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As I see it: Ali was pure poetry both in and out of the ring

By Sam Leith

Published 11/06/2016

Sam Leith
Sam Leith

Ten years ago I interviewed Seamus Heaney. He spoke admiringly of a number of poets - Yeats, of course, but also Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stevens and ... Muhammad Ali. His face creased with delight as he quoted the poem Ali delivered extempore at a lecture in Harvard in 1975: "Me? Whee!"

Nobody, perhaps, has ever made egotism so attractive as Ali. Nobody has dissed others so charmingly and so without rancour.

What made Ali so captivating was not the speed of his fists, of course, but the sharpness of his wit. There was such a lightness to him - such mirth - in a trade where the currency is punches in the face and an America where, for a poor black man in the South, there was little to be mirthful about.

His refusal of the draft for Vietnam can barely be bettered as a compressed expression of feeling: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

"If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow.

"I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail. So what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

Go through that with a rhetorician's eye and you see perfectly balanced sentences and a killer pay-off. A punchline.

For Ali boxing could take place in the mind, rather than the fists. There's a special cruelty that Parkinson's took Ali.

Heaney's friend Ted Hughes once wrote to his son: "As the Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you." Ali, though no saint, certainly did that.

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