“My big concern today is that Ali is famous simply for being famous,”
says Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali’s official biographer, friend and someone who knows the former boxer’s life story as well as anyone. “People know that he stood up for his principles, but they really don’t know what his principles were. Really, to fully appreciate what he meant, you almost had to live through his times – and every day pick up the newspaper to find something about this man.”
Ali is widely revered as the greatest sporting figure of all time. Not just – understandably – from people of his own generation, but from those now in their teens, 20s or early-to-mid 30s who, as Hauser puts it, “have no independent recollection of Muhammad Ali as a fighter or Muhammad Ali as a social force”.
Consider this: when the BBC Sports Personality Awards asked viewers to name their sportsperson of the century, Ali came first – claiming more than half of all votes cast. That means that every sports star in history combined – Pele, Jesse Owens, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Don Bradman and, yes, even freshwater angling legend Bob Nudd – polled less than Ali.
This is not a one-off. A Sport survey in 2011 asked our readers to name the greatest athlete in history. Again, Ali claimed more than 50 per cent of the vote – his own tally more than the sum total of any sportsman or woman who’s ever lived. Yet Ali is now 72 years old. His last win in a boxing ring came in 1978. Why does he hold a generation far removed from his own in such thrall?
“Muhammad Ali is someone I’ve been looking up to since I was young,” Amir Khan told Sport when asked to name his boxing idol. “He has had a great career and he’s a role model in boxing – both inside and outside the ring.”
Bearing in mind that Ali was several years retired by the time the now 27-year-old Khan was born, what was it about him that first captured British boxer’s attention? “It’s the way he was outside the ring, really,” says Khan. “He was so sharp, so confident. The way he predicted fights was incredible. That was all new in those days. He’d say: ‘I’m going to knock you out in this round.’ And then he’d knock them out in that round. It was unheard of at the time. It was the charisma he brought to boxing – the hype.”
It was Ali’s personality – his quotes, his bombast, his ability to sell a fight – that made Khan first connect with Ali. Not his skills, social impact or his beliefs. As you’d expect from someone whose workplace is the boxing ring, Khan has now watched many of Ali’s great fights, and understands better than most the impact he had on the boxing world and beyond.
However, you could easily make a case that many of those who voted for Ali as the greatest athlete of all time based their choices on not much more than an eye-catching smile, some ear-catching quotes and a sense of people going along with a widely held consensus. How many have actually watched a large number of his fights? Or truly understand what he stood for outside the ring in the 1960s and ’70s?
Grasping what Ali meant as a social force is the trickiest part of his legacy. While they might come as no surprise to boxing aficionados, some of the beliefs Ali held in the prime years of his career might shock many who consider him an idol.
Devils and spaceships
Ali was a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, a courageous stance in that it cost him financial and sporting success. It led to his being stripped of his world heavyweight championship in 1967 aged 25, and a three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing.
Eventually, it also brought Ali widespread popularity as public opinion in the US slowly turned against the war. In the 1960s, however, Ali belonged to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, as Hauser explains, “is very different from orthodox Islam. It’s a form of American apartheid, where they preached that the white people were devils.”
The Nation also preached that the white devil race was created by a scientist, Mr Yakub, 6,600 years ago – and that manmade UFOs circled the earth that would one day bomb the world. In other words, Muhammad, David Icke and Tom Cruise have been in touch – and they think your theories are a little out there.
Over time, Ali’s views gradually changed. He became an orthodox Muslim and someone who embraced people of all races and faiths. And yet the fact remains that, for a period at the peak of his career, his stated beliefs make uncomfortable reading for many today – even if they are the understandable result of growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, at a time when racial discrimination was the norm.
Hauser points out that it wasn’t the details of Ali’s belief structure that were important, but that his stance against the US government and the scale of his profile was such that it changed the world.
“You have to remember that when Ali beat Sonny Liston [in 1964], it was a crime in many states for black people and white people to marry,” he explains. “Segregation was the law of the land, and when he burst upon the scene, an awful lot of black people thought it was better to be white. Reggie Jackson – a very famous baseball player – said that to me. That before Muhammad Ali, there were times when he was ashamed of being black, but that obviously he is proud of being black now. Muhammad Ali was part of that growth process for him.
“Every time Ali said ‘I’m so pretty’, what he was really saying – before it became fashionable – was ‘black is beautiful’. And he became a beacon of hope not just for black people, but for oppressed people all over the world.”
