study was footage of Foreman’s six-knockdown, two round demolition of the great Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973. By this time, of course, circa early to mid ‘80’s Foreman had been long retired and the likelihood of him ever squaring off with the prodigious Tyson was unlikely to say the least. Nevertheless, as George once again pummelled Smokin’ Joe to the canvas up there on the flickering white screen in a darkened room, old Cus, who sadly died a year before Tyson beat Berbick for the title, would nod sagely, turn to Mike, and say ‘Of course, we’d never have taken a fight with Foreman, ‘cos you’d never have got past his jab…’ This advice seems to have stuck with Tyson, and he never showed the slightest interest in fighting Foreman even when Big George was in his forties and the true lineal heavyweight champion. Apparently, when the legendary promoter Don King tried to make the fight in the spring of 1990, after Tyson had suffered his first loss to James’ ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and Foreman the biggest win of his comeback so far, a two-round knockout of one-time Great White Hope Gerry Cooney, Iron Mike, despite being offered a purse in the region of ten million dollars, is said to have screamed at King ‘Look, if you love George so much, you fuckin’ fight him…The man’s a monster!’

But although he never did get to fight Tyson (and for the record, I think old Cus was right, that even an aged Foreman would have kayoed Tyson within three rounds), he did, in November 1994, with a tenth-round knockout of Michael Moorer, regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the astonishingly advanced age of forty-five, and a full twenty years since he’d lost it to Ali.

As far as comeback goal-setting goes, as Meatloaf long ago pointed out, ‘two out of three ain’t bad…’

Those of you who’ve been interested enough to have read thus far will probably be wondering why, in what is apparently a review of a BBC documentary series about Muhammad Ali, I’ve spent the first nine hundred words or so talking about George Foreman. Well, I do have a reason, and here it is.

After initially coming up with a litany of excuses for his Kinshasa defeat by Ali , including being ‘drugged’ and given a ‘fast count,’ Foreman, good Christian that he became, learnt humility, made his peace with Muhammad, admitted he fought the wrong fight through over-confidence after too many quick wins (he hadn’t been taken beyond the second round by anyone for over three years at the time of the Ali fight), and now says that he is simply ‘proud’ to have been part of the amazing story of Muhammad Ali. But, and this is the main point here, he also compared his religious experience following the Young fight, with Ali’s embracing of the Nation of Islam (NOI from now on, though were more usually called them the Black Muslims back in in the sixties and seventies.) George’s assertion was that he didn’t believe Ali ever had aa spiritual/religious experience comparable to his own, that Ali’s decision to involve himself with a militant, segregationist, and frankly metaphysically crackpot form of Islam (though he began to quietly embrace more conventional forms of the religion from the time of the death of NOI leader/’Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad in 1975 onwards, before formally and publicly declaring himself closest to the Sufi tradition in 2005) was essentially a political rather than a religious decision, a response to the racism he saw around him in America in the 1960’s, and a riposte to what he saw as the inadequacies of the mainstream, integrationist civil rights movement as led by Dr. Martin Luther King and his co. thinkers. Foreman himself of course rejected Black Nationalism of all kinds. After he won his Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medal in 1968, whilst other black American athletes gave the clench fist salute on the podium, George showed his patriotism by walking around the ring waving a small Stars and Stripes flag.

The Importance of Being Ali

Although we can’t ever know for sure, my own research on the subject suggests that this observation of Foreman is true. Even if it isn’t, the then Cassius Clay’s embracing of the NOI is of vital importance in understanding the life of Muhammad Ali, in particularly how he became such a massive, global cultural icon. Had he remained ‘Cassius Clay,’ a name of which he’d once been proud (‘don’t I sound like a Roman Gladiator?’) but which rejected as his ‘slave name’, officially the day after his first heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, although it seems he’d been on the periphery of the NOI for around three years prior to that. Indeed, research showed that his Great-Great-Grandfather had indeed been a slave owned by a man named Clay, though his original name and point of origin in Africa are unknown. First, and briefly, Clay became ‘Cassius X’, largely in homage to his then friend and mentor Malcolm X, before Elijah Muhammad renamed him Muhammad Ali (literally ‘Beloved of God’, or sometimes translated as ‘Worthy of Praise’ and ‘Most High’). Had he stuck with the consortium of eleven white Kentucky businessmen who signed him following his victory at Light-Heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, then he’d still have become a great champion. He’d likely have reigned for close to a decade, maybe beat Joe Louis’ record of twenty five successful title defences. He’d have had big fights at Madison Square Garden, the Inglewood Forum in LA, stadium appearances at the likes of the New York Yankee stadium. Unlike Louis and most American heavyweight champions, he may even have defended his title in Europe from time to time.

