Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V Scene 2
The amount of copy that has flowed at the news of Muhammad Ali’s death has been tidal. Perhaps the quantity is as much a mark as anything that can be written. Many of the articles will be very good, he will have inspired many to do wonderful work, but few, if any, will do the man justice. Because as Muhammed Ali passes away, words, which were so often his favourite pastime, will seldom work.
I hope the pictures roll. He was glorious to watch, and not just in the ring. I am no boxing aficionado, so cannot tell you just how well he performed inside the ropes. They say he had footwork to match Astaire, with speed and foresight that allowed him to evade opponents’ punches as though they were thrown a week previous. They say he combined these with his own accuracy and power; he could take a blow but always give a better one. But outside the ring, Ali was at his finest. For the noblest of sports pits just one against another; outside the ring, he was up against hundreds. Pen poised political pugilists mustering punches of their own, determined to land one; yet Ali bobbed and weaved elusively, always stayed on his feet.
I am not old enough to have witnessed Ali’s work first hand. Having retired in 1981, I was too young to see anything live. Like all sporting enthusiasts I have watched the tapes. I’ve read books and articles, digested most available theory and held my breath as the former champion walked out onto the stage to yet more applause. And each time we saw him, he was a little more frail. In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympic games, fifteen years since he retired, twenty years before he would finally pass away, he lit the torch. His body convulsing, his famous Louisville lips tight shut. Fragility and triumph in perfect harmony; the greatest boxing champion being slowly beaten up. And nobody could do anything about it. Least of all he.
Ali was the most generous of sportsman; this is what made him unequivocally popular. To fans he gave sporting romance the likes of which could not be written; to the press he gave sumptuous and melodic soundbite; to people looking for a hero, he gave dignity, purpose and worth; to anyone who got close enough to hear, charisma and charm in which you could bask for days. Ali gave far more than he received.
Ali’s best trick, however, was also his greatest gift. And it is best summed up by the answer to a question I once heard asked to Brian Lara. Back in 1996, I was part of a school team incredibly fortunate to have Lara come and visit. He netted, dancing around balls pinged down to him at the fastest speed the machine could fire them, and then came and sat with us as we posed him questions. We talked about his huge record-setting innings of the time and what he had planned next. It was semi-uncomfortable as none of us really had the skill to lead proceedings, but it was only when the following question came that the impish West Indian really connected. “What’s it like being the best batsmen in the world?” Lara smiled and then ushered forth the following reply, in his quiet yet unmistakable Trinidadian drawl. “I am not the best batsmen in the world, it’s just everyone thinks I am.”
Ali managed to convince the world of his talent. Through a mixture of skill, grace, unrelenting self-proclaimed propaganda and sheer bloody mindedness, he made certain we all thought this of him. And this is, without doubt, his most incredible achievement. Because sport has so many opinions, so many different perspectives. Perhaps this is its greatest attraction. That your view of something goes up against someone else’s. Many hypotheses put forward are unable to be proven. Time and again people will proffer athletes from different generations and ask you which was better; Nicklaus or Woods; Gavaskar or Tendulkar; Sampras or Federer; Pele or Maradona. But these last few days, as the world mourned his passing, the man who started life as Cassius Clay has united us all in one shared belief. The greatest sportsman of all time? Muhammad Ali. Because everyone, and I mean everyone, thinks he is.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved