REMEMBERING THE GREATEST
The Greatest left us on June 3, 2016, but his spirit, example and unforgettable memories will live on forever. Muhammad Ali represented the soundtrack of my life. I grew up with him and his fabulous career. What a lucky man I’ve been.
ALI IN THE FLESH
One May evening in 1963, I was 13 years old and on my way home from a school cricket match in my hometown of Nottingham, England. (I played for St, Bernadette’s, Sneinton.) As I walked past the Victoria Hotel at the bottom of Mansfield Road, in the center of town, I saw a huge crowd spilling into the street blocking traffic. To get a better look, I went up the steps of the Mechanics Cinema that faced the hotel. From this lofty vantage point, I was able to see that the focus of the crowd's attention was Cassius Clay (he didn't become Muhammad Ali until early 1964). He was in town to attend a British middleweight championship bout and was using it as an opportunity to publicize a fight he had the following week in London with British champ Henry Cooper.
Dressed In a brown blazer, tan slacks and a crisp white shirt with a dark tie, he was sartorial sophistication personified. His skin glowed with the health of a honed 21-year-old athlete, and at 6'3'' he stood head and shoulders above the crowd. I stared transfixed, as if I'd seen a God and remember vividly the grace and elegance which accompanied his every move and gesture. His voice boomed across the city, "I can't ever be beat. I'm gonna whup Henry Cooper!" It's a memory that's as fresh to me today as it was the instant I witnessed it.
In 1989 I saw him again in Nottingham when he was doing a book signing at Sissons & Parker. He hadn’t fought in eight years and this time was seated as he signed copies of his book. He was heavier, a little puffy in the face and the early symptoms of Parkinson’s was evident with his slurred speech and trembling hand. But he still looked like a God to me. The comparison between the 1963 Ali and the 1989 version was stark. In similar cases one would bemoan the decline of a great athlete. But it was different with Ali. He never felt sorry for himself so we weren’t allowed to either. In some ways the manner in which he dealt with the growing ravages of his illness over the years somehow enhanced his nobleness. Who can forget him lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Games in Atlanta? It could have been embarrassing as he shuffled out with his arms shaking. But such was his sheer presence, the almost universal love he engendered, that he carried it off with dignity and style. It sort of reminded me that when he was knocked down in his 1971 fight with Joe Frazier the way he went down was with a poise that was almost balletic. The man was pure class.
THE LAST HURRAH?
In 1974 I went to Nottingham’s Ice Stadium to watch a live broadcast of his Rumble In The Jungle fight with George Foreman. I went with the mood of going to the funeral of a close friend. Foreman was a fearsome puncher, eight years younger than Ali, and almost everyone predicted he would win by knockout. I feared my God would be badly hurt but he had given us so many iconic memories the least I could do was be there at the end however painful it would be to watch. Oh, Peter, ye of little faith, hadn’t you learned to never doubt The Greatest? Although the rope-a-dope strategy is now the stuff of legend it wasn’t clear at the start as Foreman came in swinging those thunderous punches and one feared for Ali. Then in the eighth round, in the greatest sporting moment I have ever witnessed, Ali spun the tired giant around and with marksman like precision stunned Foreman with a left and then a right. As Foreman swayed past on his way to the canvas, Ali had his right fist cocked ready for the coup-de-grace but declined to do so, almost as if he was admiring his handiwork and decided why spoil a thing of beauty? Of the 10,000 inside the Ice Stadium maybe 80% were of West Indian origin, and they were screaming and standing on their seats in acclaim of their champion and what they had just seen. For an instant I wondered why I could still see the screen despite the crowd standing on their seats. Then I looked down and realized I was standing on my seat and yelling like a dervish. It was like 4.00am in the morning and I went home but couldn’t sleep such was the constant adrenaline rush.
From that high of course Ali went on too long and was beaten by fighters he would have dispatched with ease in his prime.
In my view Muhammad Ali was and is the greatest, most inspirational (in and out of the ring) most charismatic athlete in history. What a fighter he was. What a man he is. What a legend and icon he remains. What a legacy he leaves. Rest in peace champ. Thank you for all those fabulous memories. You sure shook up the world and we will never see your like again.