But he definitely wouldn’t have become what he was to become. Without the influence of the NOI, he would have accepted his draft into the US army and no doubt spent his years of service not fighting the Vietcong in the jungles of South-East Asia but, like Louis during the Second World War, entertaining the troops by boxing exhibitions at army camps around the world. He may have made it to ‘Nam, but it would’ve been more likely in order to clown around on stage with Bob Hope than to wield a rifle in the service of American Imperialism.

Refusing the draft made ‘Ali’ become something ‘Clay’ could never have been, a controversial world-figure, both loved and hated, a spokesperson for Black America and the scourge of what his leader/messenger referred to as the ‘White Devils’ who’d kept his people in servitude long after slavery had formally ended.

He wouldn’t have toured Africa soon after beating Liston for the title. He would never have fought in the likes of Zaire, Manilla, Kuala Lumpa, because heavyweight championship fights weren’t staged in such places. He wouldn’t have had illiterate black Africans who’d perhaps never even seen him fight on television, chanting his name: ‘Ali, Bomaye!’, ‘Ali, kill him’ as they shouted in Zaire, often joining him in the searing heat on his morning road-runs as they did so, treating him as a returning hero whilst Foreman brooded in his training camp and complained about the heat and flies.

No, Muhammad Ali became a true champion of the whole would, from the Americas, to Europe, to Africa and Asia in a manner that could never have happened had he remained plain old Cassius Clay.

The three-and-a-half-year ban from boxing, during which the American government took away his passport so that he couldn’t even fight abroad (and those who claim Britain is and always has been a ‘racist’ country should be reminded that we would have welcomed him here with open arms in the late sixties, as would much of Europe, had he been free to travel); and the threat of a five year prison sentence that fortunately he never had to serve, added extra layers to his legend, and made the achievements of his comeback possible and all the more extraordinary.

The BBC series

The documentary series is particularly strong on the cultural/political/religious/spiritual dimensions of the Ali story, more so than on the strictly boxing aspects, and it’s all the better for that. After all, if you’re merely a casual boxing fan who wishes to relive those great Ali fights, or perhaps even to experience them for the first time, then they’re all available to you free of charge on You Tube. You even get a choice of watching the British television coverage with the Harry Carpenter commentaries I remember so well from my childhood and youth (‘Oh my God, he’s won the title back at thirty-two!’), or the American coverage, often featuring the great Howard Cosell, which weren’t a part of my own cultural landscape and are all the more interesting for that.
This Ali documentary series offers something different, something more, something better and of greater importance, demonstrating that Ali was bigger than boxing, as Ali himself often stated.
Boxing in my Blood

I’d like to say a little about my own history with Ali, about how his life and career were to a large extent intertwined with that of my own. I come from a boxing family. My dad told me the story of how, during the Second World War, in trouble again for arriving back late and rather the worse for wear after a spot of Rest and Relaxation, away from camp, he was given a choice by his commanding officer: ‘It’s either thirty days in the glass house, or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team. You look about the right size, so…? Unsurprisingly, my dad chose boxing. He also told me that after the war, already in his mid-twenties and preparing to marry, he wrote to the Boxing News asking if they felt he’d left it too late to consider a professional career. They replied that, if he was prepared to put in the training, it wasn’t necessarily too late. But it never happened, and it’s not something my dad ever seemed to have regretted, not publicly at least.

