Been a bad year for iconic deaths. Has to happen of course, everyone has their time, and right now I think is pretty much towards the end of a cultural cycle. I was sad Bowie died because he was a musician and artist I liked as a man. Then Prince died and that was a shock, as if a force of nature had abruptly stopped. Now it’s Ali’s turn, and it’s the most monumental of departures.
Muhammad Ali was 74, and ailing for a while – a long way if you factor in his Parkinson’s disease – and so it can’t be a shock from a purely practical perspective. It had to happen, and the time was right. Not that ever explains or makes a difference. At the very least there is an abiding sorrow, but in the case, no matter that the time is right, it’s a strange thought to realise for the first time in your life that Ali is no longer alive too. He is gone.
This is a huge news event and the eulogies are flowing. He was a historical, culture figure, much more so than even a sporting figure. It’s ironic to me that he dies much loved by just about the entire world when for a long while he was reviled – and I can remember that.
I think for people of my generation, and the generation before, Ali is a particularly epochal figure. I missed his early career as Cassius Clay, and even after he became Muhammad Ali I was too young to be aware really of who he was or what he meant. I was still very young when he did make a mark upon me, which must have been around the Rumble in the Jungle. Suddenly there was a lot of talk about him, and I cottoned onto that.
The thing is that even then he was not widely liked, even in faraway Australia. I suspect now that he created a rift between the old school who thought him too mouthy and full of himself (and the racist among them an uppity nigger), and those younger and more progressive who were drawn to the theatre and the self-confidence (independent of race). He was entertainment, but he also signified a way of being. You can be more.
I became a passionate supporter and thrilled fan. I barracked hard for him in his bouts against Frazier and Foreman, mourned when he lost to Spinks, and when he had become slow and shambling losing to Larry Holmes I was one of the many who wished he would give it away. He had declined, and the decline was evident outside the ring as much as it was inside. The dazzling speed and whip-smart wit had become dulled in the ring and slurred outside of it. I think there was much head shaking at the time at the pity of it, but Ali never bought into that, and transcended his sport to become a kind a roaming ambassador for humanity. He had slowed on the outside, but on the inside he was as quick as ever.
Like a lot of teenagers I felt as if I had personal connection to my sporting heroes. My grandfather, a great reader, had a bunch of books about Muhammad Ali, which I consumed with relish (one particularly by Wilfrid Sheed, and more recently another by David Remnick, were excellent). I loved his craft in the ring, and use to shadow box trying out different routines, wanting to be just like him. I recall reading his measurements in one of these books and then getting the tape measure out, whereupon to my great delight found I was just about identical in size and proportion to the young Ali (how I convinced myself of that remains unexplained). Much as I admired his ringcraft, I loved his quick mind and wit. I was a reader, I believed in words and ideas, and there was no greater exponent than Ali.
It’s one thing for a white, middle-class boy from far away Melbourne to become infatuated with him, but he represented something much more to great swathes of the earth who till then had never had a hero that spoke for them as he did, and remained so universally loved.
Watch When We Were Kings, a great sporting documentary, and watch how the Zairean people clamored after him. He was a dream made real, a black man dominating in a white man’s world, without fear or favour, with wit and style and thrilling bombast. Till there was Ali there was little to hope for in their poor and oppressed existence, but he changed that. After him, everyone could hope to transcend their place in the world, as Ali had. No wonder “Ali bomaye”.
It’s a curious thing to see how much he became so loved. I think changing of times helped with that. The world became more progressive and accepting, at the same time becoming smaller with the advent of technology. Old prejudice began to thin, and new tolerance take hold. But then there was Ali, the man of sparkling wit everyone knew, the brutal and brilliant boxer who in fact had a pacific nature.
I’m sure Ali changed a lot through his career. He had always been controversial and provocative and at times hugely courageous. Through his journeys in the ring, and outside it, it seems he began to perceive the similarities between us, the things that bind us together, rather than the differences that so many use to divide us. He was a human being first, gentle and tolerant, accepting of his condition without complaint, a beneficent presence who wanted nothing more than to share that. Most of the world saw the utter sincerity of that, and embraced him. That’s why he became a world hero.
I saw a black and white clip earlier today from sometime in the mid-seventies I would suggest. Ali was being interviewed in front of a TV audience full of long-haired types come to see the great man, this somewhere in England. A kid stood up to ask Ali what he would do when he retired from boxing. This was still the brilliant Ali, and he gave a witty response about how he will just have a long sleep. But then he became serious. In a long, but brilliantly articulated, beautifully vivid answer, he said basically that when he retires from boxing he will prepare himself for God. There is not much time really, and his mission in that time was to spread peace and understanding, to bring comfort to those need it, and insight to those without it.
This was Ali at the height of his boxing career, when as many hated him as loved him. He was still plying his hard trade, but he already knew there was more, and for all his glib answers, that his destiny was to become the man the world in time came to adore. He was true to what he said that day, which is why he was so loved, and why his death is so tragic to so many – including me. He prepared himself for God, and God will greet him with open arms. He can rest now.