This Friday will witness the funeral of Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer in history and a figure whose importance transcended sport. Hundreds will attend his funeral and many thousands more around the world will mourn his passing because Ali was internationally loved. He was one of my heroes.
Thousands of words have been written about Ali and his significance in boxing, in African American and civil rights history, and as an international figure. But it may seem odd that Ali would appeal to white British audiences in the 1960s, and to a young student in Edinburgh – and yet he did. He already had a considerable reputation after winning the Olympic light heavy weight medal in Rome in 1960 and then after several victories as a professional heavyweight in the U.S. Many people hoped that he would be defeated in Britain by Henry Cooper, and indeed he was famously knocked down by Cooper, but rose to win on points and, of course, famously, went on to become heavyweight champion when he defeated Sonny Liston. It is hard to believe now that many sports commentators on both sides of the Atlantic derided Ali (Cassius Clay as he was then) for his style of fighting – dancing he called it. They also disliked his claims to be a poet and his boasting – traditionally black boxers like Joe Louis, had to “know their place”. Even more shocking was Ali’s conversion to the National of Islam under the guidance of Malcolm X, and then his refusal to fight in Vietnam – “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger” he said.
Ali was then the epitome of a rebel, in sport, in race, in politics, in culture. For rebellious black – and white – youth in the sixties and seventies he was the personification of anti-establishment views, of proud black men who could claim “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident – cocky – my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.” We did. British audiences who saw him on the Michael Parkinson shows in 1971, 1974, and 1981 were transfixed by this often shocking, always fascinating, and sometimes just incredibly funny, man. He turned boxing into something of beauty – although sometimes his fights were brutal. I witnessed his defeat to Joe Louis in 1971 on a cinema screen in Buffalo, New York, and still recall the electric atmosphere and the disbelief that Ali lost. But he was often to surprise as he did when he beat Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla and even more so when he won in the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974. His record of 56 wins and five losses is remarkable – all the more so as he was unable to fight when he was in his prime because of his refusal to serve in the U.S. armed forces. For those of us young white students, would-be radicals, and others, this was simply a heroic act. And his boxing prowess ultimately won over his critics and increasingly the man who had been so reviled early in his career rose to position of Sportsman of the Century. Muhammad Ali was my hero, and he became a hero for millions around the world. His funeral on Friday will reflect that.