But I do have wonderful memories of us watching the big fights together, almost always on delayed recording the night after the fight in those days, though occasionally proceeded by live, as-it-happened radio commentary in the early hours of the morning. As far as Ali goes, I can go as far back to his first comeback fight following his enforced lay-off, against Jerry Quarry in October 1970, when he won on cuts in the third round, followed by all those memorable Ali fights/occasions of the seventies, Ali v Frazier 1-3, Ali v Norton, also 1-3, v Ernie Shavers, v Ron Lyle, v British contenders Joe Bugner and Richard Dunn, and most of all that incredible victory over Foreman in Zaire, when Ali produced what I still regard as the greatest display of improvised sporting genius at any sport, ever.

We’d look forward to these fights for ages, read all the newspaper and magazine build-up and preview articles, and make little bets on the likely result. I’m still proud that, as a precocious twelve-year old boxing-fanatic who’d been subscribing to the Boxing News weekly since I was ten, I took £2.50 from my dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defeat the seemingly indestructible Foreman. How clearly I remember my dad coming into my bedroom a few hours earlier after the fight had ended, transistor radio playing in his hands as Ali held court for the world’s press, my dad saying, understated and happy to have been proven wrong, ‘Ali knocked him out in the eighth.’

All good things come to an end of course, and I, with my best friend then and now, Michael Anderson, was on the overnight train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to Lerwick, Shetland via the St Clare ferry, on the night of October the 2nd 1980, annoying fellow travellers by fiddling with my little Elvis Presley transistor radio, attempting to find commentary, or at least news of, what turned out to be Ali’s disastrous attempt to regain the Heavyweight title for an unprecedented fourth time against the underrated Larry Holmes; and we watched a recording of that sad, sad fight on the boat the next night, before the two of us strapped on our guitars and took to the stage for a drunken and shambolic unscheduled live performance…

And fourteen months later, now back in Grimsby, not long after becoming a member of Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists, I skived off our usual Saturday lunch time town centre paper sale in order to watch the delayed recording of what turned out to be Ali’s very last professional fight, a brave but ultimately futile ten round points defeat against the afore-mentioned Trevor Berbick in the largely undramatic ‘Drama in the Bahamas’.

And, around and a decade after that, I had the pleasure of seeing the great man himself, at St. Ann’s square in Manchester, a shadow of his former self, but still a magical, magnetic presence. I was even moved to write a poem about the occasion soon afterwards, for a creative writing course,l, a version of which is available here Going to Muhammad • Tony Green (

I do regret that for whatever reason, perhaps simply because Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies are generally dull affairs best avoided, that I didn’t get to watch live as Ali lit the torch to signal the beginning of the Atlanta games in the summer of 1996. But it still brings a tear to my eye, the footage of that white clad figure, struggling to accomplish his task with hands that shook almost, but not quite uncontrollably, his mask-like face a study in concentration as he, willed on by the tens of thousands of people in the stadium and the untold millions watching at home, finally did what needed to be done in what was perhaps his greatest victory of all, a victory, albeit temporary as all such victories are, over sickness and Time. As the British boxer and fellow follower of Islam Naseem Hamed would later observe, Muhammad Ali, at that moment, was the most recognisable and loved figure on Planet Earth.
And of course, when I awoke on the morning of the third of June 2016 to find that Muhammad Ali had quietly slipped away at the age of seventy-four, surrounded by his family, after a noted Iman uttered the final words he would ever hear in this life – ‘Muhammad Ali, your name has inspired millions, now take your place in Paradise!’ – it was to a day of quiet reflection, of the intersection of my life with that of Ali, of memories of my dad, of watching the fights and documentaries on You Tube, of reading the online obituaries and talking with online boxing or simply Ali fans. ‘A life well-lived,’ although a cliché, perhaps best sums up the life of this incredible man.

The Greatest, not always the nicest…

Muhammad Ali was a flawed human being however, as are we all, and the BBC, thankfully avoiding hagiography, does not shy away from a discussion of his many faults in this eight part documentary series. Here, leaving aside the more general topic of his support for racial segregation, which in the 1960’s found him in alliance with the likes of the notorious white separatist Governor of Alabama George Wallace, which is a whole topic in and of itself, I will mention three that are covered in the series.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Ali was a serial womaniser who cheated on all of his wives,’ with the possible exception of Lonnie, the fourth and final Mrs Ali, on an epic scale. Angelo Dundee, his legendary trainer from shortly after his Olympic triumph until the final Berbick fight two decades later, was once asked if Ali followed the old-school fighter’s routine of abstaining from sex for a period before a big fight, so as not to weaken their body, and in order to build up reserves of tension, rage and determination that required physical, and in this case violent release. Dundee replied with words to the effect that Ali did not follow this routine. In fact, he’d been known to have sex not only in the build up to a big fight, but actually in the dressing room before his ring walk began.

His first wife, Sonji,, was a beautiful, normal, sixteen-year-old all-American black girl who liked to dance and to party, and had aspirations to be a pop star, when she first met the new heavyweight champion in the summer of 1964, and was no doubt proud to show off her tall, brash, incredibly handsome, rich, super-fit athlete boyfriend to her girlfriends. After their marriage, only a few weeks after they’d met, his heavy-handed attempts to mould her, following the strictures of the NOI, into the perfect, good Muslim wife, were not what she thought she’d signed up to, and were not exactly amongst his most edifying moments. Nor was his introduction to the press of his third wife Veronica in the build up to the Thriller in Manila with Frazier in October ’75, whilst still legally married to his ever-loyal, and exemplary Muslim, second wife Khalilah (formally Belinda), as Khalilah herself recounts during the series.

All that can really be said in Ali’s defence on the subject of his treatment of women, is that at least Ali doesn’t seem to have been a hypocrite as regards the racial aspect of his adopted belief system. Once he joined the NOI, which is of course strictly opposed to any form of miscreation, there doesn’t seem to have ever been any suggestion, despite his prodigious sexual appetite, that he ever had a sexual relationship with a none-black woman.

(It’s worth mentioning that Ali’s final wife, Lonnie, who’d known Muhammad from being a little girl, is herself an impressive, formidable woman who finally banished the large entourage of hangers-on from Ali’s life, sorted out his finances, and did more than anyone to help build the brand ‘Ali’ into both a hugely marketable commodity, and the man himself into a figure who was almost universally revered and loved. A valid criticism of her however is that the price paid for this transformation in the public perception of her husband was to make him ‘safe’ For mainstream society At the dawn of the twenty first century, Ali saw in the new millennium as an honoured guest amongst the super-rich on Wall Street. As one journalist at the time noted, in previous times he would more likely have celebrated within the poorer neighbourhoods of his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, or perhaps of Harlem).
Perhaps more serious than how Ali conducted his private life, is the way he treated Malcolm X.

As mentioned earlier, Malcolm had been his mentor, the man perhaps most responsible for guiding Ali towards the NOI. He was also a close personal friend. However, soon after Ali joined the NOI, Malcom quit. After making the obligatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he realised that contrary to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Muslims actually came in all colours. As well as rejecting the racial aspects of the NOI, he was also, more and more, partly under the influence of the socialist experiment on the island of Cuba, only a short boat ride away from Miami, becoming more and more drawn to the conclusion that revolutionary change he believed necessary was best brought about through the unity, not the separation, of the poor and oppressed of all colours.

Malcolm soon paid for his change of direction, and for the charismatic challenge he posed to the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, with his life, being assassinated in New York City on February 21st, 1965. Though it’s never been definitively proven, the leadership of the NOI have long been suspected pf involvement in his killing, with the possible connivance of the USA deep-state.

Sadly, Ali commented at the time that ‘Malcolm X and anyone else who attacks, or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the Messenger of Almighty God.’

