By now you should not be remotely surprised to learn that one fine evening back in 1980 I somehow conspired to find myself perched on a stool in front of a small television set in my local pub watching a delayed ITV transmission of Muhammad Ali’s foolhardy attempt to win a fourth world title. Of course, it did not matter to me at the time that I had already learned the result of the fight in the newspapers and, were it not for the fact that I, like too many others, was what can only be described as bewitched by Ali’s enormous charisma, it should have been no particular revelation to discover that The Greatest turned out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. Apparently, he was human after all: as capable of bleeding, of bruising, and of succumbing to the debilitating effects of Father Time as the man who had served me the beer that I was having great difficulty swallowing.
Naturally, the benefit of hindsight allows me to contemplate the dismemberment of the Ali legend with a sense of reluctant and undeserved smugness. One does not have to be a boxing expert in order to be able to look back at the circumstances surrounding this invidious spectacle and conclude that Ali had no possible chance of winning the fight. He was thirty-eight-years-of-age by then and for the past couple of years newspaper picture editors had been taking an almost puerile delight in regularly demonstrating to their readers that the body beautiful was not what it used to be. Like those pictures of Elvis taken in the months leading up to his death, in which the bloated singer, with vacant George A Romero stare, slouches onto stage wrapped in sequins and rolls of blubber, photographs of the new – enhanced – Ali were appearing in the tabloids on an almost weekly basis. There was New Ali sitting at the ring apron of some title fight or other, accompanied by a dwindling entourage and a stomach that could have belonged to a pregnant woman. There was New Ali at the dinner table, filling his cheeks with food in the way that Satchmo would once fill his own with air. It was clear that the Ali we were all familiar with was no more; the person who was once described as the most beautiful man in the world had mutated into something else. Ali had become Fat Ali.
No longer forced to endure the endless torture of early morning runs, gym callisthenics and constant sparring sessions, in two years out of the ring Ali had developed rather too much of a liking for the burgers that he had taken to endorsing on television. In horticultural terms, he had gone to seed. However, unlike his former victim George Foreman, whose unexpectedly successful ring comeback in the late-eighties was, if we are to believe the boxer, fuelled by a mountain of Big Macs, it was apparent that Ali’s extra weight would provide no additional advantages when the lure of the ring – as it inevitably would – became too much for his ego to bear.
This is not to say that Ali did not do a good job in extending his own rather extravagant interpretation of reality. Indeed, even the most qualified of observers – Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee amongst them – found themselves rubbing their eyes in wonderment when he began training for his doomed attempt to wrench the heavyweight title from his accomplished successor Larry Holmes. As the extra poundage was sweated away and the Fat Ali persona was exposed as an apparent impostor, fans and critics alike found themselves drawn inexorably into the dream. The rebirth of Ali may have been achieved, as we were to learn later, with the help of prescribed diet pills that left him dangerously dehydrated, not to mention the odd flask or two of black hair dye, but it seemed at the time as if the Master Conjuror had somehow managed to transform himself back into the beautiful, dazzling young athlete whose streamlined features had made his the most recognisable face on planet earth. By the time that he was ready to climb back into the ring and receive the hiding of a lifetime, Ali’s weight was exactly as it had been when he had first fought Sonny Liston back in 1964. More than the Rope-a-Dope in Zaire, more than the Ali Shuffle or the ‘Butterfly’ punch that put down Liston in their second fight, this astonishing re-attainment of youth was the fighter’s greatest feat of illusion.
Personally, I had no doubts at the time as to who would win the fight: even though I was not naïve enough to consider broadcasting my ill-conceived loyalties to the illusion, deep down I was sure that Ali would prevail. There was no logical reasoning behind this conclusion; it was not as though one could run an eye down the statistics for the fight and pinpoint any particular flaw in Holmes’ not inconsiderable armoury. Although he was by no means The Greatest, Holmes was set to become one of history’s more distinguished heavyweight champions. At thirty-years-of-age he was in his prime and, were it not for the fact that it was his misfortune to have been appointed the impossible task of filling the tasselled boots of the man who had once employed him as a sparring partner, Holmes would certainly have become one of the premier stars of the eighties. Yet somehow it seemed to me that Ali would find a way to beat his protégé; it might take a miracle, but then Ali always seemed to have first refusal whenever anybody up there was doling out miracles.
