The date I’ve forgotten, but otherwise, the memory is clear.
It was at an electrical store on the Central Coast of N.S.W. and the T.V. was set high so that more than one could view it. Coming through in black and white was a picture from one of Africa’s most corrupt countries, Zaire.
It was a live broadcast of a fight called the Rumble in the Jungle and I was transfixed yet, oddly, I wasn’t what you’d call a fight fan. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I was supporting the underdog that day, one Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, and it was a position that I believe that the majority didn’t take.
As with millions of others, though, I found him irresistible; there was something about the “show” that made it unforgettable. He made every professional fight like the Melbourne Cup; win, lose or draw, you simply had to watch and I felt a sense of elation when he kayoed and totally wrecked the career and life of a man who took years to recover mentally. Why I felt such a thing I’ve never adequately analysed but the point is – Ali was the world’s most unforgettable fighter.
Michael had the fortune or misfortune, depending on how you saw them, to interview him four times and audience figures skyrocketed each time so I know I wasn’t the only one.
Muhammad Ali: A Memoir by Michael Parkinson features my favourite aspect of any literature: readability. Michael’s easy going nature coupled with the ability to slip probing questions in during interviews are all conveyed here but he also deals informatively with the background and life of The Greatest.
He was so controversial that when he’d won his world title, Ring magazine refused to bestow him fighter of the year because, “Cassius Clay is most emphatically not to be held up as an example to the youngsters of the United States”, a point which smacks of hypocrisy to me when all the other heavyweights at the time were controlled by the mafia.
That he was an enigma there can be no doubt. One of his less publicised poems reads:
“Friendship is a priceless gift that cannot be bought or sold,
but its value is far greater than a mountain made of gold.
For gold is cold and lifeless, it can neither see nor hear,
and in times of trouble it is powerless to cheer.
Gold it has no ears to listen, no heart to understand.
It cannot bring you comfort or reach out a helping hand.
So when you ask God for a gift, be thankful if he sends,
Not diamonds, pearls or riches, but the love of real true friends.”
You can feel how, as he moved from youth to middle age, the vibrancy and brashness diminished somewhat under the onslaught of his new religious beliefs and he ditched his first wife because she was unacceptable to Elijah Muhammad, the Muslim leader he fell in with. Yet, years later after the Muslim leader had died, Ali parted with his second wife when she discovered he was playing the field with other women, totally against his purported religious beliefs.
His sprightliness in the ring diminished somewhat during his enforced 3 ½ years away when he stood up for what he believed in and famously remarked, “No Viet Cong ever hurt me”. How ironic that when he first was tested by the draft his IQ was determined to be below the required level. It was only when manpower became short that the standard was lowered and he was called up. His refusal was instrumental in the change to a different America.
When he returned to the ring it was a different style fighter; no longer the dancing, hands down taunting showman; more the pragmatic man who showed an astonishing ability to absorb punishment before unleashing his own and his three epic fights against the hated Joe Frazier are dealt with as is the background to them.
How tragic that his last ever fight was in Bermuda on a baseball field where he was beaten by someone who once would not have been fit to tie his shoelaces – then came the illness, also elaborated upon by Michael. I thought the following quote summed up a lot of what Ali caused to happen in the world.
“The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali” – Reggie Jackson, former pro ball player.
If you’re at all interested in Ali, this is an excellent read and insight into a remarkable life.