Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, who died today was a very famous man. He was famous for many reasons, but particularly for his stance as a civil rights campaigner. My main personal memories of him though were as the best boxer I ever saw perform. He was dazzling in his boxing brilliance.

My first memory of Cassius Marcellus Clay was his gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, when fighting as a light-heavyweight. Don't remember the fight, but do remember reports of this crazy 18 yr old leaping around the ring, screaming at the crowd "I am the Greatest". No-one realised then that he really was. I rather fancied a boxing career myself at the time, so took some interest in this young self publicist who turned pro after the gold medal. He used to predict the round he would knock out his opponent, usually correctly. His ticket selling ability make today's equivalent look pathetic and tacky. Almost came unstuck against Our 'Enry though, when caught by a demon left hook known as 'Enry's 'Ammer. Ali was saved by the bell. But he won in the 5th round he had predicted though.

And then it was world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. Clay (as he still was) followed Liston around with a pit of honey, taunting him as a "the big ugly bear". Liston was thought to be fearsome, and Clay to have no chance.  But the Louisville Lip won when Liston gave up because he couldn't catch him or pick up on His opponent's speed. He moved with the agility of a lightweight. We boxing fans marvelled as he mesmerised opponents with his feints, unorthodoxy and a hand and foot speed that was a blur.

Then he converted to become Muhammad Ali - and much much more than a boxer. It made him the worlds most famous person. His bravery out of the ring matched that within it. He didn't fight again for three and a half years. 

Muhammad Ali was never quite the same fighter when he came back. Sure, he was quick, but not as quick. He moved like a slower butterfly. But he was still wonderfully skilful. We saw the 'Ali Shuffle' and 'rope-a-dope'. There were amazingly brutal fights with Smokin Joe Frazier, and the unforgettable 'rumble in the jungle' when he astonished the boxing world by beating the 'unbeatable' George Foreman. And beat him with the unheard of tactic of letting the fearsome Foreman hit him at will until he exhausted himself - only for Ali to leap out of his protective shell when no-one expected and knock Foreman out. He fought on (and on and on). But never the same again. The boxing genius, who had mesmerised us had gone.

Soon after he finally retired from the ring, aged 40, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. It's said that it was caused by too many blows to the head as he slowed down towards the end of his career. I'm not at all sure about this. We do not know what causes Parkinson's. Always seemed to me like a conclusion arrived at which happened to coincide with symptoms. Like so many of those who live with this cruel disease, he carried himself with incredible dignity. I suppose It may be that my personal interest in Parkinson's, and my love of boxing in the 'golden era' for the sport made Muhammed Ali such a very special human being. I know there was much more as well but to me Muhammed Ali was a truly brilliant boxer and an example to the world about how to cope with a cruel illness. He was special as a sportsman and as a person.

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