To his credit, Ali later acknowledged the wrongness of his treatment of Malcolm. In his 2005 memoir ‘Soul of a Butterfly’ he described him as a ‘great thinker and even greater friend,’ going on to say that ‘Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life…’

Thirdly, we turn to Ali’s treatment of his greatest rival, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Frazier established himself as the best active heavyweight in the world during Ali’s enforced absence from the ring between 1967 and 1970, cementing that position by flooring the come-backing Ali in the fifteenth and final round en route to a close but deserved points decision in the Fight of the Century in March 1971.

Though he’d known far greater poverty in his early life than the young Cassius, who grew up in a relatively stable and happy environment, Joe was an old school American patriot who, if he held any particular views about the civil rights movement and other political matters of the day, tended to keep them to himself. He’d opposed Ai’s decision to refuse induction into the US army, but he’d also opposed the decision to take away his license to box: ‘If his punishment is prison, then let him serve his time. But while he stays free, you don’t take away a man’s right to earn a living, to feed his family. You don’t take away a man’s tools.’ This was a principled, honest position to hold, and in addition, at a time when Ali, a man who always seemed incapable of moderating his spending according to changed circumstances, was so broke that he accepted a relatively paltry sum to take part in the staged ‘computer fight’ against the forty seven year old Rocky Marciano (and in one of life’s sad ironies, Rocky would die in a plane crash only a week after his filmed sparring with Ali ended, never even learning whether the ‘computer’ had decided whether he ‘won’ the ‘fight’ or not), Frazier is also said to have lent Ali money.

Ali repaid this support and kindness with a constant stream of invective, deriding him as ‘dumb’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’. This abuse reached its pinnacle before the third, epic, brutal fight in Manila, where in addition to the usual insults, he also routinely described Frazier as a ‘gorilla,’ an epithet that had it come from a white fighter would undoubtedly have been viewed as unforgivably racist.

Ali, who collapsed in the ring shortly after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch forced a reluctant, and by now almost blinded Frazier to remain on his stool before the bell to start the fifteenth and final round sounded in Manila, and who described the fight as ‘the closest thing to death,’ would later express nothing but admiration for Frazier as a fighter and as a man. He would always say that his pre-fight abuse of opponents was never about anything more than selling tickets, a trick which, along with his general ‘I am the Greatest’ boast-fullness he always said he learnt from the 1950’s/1960’s white wrestler Gorgeous George, and was nothing personal. Frazier, however, never did forgive Ali for his treatment of him. Whilst, after their careers were over, the two would often appear on television or at various boxing functions together, shaking hands and even on occasion embracing, and praising the fighting prowess of one another, in unguarded moments Frazier was also heard to express pleasure at Ali’s sad physical decline, going so far as to take pride in the role his punces had undoubtedly played in that decline. On another occasion, he also said that the only way he could finally defeat Ali now was to outlive him. Sadly, for Joe, this proud warrior who never quite quite escaped from the shadow of his greatest rival, he didn’t achieve this final wish, dying of liver cancer at the age of sixty seven in 2011, five years before Ali.


So, yes, Muhammad was undoubtedly a man of many faults; and we could add to that the obsessive love of the limelight which caused him to fight on too long, when he could have walked away with his health intact. Defenders of boxing, of which I am obviously one, seeing in it the most primal and basic of all sports, will often try to claim that Ali was simply a victim of Parkinson’s Disease, and will point to fellow famous sufferers like the actor and fellow sufferer Michael J Fox, whose job did not involve being regularly beaten about the head, as evidence that Ali’s contacting of Parkinson’s was nothing more than bad luck. This is a position born of either ignorance or dishonesty. I love boxing and all combat sports, my eleven year old son even does Mixed Martial Arts, but I know and admit their dangers.

‘Parkinson’s’ actually refers to a set of symptoms, the slow, whispering, slurred way of speaking, the stumbling gate when walking and other motor impairments, the trembling hands, and so on, all of which Ali was beginning to display even before his boxing career ended. One of the causes of these symptoms is indeed Parkinson’s Disease. But Ali never was diagnosed as suffering from this disease. Other causes include drug and alcohol abuse, never an issue for Ali, or trauma to the brain, either by a single devastating incidence, or by repeated blows over a prolonged period of time. It’s 99.9% certain that this was the cause of Ali’s poor health during the last thirty-five years or so of his life.

