Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Home Sport Boxing

Legendary figure Muhammad Ali gave a voice to the voiceless

Champion of civil rights always spoke his mind

By Ian Herbert

He spoke the unspeakable in a way which marked him above all others who have commanded sport's great stage. That's why Muhammad Ali leaves such a monumental vacuum behind for those of us who chronicle sport in the here and now.

The power to inspire through words was never instilled in him by an education system: that is the greatest irony of all. Ali was only semi-literate and when he was ordered to undergo a 50-minute written examination at an Army induction centre in 1964 registered a score so low that they declared his IQ to be 78, said he was ineligible for active service, and even retested him to make sure he wasn't feigning ignorance. Needless to say, he wasn't.

This embarrassed him - questions of his own minimal education always did - so he hit back with humour. "I said I was the greatest," he told reporters. "Not the smartest."

More: Muhammad Ali acclaimed in death as he was in life - world prepares to say farewell to sporting colossus

When American troop levels in Vietnam escalated to such levels that he qualified for service after all, journalists beat a path to his door, sensing a big story about a world champion being drafted at the peak of his career.

"What do you think about the war? What about the Vietcong?" one of them asked him - and quite honestly, Ali stumbled, because he didn't know what he thought of the war or of American president Lyndon B Johnson or of Vietnam. "Man," Ali said eventually, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Those eight words, uttered by an American world champion, were sensational, went around the world, and yet were no more than a blurted piece of improvisation.

"When he was thrust into the middle of the national agony, he reacted, as he did in the ring, with speed and with wit," as the writer and journalist David Remnick put it.

Ali's rejection of the draft was an even more dangerous and high risk stance than his rage against the injustice of the nation's racial divide had been.

More: His courage in and out of the ring captured us all

It provoked a visceral response from America and its journalists and saw him stripped of his WBA title and an income he desperately needed.

So where, you wonder, is that same spirit of courage and principle among those who now command the world's attention through sport. Where are the carriers of Ali's torch?

There was a time when we thought Tiger Woods might be the great voice of the disenfranchised in his own dismally mono-cultural sport, yet that hope has long since evaporated; drowned by his pursuit of less spiritual goals. The Masters is a white man's game. The black people sweep the Augusta National club's carpets, serve lunch and then leave work for homes on the impoverished other side of the tracks.

There has been the same deafening response to racial iniquities from basketball's Michael Jordan. A friend asked him why he wouldn't endorse a black Democratic candidate in 1990 North Carolina Senate race. "Republicans buy shoes too," he said.

The reluctance to touch anything remotely political exists within British shores, too.

More: Day I met a legend, by DUP man Storey

Football carries a wealth beyond Ali's comprehension yet when this correspondent sought those from that sport to articulate the need for compassion for refugees seeking British sanctuary last year, there was nothing. Word came back from one whose family had actually experienced asylum that they did not want to "rock the boat."

No-one wants to do that, it seems. There are vastly more people paid salaries to anaesthetize and make safe the words of today's competitors than there are competitors to utter them. It is a choreography and control which was unknowable to Ali - supreme and quite beautiful incarnation of spontaneity, as he was.

He spoke and competed off the cuff. To hell with what people thought of him for that.

