This week the O2 opened an exhibition of the life and fights of Muhammad Ali, Ali loves London and London loves Ali, he is everyman’s superman. Since watching the Paul Newman movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me” this reporter has had a fascination with boxing, inspired by Muhammad Ali. Ali was an all-round phenomenon, a warrior in and out of the ring, right up there with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King on civil freedoms for black people. Born in 1942 in an exclusively “coloured” area of Louisville Kentucky, as Cassius Clay he accompanied his mother to the Baptist Church every Sunday, later in circa 1953 he witnessed the Klu Klux Klan and other Americans protesting against coloureds and supporting segregation.
The exhibit opens with vintage footage of Ali’s training, the indefatigable skipping and daily runs, proceeds though his career featuring personal remembrances from promoters, trainers, friends and fans, with many of his private articles from collectors such as the split gloves and the studded robe gifted to him by Elvis Presley. All his fights are reported in great detail with vintage videos of each.
He had his first fight as a 13-year-old; his amateur record before the 1960 Olympics was 100 wins and only 5 losses. In 1959 Ali was recognised as the greatest boxer in the world and this view has not changed much since. In 1963 Ali won the World Weight Championship at Wembley Stadium in a fight against Henry Cooper.
In 1974 Mobutu Sese Seko invited Ali to fight George Foreman in Kinshasa, the so called “Rumble in the Jungle”, curiously staged in a stadium purported to have once been the execution chamber of dissidents.
Ali had self-belief and outrageously engaging humour, he often said he had a pretty face and a beautiful body but he had another quality…It is hard to equate a fighter with compassion but I believe in Ali’s case it was so. In 1967 Ali refused to be drafted into the US Armed Forces to fight in Vietnam, he famously said “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong, no Vietcong ever called me a nigger”, he attracted worldwide admiration for saying this but he was arrested, had his boxing licence suspended and his titles taken away. In response he gave up his “slave name” name of Cassius Clay and embracing Islam gave himself a “ beautiful African one”. Ali said he had made a stand “…for all people, not just black people, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college and the poor man’s son went to war.” Muhammad Ali had morphed into a conscientious objector and civil rights activist; representing The Nation of Islam as a minister he travelled around Africa fighting for freedoms and against apartheid and segregation. His verbal virtuosity, charisma, courage, passion and principles drew crowds that were unimaginable at that time; to America’s displeasure he became an international hero for Islam and black people.
In 1974 Mobutu Sese Seko invited Ali to fight George Foreman in Kinshasa, the so called “Rumble in the Jungle”, curiously staged in a stadium purported to have once been the execution chamber of dissidents. After three and a half years out of the ring Ali had already lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the odds were in favour of Foreman but in eight rounds Ali floored Foreman and reclaimed the World Heavyweight title, despite a bit less floating like a butterfly, he proved he was still King of the Ring.
Ali continued to fight to win some and loose some, to my chagrin I watched him lose to Leon Spinks in February 1978, Ali did reclaim the World Heavyweight title in the re-match later that year becoming the first three-time Heavyweight World Champion. His final fight was just before his 40th birthday and many suspected his Parkinsons Disease had already begun to take its toll, afterwards he hung up his gloves. In 1996 his shaky hand lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta giving him the worldwide recognition usually reserved for historical figures.
In 1999 the US administration asked him to intercede as a peace envoy to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of 15 US citizens, taken hostage in Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait. Ali returned with the 15 hostages. After 9/11 at a New York Fundraiser Ali renewed his stance against the Vietnam War, he spoke of his peaceful faith that was opposed to “killing and murder and terrorism”. In 2004 Ali converted from the Islamic separatism associated with Elijah Muhammad and The Nation of Islam and to Sufism, being so devoted to peace and love, really he had been a natural Sufi all along.
Ali has said “I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: As a Black man who won the Heavyweight Title, who was humorous and treated everyone right, as a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, as a man who stood for Freedom, Justice and Equality, and I would not even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
Even now as Ali suffers from ever more debilitating Parkinsons, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the dignity of the man.