Nonetheless, Ali took a more militant, segregationist stance than other black civil rights figures, such as Martin Luther King. Ali also turned his back on his friend Malcolm X (pictured, above right) after the latter split from the Nation of Islam. Ali later called it: “One of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”
When Hauser refers to Ali now being famous just for being famous, he’s referring to people misunderstanding his athletic achievements as well. “People hear names like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and George Foreman,” he says. “But they don’t really understand how formidable those opponents were.” After all, aside from hardcore boxing fans and those of Ali’s own generation, how many people have watched the full 15 rounds of his first fight with Joe Frazier? Or the two Ali versus Liston (pictured above) contests?
His social impact simplified; his more controversial beliefs smoothed over; his sporting achievements not fully understood; his legacy built on the tributes of grey-haired experts informing us that he was the greatest. This seems a trite legacy for someone as vibrant and disruptive as Ali.
However, there are other and more justifiable reasons why he remains so revered. First, the fact he was a boxer. Prizefighters fare well in ‘best ever’ sporting polls because of the nature of what they do. We’ve all run a race and can imagine what Usain Bolt goes through; we’re just slower. Most people have hit a tennis ball and can pretend to be Roger Federer or Serena Williams; we just don’t have the same talent. But how many people have donned gloves, set foot in a boxing ring and engaged in a contest where the ultimate goal is to render their opponent unconscious?
The punishment a boxer takes – and dishes out – gives them a superhuman quality above many other athletes. It is somehow more impressive than other athletic pursuits, perhaps because their reserves of courage are so openly taxed. So if we accept that Ali is easily the most famous and most revered heavyweight boxer of all time, it’s no mystery why he sweeps sporting polls so regularly.
The greatest story ever told
Then there is the unusual narrative arc of Muhammad Ali’s career. Most sportsmen achieve greatness by rising to the top and dominating their sport. Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and Jack Nicklaus all had prolonged periods when they were widely considered the best at what they do. Total domination, however, often becomes monotonous.
Muhammad Ali is different. During what’s now regarded as his sporting prime in the 1960s, he wasn’t lauded – he was maligned and criticised because of his beliefs, but also for his perceived weaknesses as a boxer. His reliance on speed and movement (as opposed to heavyweight power) meant many boxing experts belittled his abilities. He then spent much of his prime, from April 1967 to October 1970, unable to compete. Also, in arguably his two most famous victories – his title-winning triumphs over Sonny Liston and George Foreman – Ali was a significant underdog.
Dominance and underdog status do not make comfortable bedfellows. Ali towers over boxing. But, unlike many a great athlete, his career is marked by undulations, great ups and downs, jarring defeats and comebacks. This makes the tales of his successes that much more enticing to tell and retell, the drama embellished by the fact that you had someone so handsome, quotable and charismatic at the centre of an incredible cast of characters. If Ali’s perceived greatness boils down to the fact that the story behind his career is that much more exciting for sports fans of any generation to hear, this is no bad thing.
Writing his own script
Scratch the surface of Ali’s legend and you get a complex, divisive, incendiary, sometimes contradictory character. He could be brilliant, as in his balletic, punch-perfect destruction of Cleveland Williams in 1966. He could be cruel, as in the deliberately slow, 15-round beating he handed out to Ernie Terrell in his next fight. Ali is not is a cuddly figure who can easily be summed up in a snappy paragraph or sentence. Ali is now, perhaps, even given an unwanted mystique by the fact that Parkinson’s Disease and his deteriorated health have, unfortunately, long silenced his famous mouth.
Of course, his achievements – both social and sporting – deserve huge recognition, aside from whether many of his modern admirers fully grasp what they are. He changed boxing as a sport and took it to a new level. He also helped to change American opinions, and therefore took the world to places where it had never been before.
But let’s also give Ali credit for writing his own legacy. The ultimate self-publicist, his hyperbolic schtick was inspired partly by hearing the rhetoric of 1950s wrestler ‘Gorgeous George’. Ali’s put-downs of opponents and poetic paeans to his own brilliance were often said with a wink and a childlike mischief absent from the boorish self-aggrandisement of many of today’s sporting superstars. Yet he was still so frequently telling the world that he was the greatest, that he himself planted the seed that has borne this mighty reputation.
Call yourself the best and the discussions – if you are good enough – will follow. Plant the idea. Get the debate started and you’re part of the way there. Muhammad Ali told the world he was great so often and in so many memorable ways, that the message has resonated. At first, people laughed at the ludicrous braggart, then derided the revolutionary until – as his achievements mounted – people began to agree: to argue the case for Ali’s ultimate greatness, until the vast majority were on his side.
But it was Ali who put that idea in people’s heads in the very beginning. Perhaps Ali’s legacy can be summed up in one sentence after all. Fifty years ago this year, training for his first world title fight, the then Cassius Clay told reporters simply: “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.”
It turns out that many agree with him. It just took us a while to catch up.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser with Muhammad Ali won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1991