10. Harry Greb
Ring career: 1913-26 Record: 105-8-3 (48 KOs) and 183 no-decisions
By comparison to some in his era, Greb had a relatively brief career but packed so much into it, winning the world middleweight title in 1923 and defending it six times over the next three years. In 1922, he became the only boxer to defeat future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney – the man who dethroned the great Jack Dempsey
10. Harry Greb Ring career: 1913-26 Record: 105-8-3 (48 KOs) and 183 no-decisions By comparison to some in his era, Greb had a relatively brief career but packed so much into it, winning the world middleweight title in 1923 and defending it six times over the next three years. In 1922, he became the only boxer to defeat future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney – the man who dethroned the great Jack Dempsey
9. Benny Leonard (Right holding back Harry Houdini centre) Ring career: 1911-32 Record: 85-5-1 (69 KOs) and 121 no-decisions Leonard won the world lightweight title in 1917 and retired as champion in 1925, making him the longest-reigning lightweight champion in history. After more than seven years he returned to the ring, winning 18 of his 19 bouts. Indeed, at one stage he had gone 154 fights without defeat. Of five losses, three were in his formative ring years, one was on a foul when challenging for the welterweight championship and one was the final contest of his caree to fellow legend Jimmy McLarnin. He later became a referee and collapsed and died in the ring while refereeing a bout. (Everett/REX Shutterstock 908752a)
8. Manny Pacquaio Ring career: 1995-present. Record: 57-6-2 (38KOs) Named Fighter of the Decade for the 2000s by the Boxing Writers of America, Pacquaio is the first boxer to win world titles in eight divisions – starting with the WBC flyweight title. A huge hero in the Philippines, his homeland comes to a standstill to watch their hero in action. A phenomenal athlete, he holds wins over legends such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar De La Hoya, Erik Morales and Shane Mosley on the way from flyweight to welterweight glory. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
7. Floyd Mayweather Jr Ring career: 1996-present. Record: 49-0 (24 KOs) Mayweather's place in an all-time top 10 may well be disputed by many who find it hard to appreciate his style which is founded on a slick defence. But the Noble Art is about hitting and not being hit and Mayweather fits that mould perfectly. From super-featherweight through to light-middleweight he has thwarted numerous great fighters, including Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
6. Roberto Duran Ring career: 1968-2001 Record: 103-16 (70 KOs) Won the lightweight World title from Ken Buchanan in 1972 and then proceeded to dominate the division for seven years with his ferocious intensity and smart boxing skills. Duran would then lift the welterweight title when he outpointed Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. Five months later he lost to Leonard but would go on to win the light-middleweight title three years later and in 1989 produced an amazing performance to outpoint Iran Barkley and land the WBC World super-middleweight crown
5. Sugar Ray Leonard Ring career: 1977-97 Record: 36-3-1 (25 KOs) Leonard managed to stand out in an era of legends, winning great fights against Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marverlous Marvin Hagler. The 'Four Kings' as they would come to be known, captured the sporting world in the early 1980s. Leonard won the WBC World welterweight title before unifying the division with a stoppage of Hitman Hearns. He would go on to win world titles at light-middle, middle, super-middle and light-heavyweight. Famously, having lost to Duran in an epic brawl, he forced the Panamanian to quit in their re-match, forever known as the 'No Mas' fight. (Mike Powell/Allsport)
4. Muhammad Ali Ring career: 1960-81 Record: 56-5 (37 KOs) Ali transcended the sport unlike any other boxer and was for many the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century. His speed and grace in the ring for a heavyweight were a sight to behold and even when the footwork was slowing down he had the fortitude to stand up to awesome punchers like George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in the 1970s. The first man to win the World heavyweight title three times, his first reign came when as a 7-1 outsider Ali stopped Sonny Liston in 1964. He regained the title 10 years later with his epic victory over Foreman in 'The Rumble in the Jungle'. Lost and then defeated Leon Spinks in 1978 to win the title for a third time. (Trevor Humphries/Getty Images)
3. Willie Pep (R) Ring career: 1940-66 Record: 230-11-1 (65 KOs) The two-time world featherweight champion was renowned for his defensive skills, enjoying amazing success despite suffering near-fatal injuries in a plane crash in 1947. Known as Will o' the Wisp, Pep won his first 63 fights before losing to Sammy Angott, and then went 72-0-1 before losing again to Sandy Saddler with whom he had four epic encounters.
2. Henry Armstrong (L) Ring career: 1932-45 Record: 151-21-9 (101 KOs) Armstrong is the only boxer to hold world titles at three different weights simultaneously. In an age when there was only one world champion and just eight weight divisions, he won the featherweight title crown in October 1937 before winning the welterweight title in May 1938 and became lightweight champion three months later. Dubbed Homicide Hank, he also fought for the world middleweight title in 1940, holding Ceferino Garcia to a draw. In all, he faced 17 world champions and defeated 15 of them. (ANL/REX Shutterstock 1381703a)
1. Sugar Ray Robinson Ring career: 1940-65 Record: 175-19-6-2 (109 KOs) Born Walker Smith, he would go on to become the supreme ring combatant, Sugar Ray Robinson, winning World titles at welterweight and middleweight. The welterweight title came in December 1946 and he defended it four times before stepping up to middleweight on the back of a solitary loss in 124 bouts. He would become a five-time world middleweight champion, defeating such legends as Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta and Gene Fullmer. His only stoppage defeat came when losing to Joey Maxim for the world light-heavyweight title – a bout fought in such extreme heat that the referee had to be replaced in the 10th round. (Allsport Hulton/Archive)

More: Carl adds his voice to those eulogising king of the ring Ali

At Manchester's Moss Fire station boxing club, an unprepossessing little place bursting with life and ambition, you saw yesterday that this is why Ali has continued to speak to so many down the years of his own years of physical deterioration. Vast images of him overlook the ring where young men and women seize the sport as a channel for their lives. It is still the humour of his message that screams out to them.

"Some of it was just the ultimate trash talking; just brilliant trash talk," says 16-year-old prospect and ABA youth championships fighter Malakai Dixon. "He used it to make people hear the things that mattered. In a small way, I think I'm here because of him."

Dixon, like everyone else around here, loved what they saw of Ali for his beautiful moment, his incredibly fast feet and his combinations, but most of all because he made him smile with such a glorious lack of self-importance. When it became known that the club was the place BBC Radio 5 had made the focus of conversation and memories about Ali on Sunday morning, people dropped in to talk.

A schoolteacher, Sandra Smith-Brown, spoke of sitting up with her late father, Wintie Smith, a coal miner, willing Ali to win on the televised fights because of the sense of the soaring belief he had created in their predominantly black community.

Sometimes the fight would still be going on when she, still a child then, departed to bed.

Mr Smith would tap on her door as he departed for the mine the next morning." He won the fight! He won the fight!" he would whisper to her.

They loved Ali because he spoke for them but also because he saw a world of need beyond his own ego.

Ali saw a world beyond his own ego. It's why his job was done long before he was lifted for the last time from his rocking chair beneath the shady trees of his ranch at Berrien Springs, Michegan, last Thursday. "You don't own nothing," he once said.

"You're just a trustee in this life."

Belfast Telegraph

How to Complain

If you have a complaint about the editorial content of the Belfast Telegraph or Sunday Life then contact the Editor here. If you are not satisfied with the response provided then you can contact the Independent Press Standards Organisation here

Read More


From Belfast Telegraph