Ali: Boxer, campaigner, doodler



“If you can marry your supreme talent in the hardest sport in the world to your bravery and dignity as a cultural and social giant then, when they say the word ‘legend’ I believe he actually will become one. People will wonder how somebody could have done that.”


BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Danny Baker articulated the two well-known strands of Muhammad Ali’s life within hours of the iconic boxer’s death at the age of 74 and in doing so Baker pinpoints why the American athlete was more than a three-time heavyweight champion.


Despite having watched When We Were Kings in my teenage years and having an awareness of Ali’s boxing career my consumption of stories reflecting on Ali’s life over the course of the last two days or so has expanded my knowledge of the Olympic gold medallist but it’s also left me with two questions/thoughts.




– Ali once went to New Zealand. Touring the nation in 1979 for exhibition bouts in Auckland Ali started his tour in Wellington during which he commented. “Nine people out of 10 in the United States don’t know this place exists. Like Columbus discovered America, I’ve discovered you.”


– In addition to visiting New Zealand he also spent time in Australia. Like he did in New Zealand, at times of the trip he, ‘came to see blackfellas’ as outlined in this brilliant Joe O’Gorman story from just last year.


– Despite his rightful arrogance Steve Bunce noted in the Independent that Ali was often a vindictive person. Going above and beyond the normal braggadocio of promoting a boxing bout Ali drove small matters to the extreme and often overstepped the mark in using illegal tactics during some bouts. Bunce’s analysis comes from a time before Ali’s death so provides some context and doesn’t fall into the category of ‘not speaking ill of the dead’. Like all humans he is mortal, and flawed.


– Ali didn’t want his one of his daughters, Leila, to box. As reflected upon by Richard Hinds across News Corporation publications in Australia Ali, the younger, who compiled a 24-0 record did fight and her father’s earlier comments (“Because women think they can do the things that men can do, but I don’t really think so”) gave way to parental pride.


– In 1981 in Los Angeles Ali talked a man down from a building who was contemplating suicide. Josh Levin from Slate delved into the scenario.


– Ali’s declining health and eventual diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease was evident in media appearances. His final appearance with Michael Parkinson was just so sad when you compare it to the previous interviews across the decade span in which he appeared on the British broadcaster’s famous program. I think I must have only seen the early interviews but hearing just the audio of the last interview was very sombre, despite the occasional quips from Ali.


– My first brush with sporting royalty, and probably the most notable, came when my neighbour and I at the time in Canberra meet footballing legend Pele when the Brazilian star was visiting well after his playing career at the elite level was over. I can’t remember for what, but there was an AIS youth team game on at the time inside the main athletics track. Most fans left at halftime after Pele departed the venue. I doubt whether the reverse would happen in a sporting context for other athletes but this cartoon was a very poignant contribution from footballing cartoonist Omar Momani.




– BBC Athletics and Boxing Broadcaster Mike Costello made an interesting statement. In paraphrasing Costello’s excellent contribution to the BBC Radio 5 coverage of the death on Saturday the commentator said ‘Ali was the best heavyweight we have ever seen but also the best heavyweight we have never seen’ given his three-year virtual sporting exile for electing not to take up military service at the age of 25. How many athletes could claim such a title in their own sport? Maybe some South African athletes, ironically, forced from competition due to apartheid? World Wars/Military Service?


– In his excellent piece on The Ringer website Keith Olbermann touched on many strands of Ali’s his life including noting Ali’s propensity for doodling images during press conferences. This was confirmed by New Zealand boxing promoter Russell Clark when speaking on Radio Sport. Clark said the only memento he had of Ali’s ’79 trip was a doddle made during a dinner. There has to be many of these pieces out there? Someone needs to merge these into an online essay/gallery as a tribute. Over to you internet. #alisdoodles

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.


  1. Perhaps the best American example of an athlete who lost a large portion of his career in his prime is baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who missed all of 1943, ’44 and ’45 as a Navy aviator and instructor in WWII (age 25-27) and then missed most of 1952 and ’53 when he was recalled (unhappily) from inactive service to serve as a Marine fighter pilot in Korea (he flew 39 combat missions). He played from 1939 until 1960 but missed about 700 games due to military service. Many major league baseball players lost two or three years to WWII, but Williams was the rare example who served in two wars.

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