Muhammad Ali: A sporting personality who changed the world

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A look back at the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali

To be sport's greatest must perversely be about more than sporting achievement. For running or jumping or kicking or fighting to matter to us, we have to be touched by the human soul behind the biomechanics.

No sportsman has touched more lives than Muhammad Ali. No sportsman has been celebrated so widely and deeply, and none will be mourned in quite the same way.

To talk of Ali as a champion heavyweight boxer is like saying the Beatles had a collective ear for melody. His skills in his chosen vocation were unmatched, but the effect they had on the world went far beyond those narrow proficiencies.

We often try to equate sport with more than just exceptional physical ability in one obtuse role. A man who can hit a small stationary ball more sweetly than any other is assumed to have similarly transcendent character. A woman who can run faster than any other born must live by a superior moral code.

Muhammad Ali and the Beatles
The boxing legend posed with the Beatles during their maiden US tour

It is the sort of veneration that has as much to do with making us feel better about our sporting obsessions as it does with self-delusion. It helps us believe that what we are watching goes beyond bread and circuses, and is more than a mere distraction from the crueller realities elsewhere.

Ali was different. Confronted with moral challenges that would have defeated us as easily as the physical battles he fought, he proved himself superior to most of us in that sphere too.

He may have stumbled into his most famous stance; his famous comment on being drafted ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong") was such a throwaway line that reporter Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times, interviewing him outside his house, initially missed it.

Once convinced, he was unshakeable. All of us can argue for our principles. Some will march for them. Fewer are prepared to go to jail; fewer still give up all we have plus a golden promise yet to mature.

The Greatest, in his own words
"It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."
"I'm the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today."
"If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologise."
"Will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry and is as tall and extra pretty as me?"

And it was never about veneration. We loved Ali because he did things we never could and shared our flaws too. Never an angel, always an inspiration; both real and unreal. He was a man with ample capacity for controversy.

"Put a hand on a Muslim sister, and you are to die," he once told an interviewer from Playboy. "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman."

"And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks - or white men, for that matter?" asked the reporter. "Then she dies," said Ali. "Kill her, too."

He was a man who could cruelly taunt an outstanding comrade in Joe Frazier and draw accusations of hypocrisy for his relentless extra-marital adventures. He could be naïve and he could be foolish.

He was forgiven not because others shared all those militant views or chose to forget them, but because they were part of his growth as a man and a character.

We cannot understand what it is like to float and sting as he could in the ring, but we recognise in his life how our own personalities have been formed and developed, how young radicalism softens with age, how we have made our own mistakes and tried to make recompense.

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Archive: Stars tributes to Ali at 70

Ali may have made his era, but the era also made him. His imperfections reflected the attitudes and beliefs he was surrounded by, even as his actions changed so many others.

He was forgiven too for another, simpler reason: the joy his public performances and personality would bring, not just to those who liked his sport but to those who had no previous care for it.

Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have also converted the non-believers. Roger Federer made sport look like performance art, Sachin Tendulkar turned statistical accumulation into physical poetry.

But perhaps only Usain Bolt, of subsequent superstars, has got close to that same symbiosis with their audience: two smiling assassins of cynicism, making something which can be so serious seem so much fun, taking all of us along with them on the ride.

Neither were we alone. At the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards in 1999, when Ali polled more votes than all the other contenders put together to be crowned Personality of the Century, he transformed the greatest sportsmen and women of their generation from icons into an adoring audience.

Ali's boxing career
Born in Louisville, Kentucky on 17 January 1942Turned professional later in 1960 and was world heavyweight champion from 1964 to 1967, 1974 to 1978 and 1978 to 1979
Won Olympic light-heavyweight gold in 1960Had 61 professional bouts, winning 56 (37 knockouts, 19 decisions), and losing five (four decisions, one retirement)

All of them - world champions, Olympic gold medallists, multi-millionaires - wanted to touch his hand. Superstars become fan-boys and autograph hunters.

Ignore that infamous US Army IQ test which gave Ali a score of 78. He is loved because he understood how to connect with us all - whether you shook his hand or saw him dance in the ring before you, whether you watched old tapes years later or listened to the street poet stand-up quotes, whether you grew up in Louisville, Lagos or London.

Like the Beatles, his fellow cultural revolutionaries, he established the rules and then ripped them up; unlike the Beatles, he fell away and then came back stronger, as if they had split only to reform with something better than Revolver, as if they had been superseded by punk only to come back as the best live act in the world.

It is why parents have been tutoring their kids reverently on Ali for years, and why on Saturday morning it was so hard for so many to encapsulate how they felt about his death.

Lennox Lewis (left), with Sports Personality of the Century, Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was awarded with the BBC Sports Personality of the Century

Trying to explain to my five-year-old son why his dad, granddad and his granny were all so quiet, how the death of a man they had never met thousands of miles away could affect them so much, the best I could come up with was that Muhammad Ali had made the world a better place.

When that phrase is usually employed it typically refers to the intimate circle around one individual. They made their world a better place.

Not so for Ali. And that is why the hours after his passing feel like both a lamentation and celebration. We want to hold his irresistible animation as close as we can, for there can never be another like him, not this time.