“I’m here to say Howard Cosell is a phony
That thing on his head comes from the tail of a pony.”
– Muhammad Ali 1974
When you pen a weekly boxing column and Muhammad Ali passes away you have to write about it. Of course, being a Tuesday thing and with the event happening Friday night, there will already have been several days’ worth of thoughts, quotes, video-clips, articles, TV segments and statuses digested by the world before this piece is published. Even people with no connection to Ali or boxing have got involved, such is the power of the name – which ever since ‘When we were Kings’ I always think of in a Congolese accent – Ali, bomaye Muhammed Ali.
I have written before on this page about my uneasiness with the way modern media dumbs everything down to soundbites and easily digestible images. There is power in slogans which mean dollars and cents for rights holders. And there is no doubt Ali is a great example of that.
When the young Cassius Clay emerged with his 1960 Olympic win, all the elements were there for what today would be called ‘marketability’. He was handsome, funny and cocky, setting the archetype for many who would follow, although none have since done it with his charm. It was partly these characteristics that gave rise to the legend, then in turn the Ali industry which generates enormous amounts of memorabilia and content bearing his image.
In this way successive generations, even those who never watched him fight, grew to know a version of him, but one whitewashed and skewed for public consumption. Thus a man who was a notoriously bad trainer became a poster extolling the virtues of hard work in the gym. A man who could be incredibly verbally vicious and was a long time member of an extremist, racially divisive political group, held up as an example of kindness or tolerance and a man who was used and manipulated by others, leading to eventual infirmity, a symbol of strength of will. Yet under the circumstances, it does not seem right to dwell on any of that too much. Muhammad Ali had many faults and foibles, because he was one of those flawed beasts known as human beings, but within the limits of his species he was a great individual who symbolised an age and only the most determined iconoclast would try to deny that.
There were a variety of social ills in the 1960s, but in many ways they were far nobler times than now. The world was still reorganising itself following world war two and people sought to affirm the freedoms their fathers had fought for. Westerners actually believed in things, passionately. Ali’s early career was played out during the presidency of John F Kennedy, generally recalled as one of hope and promise. By the time he became world champion, Johnson had taken over and the war in Vietnam begun. His story became forever intertwined with politics.
It was then that the true legacy of Ali was built. Here was a man who was not a well-advised PR creation like those of today, but a natural talker. There were those who disliked his bragadoccio, but he did it first and did it well. While many of his most famous lines about race and society were reportedly fed to him by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Ali knew that by taking the stance he did, he risked his own career and fortune. Few in his position would have done the same.
For anybody under 40, it is difficult to imagine, but the 60s and 70s were a time before the Reagan / Thatcher years changed everything, when the received wisdom remained that some notions were more important than wealth. Principles, or integrity were kinds of currency too. Commodities had prices, but these things had value.
After returning from his ban, Muhammad Ali may have been involved in the richest boxing events of his era but his worth as a man did not come from the Frazier trilogy or the Rumble in the Jungle, but from the stand he had taken. This helps to explain why, beyond marketing, his name and image have endured so well – his nobility evokes our lost nobility, his story is a reminder of what we were but are no longer, what we could and should still be.
There are many people saying there will never be another Ali and while market forces continue their global tyranny, they are right. Nothing has value beyond its price, while it lasts. It is not that there could never be another with his dazzling characteristics, his athleticism, wit and courage – that could happen. But at the moment, if such an individual were to emerge we would smother them, would bury their character beneath layers of artificial PR, would only count the zeroes they add to shareholder profits and would stifle and corrupt them. A young Ali now would not have the impact he did in the 60s because we have changed, and not for the better.
As we look to the future, of boxing, sports and ourselves, it is this part of Ali’s life that new generations should examine, to look beyond the 2-line soundbites, flashing smiles and punchlines. Muhammad Ali was not a T-shirt or a poster or a rhyming couplet, but a genuinely feisty, radical and controversial character who had demanded the freedom, within the spirit of the time, to express himself.
He did not care if what he said was unpopular. He did not care if it cost him money. It was his truth, so he spoke it, in the faces of those who wanted him silenced.
If we really want another Ali, or at least someone similar, it is that spirit we should seek to regain.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.