In Praise Of Ali

inpraiseof-AliOf course, there are other sporting occasions that have a slow-burn of anticipation and an ability to spring surprise from what can appear a pre-ordained drama or a lost cause: the recent second-half mauling of the All Blacks, the resurrection of Manchester United in the final ten minutes of the European Cup final. It is at such moments that sport enlarges for us the realms of the possible. But there is little that can compare with the steady spotlight that was brought to bear on the most fearsome and the most famous fighters on the planet as all the jigsaw pieces leading to Zaire fell into place.

Did Ali see what we saw when he looked at Foreman – and Liston before him? Doubtful. LeRoi Jones, for example, described the force of Liston as “the bad nigger, a heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world. He is the underdeveloped, have-not, backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.” Ali, however, both cleverly and cruelly turned Foreman into the “white man’s nigger”, while claiming that he, himself, was quite naturally immune to the white’s racial fears. Certainly, looking at the avuncular creation Foreman has become, we have to ask if Ali didn’t genuinely see past the hype.

When “the Rumble in the Jungle” finally came together 25 years ago, I was living in Madrid and the only place where the fight was almost live was American Forces Radio. However, all they broadcast were between-round summaries. As I waited, once more in the small hours, for the fight to start, my American friend Mark told me how one afternoon, during his three-year lay-off, Ali and his retinue had pulled up in a Cadillac in one of the southern states and offered five bucks to anyone who could hit him. Mark’s father had been there. “Beautiful; he said the man was beautiful.”

We were both big Ali fans and greeted the end of each round with joyful relief – though the way Ali was fighting didn’t fill us with optimism. So the end, when it came, was volcanic and instantly memorable. Yet I wonder, has any sporting event in history been revisited so much? It runs before our eyes in endless re-runs, articles, interviews and memoirs; and two works, Norman Mailer’s The Fight and the documentary When We Were Kings, look set to last.

A greatly changed Ali remains caught in the spotlight; most memorably shakily lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. Joe Frazier, still hurting, commented, “I’d happily have pushed him in.”The pictures and the memoirs hold these two images before us: the supreme athlete and this wavering, gentle man. Ali may not be everyone’s idea of a Greek hero, except once perhaps in physique and beauty, but he has given eloquent voice to man’s place in the scheme of things. “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly to, do we?” Certainly, though he has used his image generously, he has been unable, his wings so sadly clipped, to emulate Gene Tunney in creating a post-fight career that might in some way divert attention from his pugilistic achievements.

When he came to Edinburgh a few years ago, my friend Jack queued for hours to meet him and had to settle for a distant photo. If he’d made it, I imagine he might have said something along the lines of “love you man”. As I would. He was a hero to small boys with sticking-out ears and to men whose lives had been lived in the shallows. I hope the dignity he shows now reflects his knowledge of this fact. As Bundini put it all those years ago in Kinshasa: “They out there cheerin’ cause their blood is pourin’ into somebody they love.”

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  1. Paulie


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