And Ali had plenty of warning that his continuance of his boxing career was putting his health at great risk. Angelo Dundee told the story of how, when the young Cassius Clay was training in his Miami gym in the early ‘60’s, a broken down ex pug came over to converse with him, slurring his words badly as he did so. Clay treated him with his customary playful kindness, but when he had gone he turned to Angelo and said ‘Angelo, if I ever start to slur like that, tell me, and I’ll quit.’ Years later, following the fights in Zaire and Manila, Dundee was driving Ali somewhere or other, and Ali was talking, as he usually was. Dundee said to him: ‘You now champ’, you’re starting to slur.’ Ali just laughed and continued to talk.
It wasn’t just the 108 amateur and 61 professional fights, against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight boxing history, either . His sparring sessions, especially in his later years,, would often consist of Ali lying on the ropes absorbing punches. They may have been wearing headguards and big gloves, but even in sparring these punches impact on the brain, shaking it about in its encasement within the skull. Thousands and thousands of punches to the head over almost three decades of competition and training, from twelve years old to almost forty: how could these not have a detrimental effect on a man’s health?

Ali actually had a rationale for this method of sparing. He was seeking to disprove the old boxing adage that the one thing you can’t train a fighter to do is to withstand big punches. A fighter either can do this, or they can’t. Ali believed this was wrong, that by deliberately putting himself into what he termed the ‘twilight zone,’ a state where conscious is almost but not quite lost, he could learn to fight on instinct alone, until his head cleared, remaining upright and fighting back when lesser mortals would have been down and out. George Foreman has an example of this from Zaire. He says that when he landed one of his haymakers, and Forman was undoubtedly one of the hardest punchers in history, he saw Ali’s eyes close. He was to all intents and purposes knocked out, George was as certain of this as he was ever certain of anything, apart perhaps from the existence of God. Yet, somehow, Ali remained standing, close to the ropes from where he’d conducted much of that incredible fight, and from somewhere deep within, he willed himself back to consciousness and continued the fight, taunting to George with such comments as ‘Is that all you got, sucker? They told me you was a big puncher, George…’

As his career continued and his speed and reflexes, once his greatest assets, slowed, Ali more and more came to depend on his incredible resilience, punch resistance, courage and determination to win fights at all cost. It was the primary weapon for his greatest victories, but it was also his undoing as far as his health was concerned.

And over the years, once his boxing career was finally over, as his biographer Jonathan Eig put it in his book ‘Ali’, he got quieter and quieter and slower and slower, until finally he could talk no more, and his public appearances, encouraged by Lonnie as a means of keeping him motivated when perhaps a quiet withdrawal from public life might have been kinder, was eventually reduced to a slumped, sad figure in an electric buggy, his eyes shielded from the sun, and his tendency to spend much of his life sleeping from public view, by omnipresent dark glasses.

Always Ali

But, as Frazier once commented, partly motivated by envy and continued bitterness, ‘He’ll always be Muhammad Ali, always have people chanting his name wherever he goes.’ And it seems that, although he might have had increasing trouble expressing it, he continued to enjoy being who he was, the brash kid Cassius Clay, disliked more than liked, who became Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous individual on the planet, almost universally loved, who would often, whilst it was still possible, walk the ten miles, at his glacially slow ‘great-grandaddy’ pace (as he himself described it) from his rural Kentucky home to the nearest shopping area, simply to be around ‘his’ people, to sign his name, by now simply ‘Ali’, with shaking hands, on the inside cover of Islamic tracts and hand them out to anybody who wanted one.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed him three times, described him as ‘the most remarkable individual I have ever met.’ And Parkinson interviewed the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, George Best, Jason Donovan…’

A remarkable man indeed, and this BBC documentary does the best job of doing him justice I’ve yet seen.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit, Ali. This work is from the New York World-Telegram and Sun collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.


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