Almost two decades on from that dreadful evening there are several memories that stubbornly refuse to fade. For any trivia fans out there I can inform you that the beer I was endeavouring to drink as the massacre ensued cost the princely sum of thirty-seven new pence a pint. Similarly, I can divulge that a packet of twenty cigarettes was available at the bar for under 50p. Even more trainspotterrishly, I can reveal that the pub’s solitary arcade machine was one of those table-top versions of Galaxians, featuring the usual collection of badly rendered sprites descending through a beer-clouded space and accompanied by an assortment of pings, whistles, fizzes and pops, at a cost to your pocket of ten new pence a game. If you are wondering why I appear determined to waddle in this paddling pool of consumerist nostalgia I need merely point out that Muhammad Ali, in payment for what was, admittedly, to be the worst night of his life, was collecting a fee of $8 million. In modern day terms Ali’s purse for the fight was in excess of $30 million, a truly staggering amount of money for a portly middle-aged ex-champ whose talents had been in steady decline since the early seventies. Another reminder, for those of you out there who weren’t around when Ali was busy putting us all under his spell, of just how enormous a name his was. Ali was the superstars’ superstar: bigger, bolder, brasher, louder, prettier and better paid than any athlete or entertainer in history.
The evening was also memorable in that it was the first occasion I can recall someone using the word ‘fuck’ during a televised prime time sporting event. At the beginning of round ten, as Muhammad Ali slumps into his stool and prepares to drag his heaving body back into the centre of the ring to be used as target practise by a saddened and visibly embarrassed Larry Holmes, the diminutive figure of Angelo Dundee could clearly be heard telling Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown ‘Fuck you! No! I’m stopping it!’ as the other man implores Ali to resume participation in the beating that is placing the boxer’s life in considerable jeopardy. It was also the first (and only) time that I can recall a television boxing commentator actually pleading for a fighter to hit the canvas: “Come on Ali… Either throw a punch or go down! He really can’t linger like this… It’s quite pathetic!” cried the weary voice of Reg Gutteridge who, like the rest of us, was clearly not enjoying the spectacle of Ali’s public execution.
Boxing completists will already be aware that the only stoppage defeat of Ali’s long career was not, in fact, his last fight. The dubious honour of being the last man to defeat the Greatest belongs to Canada’s Trevor Berbick, Commonwealth Champion at the time but himself a future holder of the WBC heavyweight title (Indeed, as well as Larry Holmes, it is Berbick who provides a precarious link between the Ali era and the Mike Tyson era, being in the opposite corner on that night in 1987 in which Tyson became boxing’s youngest ever heavyweight champion). In real terms, however, the Holmes fight was the last hurrah. It was the final full stop at the end of the last sentence of the closing Chapter of a story that had managed to both illuminate and transcend boxing.
At the risk of appearing overly sentimental, those images of Ali’s public pain and humiliation were enough to send me scurrying into the toilets with tears welling up in my eyes. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old by then and to this day I cannot find any rational justification for my reaction. Although it was true that Ali had been around in both the background and foreground of much of my life, it has to be said that he was well down on the list of what I considered important at the time. He wasn’t female, he didn’t come in a glass and there were certainly no portraits of Queen Elizabeth II printed about his torso. However, in common with countless people in every corner of the globe, whatever special quality or combination of special qualities it was that Ali possessed was somehow able to touch some deeper part of me; a part of me which the usual mixture of instinct and social conditioning ensured was usually happily hidden away.
Some twenty years after the horrors of Ali’s final curtain call, the fighter still has a kind of hold over me that I cannot really explain. I am not alone in this, of course: even the most cynical and world-weary of those who follow, write about or indulge in the sport of boxing tend to come over all misty-eyed whenever Ali’s name happens to crop up in conversation. Yet whilst it is certain that Ali as a twentieth century icon seems to exemplify the more positive and heroic aspects of boxing, there have been many fighters – some of whom I have known personally – who have completely failed to move me in circumstances which should have had even the most stony-faced of us reaching for the Kleenex.
Yet Ali was not without his flaws. The occasional unforgivable cruelty that he bestowed upon his ring opponents is often buried away in the hyperbole surrounding his battles with the US government and his human rights campaigning. Moreover, not only did Ali sometimes appear to take pleasure in humiliating and, one might even argue, actually physically torturing opponents who were patently inferior athletes (his contests against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are particularly brutal examples of this spiteful and malicious aspect of Ali’s personality) but the personal insults that he meted out to rival Joe Frazier were apparently sufficient to reduce the great heavyweight champion’s children to tears.
