Ali: the man who fought for freedom and respect
The world may have lost an icon, but his legacy will live on
F rom a young age I was drawn to Muhammad Ali. I simply couldn’t read enough about the enigmatic fighter who was willing to sacrifice so much in order to take a stand for what he believed in.
I may have been born more than a year after his final bout against Trevor Berbick, but I was hooked on all things Ali. I engrossed myself in his life story, desperately searching for footage of The Greatest both inside and outside the ring.
Here was a supreme athlete who was charismatic, witty and passionate. Inside the ring he was majestic to watch. His footwork was flawless, his hand speed incredible. In what can be a brutal sport, Ali brought artistry. There was grace and beauty in the way that he fought.
SIMPLY THE GREATEST
As a boxing fan there was so much to admire. Ali was fighting in an era when there was only one heavyweight champion. The divisions had not been diluted and whoever held the heavyweight title aloft was a global superstar.
Yet at the tender age of 22 the then Cassius Clay shocked the world by beating the champion Sonny Liston. No one had given him a hope, yet the Louisville Lip ran rings around an increasingly angry Liston.
In the end Ali’s speed, mobility and accuracy forced Liston to quit on his stool. It was these characteristics that made Ali unique. Here was a heavyweight who could move like a man half his size. You couldn’t underestimate his power either; 37 of his fights were won inside the 12 rounds.
Ali was a graceful fighter, yet he did not shy away from a war. Against the thunderous shots of George Foreman, he lay against the ropes soaking up the punishment before his exhausted opponent could simply throw no more. Then Ali delivered his onslaught and the seemingly invincible Foreman had been conquered.
At the Thrilla in Manilla, both fighters were simply exhausted after 14 rounds of sheer brutality. Frazier was pulled out of the fight but Ali, too, had nothing left. After the fight Ali said it was the closest he ever felt to death. But words cannot do justice to Ali’s skills in the ring and I urge you to gorge yourself on videos of him in action. He can be mesmerising to watch.
THE LOUISVILLE LIP
But it wasn’t just his ability in the ring that made me desperately want to be involved in boxing. He was a journalist’s dream thanks to his quick wit and incredibly sharp mind. He was the ultimate showman. At the time many felt he was arrogant, yet Ali made those who criticised him eat their words. He was also incredibly brave, willingly sacrificing the best years of his career in order to highlight civil rights issues in America.
Here was a man who had won an Olympic gold medal for his country, yet would be refused service in restaurants and diners because of the colour of his skin. It was an incredible sacrifice and one that did so much for black people not just in America, but across the world.
Despite working in boxing for several years I never got to meet the great man himself. I spoke to many who had spent time with Ali and they describe a man who was larger than life. Someone who could light up a room and could engage with anyone and everyone.
I was, however, fortunate enough to visit the 5th Street Gym in Miami where he trained under Angelo Dundee. Intimate pictures from Ali’s career decorate the walls and his most famous quotes are there for all to see.
To this day I still keep goosebumps just remembering the sensation of being in a gym Ali once called home. He was the greatest fighter that ever lived, but much more than that, he was a civil rights champion who delivered a message of freedom and respect to all corners of the world.