'Muhammad Ali changed the way we see sport. There will never be another'

Posted by ap507 at Jun 06, 2016 04:25 PM |
John Williams discusses the legacy left behind by the boxing heavyweight

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I was 10 years of age, growing up north of Liverpool in February 1964 when I first heard about Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), who died last week.

I had almost certainly never met or spoken to a black person – there were none in my neighbourhood. At that time there was one champion, he was usually American and almost invariably black. Men in Britain typically caught title fights in the middle of the night on BBC radio, beamed from Miami Beach or the exotic-sounding Madison Square Garden.

The then heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, epitomised many of the negativities of the sport for its objectors. Liston had risen from a brutally poor and abusive sharecropping background, through a criminal past, to become a world icon. But he had alleged mob connections, was largely monosyllabic and was a reputed killer in the ring. Enter Cassius Clay.

At 22, apart from his ethnic heritage, Clay seemed to have little in common with the brooding Liston. Clay was "pretty", not "ugly" as the young man insisted his opponent was, and he danced and jabbed his way to victory in the ring rather than try to bludgeon his opponents into submission.

Clay also babbled cod poetry.Clay was politically attuned. He had won an Olympic gold medal on national service for the US in Rome in 1960, but later threw the medal into the Ohio River having been refused service in a US restaurant because he was black.Clay, a 7-1 outsider, beat Liston, a wonderful upset for a boy in Liverpool. He then changed his "slave name" to Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam before beating Liston a second time without appearing to throw a punch.

In the US, the new champion became something of a divisive public figure because of his braggart ways and his often vitriolic comments about race and inequality. In the UK, Ali seemed more embraced because of his incredible boxing skills, his humour and his obvious humanity.

When the US government tried to draft Ali for the Vietnam war in 1967, he refused, saying he had no beef with his brothers in south-east Asia.He was stripped of his title, but eventually returned to fight epic bouts with Joe Frazier in the early 1970s, before winning the title for an unprecedented third time against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

In his later life, now with Parkinson's disease, Ali mellowed and became almost universally loved. Foreman himself described him as simply "the greatest human being I ever met".

Few people in sport become important because of their character and political consciousness. Ali was not contained by his sport: he changed the way we see sport and the inequalities that both feed and dramatise it. For people of my generation, there will never be another.

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