Ali’s ambiguous treatment of women also left much to be desired: during his infamous 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Parkinson show, for example, the newly-recrowned heavyweight champion arranged for a group of Muslim women to sit out in the audience as an example of how the female form should be, in his words, ‘properly dressed’. Clad in simple cotton gowns designed to hide the contours of the figure, and wearing head scarves that left only the hands and face exposed, these women were the focus for a startlingly incoherent lecture on Muslim ideology by a frenzied Muhammad Ali.
Not, one might say, entirely unexpected behaviour from a man who had attached himself so securely to the Moslem movement that he had been prepared to make the ultimate statement of reinvention and actually change his name. However, his actions take on an entirely different complexion when we realise that Ali, by then married to Belinda Boyd (having divorced his first wife, Sonji Roi, when she refused to discard her Western clothing in favour of her husband’s preferred attire) was involved at the time in an extra-marital affair with the decidedly un-Muslimesque Veronica Porche (Amazingly, whilst in the Philippines in 1975 for his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali would actually introduce Veronica to President Ferdinand Marcos as his wife). Although Miss Porch would go on to become Ali’s third wife, such extra-curricular canoodlings were in direct contravention of the guidelines set down by the Nation of Islam.
The breaking of rules, however, was a distinctive and important feature of the Muhammad Ali mystique. After all, are we not talking about the man who literally rewrote the boxing rulebook? Was Ali not the fighter who eschewed boxing’s conventions and chose to dance around the ring with arms dangling and chin exposed rather than adopt the forward guard demanded by tradition? Similarly, was he not the self-styled poet whose charm and intelligence reduced us all to tears of laughter whilst simultaneously being classified ‘not up to current standards’ by the US draft board, after an aptitude test in 1966 which revealed Ali’s IQ to be only 78.
It is for reasons such as these that we, perhaps, should not be surprised if Ali’s interpretation of the doctrine of Elijah Muhammad was occasionally subject to a little surreptitious adjustment. Indeed, it would appear that Ali was actively encouraged to do so. The media coverage that was ensured by his involvement in the Muslim movement was apparently sufficient to enable its leaders to turn a blind eye to even the most fundamental of Ali’s behavioural transgressions. The Muslim decree which expressly forbids one man to commit violence on another could, it appears, be conveniently overlooked when you had Ali as a frontman.
Yet despite everything I – we – cannot stop loving him. I – we cannot help but shield our eyes in the radiant glow of the man’s achievements. Ali may have been the man who proclaimed that the white man was the ‘Devil’ whilst surrounding himself with a coterie of pale-faced acolytes; he may also have been the pacifist who was prepared to sacrifice both career and personal liberty for a principle whilst continuing to earn a living in the most brutal and deadly of occupations; he may have been the womaniser who refused to view his women as equals; and he may have been the spokesman of a generation whose words were all too often not his own, but somehow none of these things seem to matter.
Except, of course, that they do.
The luxury of time has permitted me to conclude that in order to enjoy the vicarious friendship of Muhammad Ali you have to be prepared to compromise; you have to be able to turn away from his more baser indiscretions. In the end, you must to come to realise that even one such as he, so perfect in so many respects, was not, in fact, perfect.
It’s a similar predicament that one faces when one finds oneself in a situation in which a friend or work colleague suddenly comes out with a racist or sexist statement that appears totally at odds with the person you had imagined them to be. On such occasions you have to very quickly decide how you are going to react. There are, I believe, two basic alternatives: you can either do the right thing and tell the other person that you find their comments offensive and would they mind very much not repeating them again. Or you can do the more cowardly thing and pretend that you haven’t heard them call a black man a nigger or smile uncomfortably and attempt to change the subject. In my case – if I am honest – I can tell you that on those instances in which I have found myself in such a circumstance I have been known to offer both reactions – I have been both righteous and a coward. Yet not forgetting more obvious considerations such as how much bigger and how much stronger the offending person is than you, the deciding factor in such an dilemma is usually not solely determined by whatever value you place on your moral being, it is more to do with how much you are prepared to put up with in order to remain in the company of the offending person.
In the case of Muhammad Ali I am willing and able to put up with everything that he is prepared to throw at me. If I was, for example, to pick up a newspaper tomorrow morning and discover that Ali is a mass murderer with a propensity for fucking Teddy bears I doubt that the news would in any way dim my blind, dumb admiration for the man. He’s inside me, I’m afraid. When I talk about him and I talk about his deeds, I’m talking about that little part of me I mentioned earlier. The one that is a subconscious contributor to Ali’s many achievements. The little piece that is lodged under my flesh like shrapnel. And however much it itches and threatens to come to the surface, I know that it will never leave me.
This was is excerpt from my 1999 book Rope Burns, published by Headline