October 8th, 2002

Muhammad Ali

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian)

Since 1996, when a trembling, 54 year old Muhammad Ali grappled manfully with an Olympic torch that at one point threatened to engulf the sleeve of his sweatshirt in flames, he has become the subject of a welter of retrospective affection.

Literature has abounded, from The Tao Of Muhammad Ali to David Remnick’s King Of The World. There was Leon Gast’s long-delayed documentary When We Were Kings and reissues of classic Parkinson interviews.

It wasn’t always thus – in 1992, I was among just a handful of fans outside London’s Sportspages, where Ali had finished a booksigning session. He shook our hands, demonstrated that, Parkinson’s Syndrome notwithstanding, he was still capable of a lightning fast Ali shuffle. His travel budget, however, was evidently incapable of stretching to anything more extravagant than a black cab, flagged down on Charing Cross Road, to whisk him away.

Retrospective affection for Ali at 60, however, is huge and has been marked with the release of Michael Mann’s ambitious but turgid and unengaging biopic of the champ. Mann seems a little embarrassed by Ali’s twinkling showmanship, prefers to depict him as a soulful, troubled figure.

Truth is, Ali was brave, brilliant, beautiful, hilarious, an undoubted hero. He was not, however, statesmanlike, not perhaps especially deep, not, by his own admission, academically smart. He made dumb choices, let bad and bizarre things happen to him. And yet, that was all part of the huge fun and fuss that surrounded by the Great Man, the ridiculous jumbled spontaneously with the sublime.

Here, then, are 12 things you never (or forgot) you knew about Muhammad Ali . .

* When Ali encountered a distinguished, ninetysomething English fellow prior to his fight with Henry Cooper, he asked him his opinion on the outcome. “Our ‘Enry’s capable but I think you’ll win.” Ali responded with the same line he threw John Lennon among others; “You’re not as dumb as you look.” He had no idea at the time he was addressing the eminent philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell and later wrote to him to apologise. Fortunately, the author of Principia Mathematica took no offence at Ali’s backhanded compliment and the pair exchanged correspondence until Russell’s death in 1970, with Russell writing Ali letters of encouragement concerning his stand on the Vietnam war.

* Perhaps Ali’s strangest fight took place in 1976 in Tokyo against a Japanese wrestler named Antonio Inoki. Dubbed “the martial arts championship of the world”, it was supposed to be a fix, in time honoured wrestling fashion, with Inoki as the bad guy doing a “Pearl Harbour” on the champ. However, Ali’s conscience forbade him to enter into such deceit and, to Inoki’s horror, he decided to fight “for real”. The terrified wrestler spent most of the fifteen tedious rounds in a crablike, virtually horizontal crouch, occasionally kicking Ali in the legs, causing him serious blood clots, worsened when they brought in a Turkish masseur to try to assuage them. The “fight”, broadcast worldwide, was declared a draw.

* Few people have enjoyed the cordial admiration (often reciprocated) of the world’s less savoury dictators as Muhammad Ali. In his time, he has met Castro, Idi Amin, Colonel Ghadaffi, as well as former President Mobutu of Zaire, who put up the money for Ali’s fight with George Foreman and Ferdinand Marcos of The Phillipines who graciously hosted the “Thriller in Manilla” with Joe Frazier. Ali’s affable way with such despots paid dividends in November 1990 when he travelled to Iraq to meet personally with Saddam Hussein and came away with 15 of the 300 or so Americans then being held hostage prior to the Gulf War.

* Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier was his hardest. His subsequent fight, however, in 1976 against one Jean-Pierre Coopman, was his easiest. Risibly dubbed “The Lion Of Flanders”, Coopman was a Belgian journeyman so grateful to be in the same ring as Ali that he treated himself to copious amounts of champagne in the dressing room beforehand and even between rounds. Ali laughed out loud when his “challenger” approached him, patted him about for five rounds then humanely dispatched him. Coopman was treated as a national hero in Belgium for his courage and embarked on a lengthy lecture tour of his country recounting his exploits.

* Ali is master of a number of magic tricks, including levitation. However, to the exasperation of his fellow prestidigitators, he insists on explaining to his audience how the trick works, as Allah forbids deception of any kind.

* Although Ali earned some $50 million during his fight career, much of this was frittered away on some of the more parasitic elements of his entourage and the shysters who preyed on his generous spirit. The hardest man in the world was also the softest touch in the world. When a team of financial lawyers tried to set his affairs in order, they found that they were unable to secure him certain sponsorship deals because of previous contractual commitments he had obligingly entered into. A deal with Chrysler, for instance, had to be abandoned when it was discovered that at some earlier stage, Ali had been convinced to sign a contract to manufacture the ‘Muhammad Ali automobile’. The brand, sadly, never materialised.

* Not all of Ali’s diplomatic missions were as successful as his trip to Iraq. In 1979, President Carter persuaded Ali to undertake a tour of African nations, to persuade them to join America’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The trip backfired, however – for all Ali’s stature, the Tanzanians were deeply insulted that the Government had sent a sports star on a diplomatic mission. “Would the United States send Chris Evert to negotiate with London?” they asked. Prior to his fight against George Foreman in Zaire, Ali had also given inadvertent offence. A poster hyping the bout reading “From the slave ship to the Championship” had to be scrapped, while other Africans took offence at Ali’s repeated jibes to white American reporters; “You come to Africa and talk like that and we’ll cook you!”

* During his lay off between 1967 and 1970, Ali appeared in a musical entitled Buck White, singing several numbers and receiving a number of complimentary notices for his performance. It could be that the critics were being kind to a great fighter down on his luck, as anyone who has ever heard Ali’s version of “Stand By Me”, one of the worst performances ever inflicted in a recording studio, will attest.

* Following an excruciatingly one-sided championship bout against a merciful Larry Holmes in 1980, in which the 38 year old ex-champ was already showing signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome, Ali astonishing fought once more – against Trevor Berbick in Nassau in late 1981. No TV network would touch the fight, for which tickets were made available in a supermarket. A cowbell had to be used to signal the end of rounds. Ali lost to Berbick, whom Tyson would later defeat to become world heavyweight champion.

*In 1970, Ali agreed to stage an exhibition fight with Fifties heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano as part of a farcical televised effort to determine which of the two was the greatest. Marciano slimmed down and wore a toupee for the bout, which was filmed with various endings. Feeding data from their sparring into a computer, Marciano was ludicrously determined as the victor and US audiences saw Marciano “knock out” Ali. However, this so enraged Europeans that an alternative version was screened for them, with Ali winning on cuts. Marciano died three weeks later in a plane crash.

* One of Ali’s daughters, Maryum, is a stand-up comedian. More famously, his daughter Laila is a boxer. In a much-touted “grudge” match, Laila Ali defeated 39 year old Jacqui Frazier, daughter of Ali’s nemesis Joe, over 8 rounds by a close majority decision.

* The last knockdown of Ali’s career was against Britain’s Richard Dunn, more of a Coopman than a Cooper. In the fifth round, Ali shook Dunn to the core with a not especially devastating series of punches. Dunn did distinguish himself by connecting with Ali’s chin while seated on the canvas. Following the fight and still in the ring, Ali presented his gloves to promoter Mickey Duff to forward to British boxer Chris Finnegan. Ali bade Duff look inside the gloves. There, Ali had inscribed before the fight the words ALI WINS KO ROUND 5′.

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