Woke up this morning to hear that Mohammed Ali has died. I remember his first fights - in the 1960s - when he was still known as Cassius Clay. My dad allowed me to stay up late to watch his fights, beamed into our living room on our black & white TV. I wasn’t just allowed to watch; I remember my dad insisting. No great sports fan, he nevertheless seemed to know that something special was happening.
From the beginning Cassius Clay was a showman. He predicted, in rhyming couplets, the round in which he would knock his next opponent out… and he did. He said he was “the prettiest”… and he was. He boasted that he was “the greatest” and, in coming back to become world champion three times, he silenced his critics.
I remember his boxing style. He was light on his feet and danced around the ring (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”). He mocked his more ponderous opponents. He leaned back on the ropes (“rope-a-dope”), let an opponent tire himself out, then went for the knock-out.
He gave up what he called his “slave name”, embraced Islam and called himself Mohammed Ali. He was banned from boxing, during what might have been his most successful years, because he refused to fight in Vietnam. At the time he was denounced for taking a stand against the war. Yet, in the years that followed, his reputation grew and grew, to the point of idolatry, and, for the rest of his life, he was probably the best-known person on the planet.
Strange: a black man, a convert to Islam, who was beyond criticism, beyond reproach… a sporting hero who transcended sport and resonated with people from every country, every culture. He never led a civil rights march, yet he probably did more for race relations, and the status of black people, than anyone else in America…