Muhammad Ali captivated the world when he became world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. He mixed extraordinary grace and speed in the ring with a larger than life personality outside it.
He combined overt radical politics with an obvious pride in himself. He refused to let the media define who he was or how he should behave.
As Mike Marqusee, author of a brilliant biography Redemption Song suggests, he was somebody who characterised “the spirit of the 1960s”.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on the 17th January 1942, he first came to international prominence when he won the light heavyweight boxing title at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Despite returning to his homeland as a champion, he was still subjected to the humiliating institutional discrimination that blighted the lives of black people in the US. He was refused service at a “whites only” restaurant and was set upon by a gang of racists. He had trouble finding a hotel to stay when he travelled to fight.
He shocked the sporting world by beating Sonny Liston to became world heavyweight champion.
Already he displayed the outspoken bravado for which he was famous. Interviewed in the ring immediately after the fight, he said, “I don't have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest.”
His own assessment of himself stuck.
But the following morning he delivered an even more stunning blow when he confirmed the rumours of his involvement with the Nation of Islam. This militant black separatist movement was growing in influence and challenging the hegemony of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.
Clay was being mentored by Malcolm X, the Nation’s most charismatic figure.
He announced that he was changing his name. “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”
As a result of his radical activity Ali’s white corporate sponsors, the boxing authorities and others including leading black boxers such as Floyd Patterson roundly denounced him for his lack of respect and gratitude.
Nobody could beat Ali in the ring, but three years later the US military tried to rein him in by drafting him to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali’s response was clear and emphatic, “No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slavemasters of the darker people the world over.”
He was at the height of his powers both physically and intellectually and knew that he was putting his livelihood and liberty at stake but he remained steadfast.
The price Ali paid was a heavy one. He was convicted by an all white jury of evading the draft and sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Though he never actually served time in jail the threat remained until his conviction was eventually overturned in June 1971.
Meanwhile he was stripped of his titles and governing bodies across the world including the British Boxing Board of Control revoked his licence to box.
Ali’s principled stance was indicative of a growing mood of opposition to the Vietnam war.
Marqusee highlights the fact that four days after he was ordered to report for duty in April 1967 a huge 125,000 strong anti-war rally was held in Central Park. His defiant declaration that he had nothing against the Vietnamese, “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.”
Such an outspoken stance gave other dissenters and the wider anti-war and anti racist movements a huge fillip.
Other sporting and cultural figures were to follow his lead including the athletes who gave the famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
I still cherish the early childhood memory of Ali’s bouts in the mid 1970s, particularly the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” when he reclaimed his world title from George Foreman. Back then very few black people appeared on TV and when they did it was invariably as villains, who were swiftly dispatched or buffoons to be ridiculed.
For millions of us across the world, regardless of whether he was officially recognised or not, Ali was our champion, handsome, brash, brilliant and with a razor sharp wit.
He was not without fault. The manner in which he goaded his great rival Joe Frazier, dismissing him as an “ugly and ignorant gorilla” was spiteful and played to racial stereotypes. His decision to carry on fighting well beyond his peak was partly due to his own vanity. But the primary reason however was because of the greed of those who had exploited him throughout his career, stripping him of much of his wealth.
Ali finally retired after humiliating defeats against his former sparring partner Larry Holmes and a journeyman Trevor Berbick in 1980 and 81. By this time he was already suffering the early onset of the Parkinson's Syndrome that was to afflict him so dramatically in later life.
As is so often the case with radical figures, there has been a concerted attempt to reinvent and sanitise Ali. For example he was chosen to light the torch at the opening of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He appeared as proud and defiant as ever, but watching him struggle to raise the torch, one could not help but contrast the trembling figure with the magnificent athlete of his heyday.
The passage of the baton to a new generation is intended to symbolise the Olympic ideal but there was also a wider significance. Here in the Deep South, the triumph of this black man was a further example of the enduring appeal of the American dream.
The act of reconciliation was supposedly completed by the presentation to him of a replacement gold medal. The organisers of London 2012 sought to repeat the feat by inviting Ali to carry the Olympic flag alongside figures such as Doreen Lawrence and Shami Chakrabharti.
Whether he was “the Greatest” as he himself so frequently claimed is a moot point amongst sports fans.
What should not be in doubt is that he was an outstanding figure in the struggle against racism, war and imperialism.