Ali: ‘The splendour of his charisma, his eternal appeal’

He shook up the world: Muhammad Ali
He shook up the world: Muhammad Ali

“It is pretty much incontestable that at the height of his fame as the most compelling figure in the history of sport, and self-appointed master of ceremonies to mankind, Muhammad Ali was the most widely recognised human being on the planet. No contemporary political figure, however influential or notorious, impinged on the consciousness of so many people. Nor did the most celebrated film stars or popular entertainers.”

So writes Hugh McIllvanney, the sports writer who followed the career of Ali from beginning to end, in today’s Sunday Times.

In this wretched 2016 full of celebrity deaths, it tells us all we needed to know of the impact, sporting and political, of Muhammad Ali that after he died, yesterday’s BBC lunchtime news bulletin was almost entirely given over to his life. The EU referendum was relegated to a mere 30sec clip of “other news”. Something more for which we should all be grateful to Ali.

There has been an outpouring of grief and respect for Ali, who died in Arizona on Friday aged 74. Many of the tributes and obituaries have been provided by leading members of the Sports Journalists’ Association.

These included our immediate past president, Sir Michael Parkinson, who interviewed The Greatest for BBC television four times between 1971 and 1981, and who yesterday aired the view that the sport which had helped make Ali’s fortune and fame also ultimately destroyed him, causing the three-time heavyweight champion of the world to spend the latter half of his life battling the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease.

Ali fistSir Michael said of Ali: “I could not believe how beautiful he was. He was an extraordinary looking man. He was graceful and all those things and, of course, he was as funny as hell.

“We mustn’t deify him at all… he was a man of many flaws, but he was a man of great genius, great charm, great humour and he was, in his quiet moments, fascinating.”

One fascinating tribute was written by Kevin Mitchell, the Guardian and Observer‘s boxing correspondent.

“Muhammad Ali is dead. That is a sentence as difficult to write as it is to comprehend. At his loudest and most beautiful, he seemed, illogically, beyond destruction. Even in his palsied state in the championship rounds of his life, his eyes sparkled and his wit remained as sharp as the punches with which he tormented nearly all of his 61 opponents. So imperious was he that those of us who were entranced by him in the 60s and 70s hoped against every rational expectation that he would never leave the party, even though he had used up his champagne moments a long time ago. Ali, a born illusionist, teased us to the end.”

As is increasingly the case in this multi-media world, Mitchell’s article is accompanied with more video of the life of The Greatest.

Ali was a dream for all sports journalists, whether they worked as a reporter eager for headline-making quotes, a photographer looking for someone to provide stunning images, or film-makers who wanted a sporting metaphor for the human condition.In many ways, Ali helped to carve out the territory for 20th century sports journalists.

In two sentences in the Mail on Sunday today, Patrick Collins, the SJA’s President, summarises the appeal of The Greatest: “We loved Ali almost unreservedly, yet we were never truly able to explain our affection. He could be cruel, arrogant, contemptuous and merciless, then he would turn a wicked phrase or smile a roguish smile, and the world would forgive him his trespasses.”

Ali, with his great, global fights the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla, changed the way sport was covered in the latter half of the 20th century
Ali, with his great, global fights the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla, changed the way sport was covered in the latter half of the 20th century

And of course, Ali’s greatness extended well beyond the boxing ring, in terms of his principled stand for civil rights, against the racism inherent in the southern states where he grew up, his position against the Vietnam War and his work in later years for charities, including Unicef. Here was a man who, at the height of his powers as a world-beating boxer capable of commanding $1 million purses per fight in the 1960s, was prepared to turn his back on the ring for three years in protest against being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

Muhammad Ali: a gift to sports journalism
Muhammad Ali: a gift to sports journalism

For sports writers, Ali will be remembered with affection as well as admiration. Collins remembers covering the build-up to the truly tragic last fight, against Larry Holmes in 1980: “In the weekend before he fought Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, a wickedly uneven match between an ageing, world-weary Ali and the strong, lethal pretender to the throne, he gave a string of press conferences. He talked and he laughed, he told his jokes and did his childish impressions. The whole performance went on and on, until I noticed that the tape in my recorder had run out and my notebook was full. ‘When will he ever stop?’ I wondered, then dismissed the thought, as his talk was so charming and his wit was so sharp.

“In the event, the beating which Holmes delivered was terrible, its effects lasting. Better, perhaps, to glide over the later years; the trembling hands, the blurring voice, the ultimate surrender to a pitiless disease.

“Much better to remember the beauty of that dramatic face, the fluid ease of his movement, the splendour of his charisma, the eternal appeal of his personality.”