Muhammad Ali

Was there ever a more compelling force of nature than the late Muhammad Ali? Here was a man of infinite grace, unquenchable pride, a fellow who transcended race or religion even as he addressed pivotal questions in both realms.


For those of us in our 50s, he wasn’t merely The Greatest because of what he achieved in a boxing ring. Indeed, strange as it may seem, those of us who weren’t aficionados of the fistic arts were doubly captivated by the Louisville Lip’s ability to rise above the sport or the sometimes grubby activities which surrounded his epochal victory against Sonny Liston in 1964 and the fabled Rumble in the Jungle a decade later.


First and foremost, Muhammad Ali possessed effortless charisma and personality to burn. Whenever he appeared on Michael Parkinson’s eponymous chat show in the 1960s and 1970s, he always held his audience in the palm of his hand with a beguiling mixture of wit, evangelical zeal and determination to tell the truth as he perceived it.


He was sport without the spin or PR nonsense. Nowadays, Ali would be taken aside by corporate lackeys and put through “communication courses” in a bid to transform him into a jargon-spouting automaton. Much good it would have done them in Ali’s case.


But, 50 years ago, it was still possible to parade your passions in public, especially if you were as articulate and courageous as this character. How many famous sporting luminaries were prepared to go to prison rather than fight in a war – in Vietnam – which he considered to be an obscenity? How many were ready to embrace another religion and proclaim their commitment to Islam in such a public fashion?


In the ring, Ali, of course, was a genuine nonpareil, mixing one-liners with punches and manoeuvres which inflicted torment and bewitched, bothered and bewildered so many opponents. He excelled at the Olympics in 1960 and emerged as as lustrous presence during JFK’s sadly ephemeral “New Frontier”. But those of us who watched him at his peak weren’t simply impressed by his elegance and Astaire-style rhythm even as he pummelled rivals.


Instead, we marvelled at how sublimely he tapped into the psyche of youth in the 1960s. He was a rebel WITH a cause: somebody who spoke up for civil rights, yet not just in the United States, but the whole world. It would have been easier for his family and friends if he had simply indulged in playful performances with Parky, but the evening where he reduced the Yorkshireman and his audience to impotent silence while launching into a tirade defending his race and his Islamic faith was as awe-inspiring as it was awkward for his host.


Later, it seemed dreadfully cruel that Muhammad Ali should be forced to battle with Parkinson’s syndrome, one fight he couldn’t win and which deprived him of his once-fertile powers of oratory and fertile wit. But even here, his sheer totemic presence, power and indomitability sent out an inspirational message.


At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he emerged with a tangible determination to ignite the Games spirit even to the extent where he was physically burned by the torch.


I can still remember the tears welling up in my eyes as I watched this once-wonderfully lithe and athletic man struggle to walk towards the podium. But he managed it, and you could detect him telling the world he was still a king all those years on from his heavyweight achievements.


It was the high point of the whole Olympics; thereafter, nothing could match his stamp of greatness.


As we woke to the news of his demise at 74, it was impossible not to reflect on his global impact. This is a man who will be mourned by people of all ages and political beliefs, of both sexes and 100 different faiths or none at all. He touched us all.


Somebody once said on hearing of the death of Duke Ellington: “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to”.


I’m inclined to echo the words in the case of Muhammad Ali.


  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic tribute, thanks Neil.
    I was 2 when Ali had his last bout, so it was through the “When Were Kings” documentary that I was properly introduced to his greatness.
    What a moment his lighting of the cauldron in Atlanta 1996 was.
    Sadly, boxing is a far cry from the greatness of the 60’s and 70’s. What an era.
    Ali Bomaye!

  2. Neil Drysdale says

    Thanks Luke, he ws one of the people who ignited my interest in sport, politics, show business, you name it, Muhammad Ali influenced it. It was sad to see his decline in later years, but what a phenomenal impact he had! Compared to most of today’s sporting luminaries, he was in a different universe!

  3. A fine tribute, Neil.
    I am looking forward to watching “When We Were Kings” again this week.
    In my opinion, close to the greatest sporting doco ever.
    RIP Muhammad Ali.

  4. Thanks

  5. bob.speechley says

    I remember clearly his momentous bouts with Sonny Liston. We’d drop everything, find a TV and sit enthralled watching them slug it out. Good vs Evil, Brute Strength vs Fine Touch. We always came away full of admiration for “The Greatest” and were impressed with his stance against conscription and his poetic line “Fly like a Butterfly & Sting like a Bee”.


  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Neil very well articulated,to be at the 98 gf when he did his lap of the ground before the game was a privilege the atmosphere as we all gave the great man a standard ovation was spine tingling
    ( easily the best pre game moment in afl history) i am not a lover of boxing,Ali transcended that a man of enormous character the world was better for his influence may he rest in peace

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Neil and RIP Muhammad Ali.
    Never been a fan of boxing, but Ali was a key figure in the civil rights movement and anti-war protests. His presence was much more important than sport as demonstrated in this powerful clip:
    Apparently, his heart was beating for 30 minutes after all his other organs failed. True champion who will never be forgotten

  8. Beautifully expressed Neil.

  9. Keiran Croker says

    I can also recommend “The Trials of Mohammed Ali” an excellent doco covering the era of his trial for draft evasion. It was at the MIFF a couple of years ago and has screened on SBS. Hopefully they will re-run it now.

  10. Stainless says

    Great tribute Neil.

    Sport is essentially trivial but it provides a platform for a select few to rise above their sporting achievements and make a bigger, more important contribution to the world. Without knowing much about his sporting career and despite loathing boxing, I can see that Ali was one of these people. As Rulebook rightly says, so did 95,000 others who gave him such an ovation at the ’98 Grand Final. A truly memorable moment.

  11. Sean Gorman says
  12. Spot on Neil. I’m so glad to have lived in this period. He was The Greatest .


  13. Pamela Sherpa says

    With the sadness of his passing comes the joy and great fortune that we can recall his memorable fights and life. Ali truly was the greatest sportsman of his time and I treasure the memories of his charisma, his confidence, his athleticism and his bravery.

  14. Well done Neil. I was never what you would call a boxing fan but you couldn’t fail to be captivated by Ali. I remember getting up at unearthly times in the morning to watch his fights on the wee black and white box. Exciting to watch. And then his appearances on Parkinson. Pure entertainment. There will never be the likes again. Stan

  15. Ali was the greatest figure in my life. His mastery of this most demanding sport ,his passion, his persona all encapsulate the person who only ever appears once in your lifetime.

    To beat blokes like Liston, (twice) Patterson, (twice), Cooper (twice), Frasier (twice), and Foreman indicates a sportsman at a peak very few ever get an where near . Overriding this were his human qualities, the humour, the stances against oppression and injustice; he combined so many admirable qualities.

    He is The Greatest.


  16. A fine piece Neil. The 1996 Olympics was probably the way in which Ali’s legacy was reaffirmed to people born in the 70s and 80 that didn’t see him fight.

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