Once Were Warriors – Remembering Muhammad Ali

A shadow passed over my heart with the news of Ali’s passing, in much the same way that his athletic genius and ‘force of nature’ personality outshone the sun in the 60’s and 70’s.

Ali’s greatness was that he transcended sport, racism, religion and politics by making all of the conventional deities look small. 

Obituary becomes hagiography when it reverses the binocular lens to make our sins diminish and magnify only our achievements.

My memory of Ali is as a slow burn here in 1960’s Australia, much as he was for white males universally.  Women were quicker to embrace him.  They cared less for sports and politics.  Women just saw his grace and beauty and the boundless energy he shared with JFK and the Beatles. Nureyev in silk trunks.

His dual defeats of the ugly bear Sonny Liston in 1964/5 first got our attention. But at the time these victories were greeted with cynicism not adulation.  The fix was in.  Liston was the mob’s man.  Vegas must have wanted him to take a fall.

Couldn’t this mouthy black kid – Cassius Clay the Louisville Lip – just shut and let his fists do the talking?  We liked our sportsmen, particularly the black ones, to be respectful winners like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.  Men who defeated approved tyrannies instead of challenging our own.

As Clay defeated, humiliated and belittled a string of challengers through the mid 60’s our grumbles grew shriller.  He had thrown his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River to protest racism?  We let him sit at our table and he throws food at us? 

Now he wants us to call him Muhammad – what sort of name is that?  Religious fights in the 60’s were between Micks and Proddies – warring brothers not warring tribes.  In Australia the National of Islam meant camel drivers not World Champions.

The early Ali threatened us socially, physically and perhaps most telling – sexually.   Impotent white men had taken out JFK, MLK and then RFK.  Now Ali was threatening the social and political order of LBJ and Nixon; Menzies and Holt.

He wouldn’t enter the military draft at the time of the Vietnam War – “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger or set the dogs on me”.  His license to fight and earn a living was taken away for nearly four years at his physical prime from age 25 to nearly 29.

In my memory that was when the tide of history and affection began to turn for Ali here in Australia and I suspect internationally.  He was brave; he was smart; he was ahead of the curve on the futility of the Asian war and the injustice of racism.  He was telling us truths about ourselves that we didn’t want to hear.

As the Menzies 60’s gave way to the Whitlam 70’s, Ali was transformed in our minds from uppity blackfella to noble redeemer.  He inspired a new generation who saw in him a better example for our own lives.  The fear and resentment of the 60’s Ali gave way to adoration and respect for the Ali of the 70’s, which is how we now remember him – and ourselves.

The great fights lay ahead. We supported him against the crouching relentless Joe Frazier over three epic brutal encounters.  Boxing was huge in Australia in my generation from our own Monday night TV Ringside through to the world title fights then free “by satellite live from Madison Square Gardens”.  Back when 50 shades of grey was the picture on the teak veneer box in the corner of the lounge room and something you could share with mum.

By then in his early 30’s Ali could not physically dominate as he once had and his opponents were classes above the fighters of the 60’s.  But Ali had smarts, ringcraft, extraordinary stamina and bottomless self-belief. 

My strongest Ali memory is of how relentless and fluctuating those Frazier fights were.  One man would dominate for a few rounds and you thought his victory inevitable.  Then the other would find impossible reserves and so it would oscillate through a half dozen plot twists.

The Rumble in Jungle fight against the towering Foreman deservedly survives in popular memory because of the classic When We Were Kings documentary film.  But the Frazier fights were an awful, epic trilogy that pitted the immovable mountain against the irresistible force.

If Ali had retired after outsmarting and outlasting Foreman in Zaire as his entourage urged, he would have bookended his career with astonishing victories against physically dominant champions.  Hindsight makes them incomprehensible upsets now seem like inevitable victory marches.

“But they want to pay me $3 million to fight Joe Bugner – I wouldn’t pay him as a sparring partner.”

The third fight against Frazier in Manila finished him off physically in “a fight that was the closest thing to dying that I know”.  Moth to the flame he fought ten more times over the next six years, losing three of his last four fights. 

We watched with our hands pulled over our eyes and hoped Allah would be merciful, but free will is also the freedom to choose badly.  Ali had appetites and ego as formidable as the fists they drove.

He was no saint.  But he was a god.

Humbled and increasingly broken physically by 61 professional fights over more than 20 years in the ring, Ali seemed to find a quiet grace in retirement that never fitted with a prize-fighter’s persona.

His visits to Australia gave Bert Newton the opportunity to remind us that what our fathers used to stay still reverberated inside our heads.  Bert passed the lesson onto Eddie who passed it onto Adam Goodes who wondered if Ali had ever really happened.  

Fear, greed and selfishness don’t disappear – they just fluctuate like the fortunes of an Ali-Frazier 15 rounder.  The Crusades between Islam and the West are fighting a 21st century rematch.  Trump, ISIS and Putin fascism haunt the world stage.

Ali had seen and done enough for many lifetimes, and inspired many of us to rise above our baser instincts.

Those that the gods would destroy they must first make gods.





  1. As always Peter; good article.

    Yep it would have been better to call it time after the bout in Zaire. Losses to fighters like Spinks were not good to watch, but sport is not like fairy tales. There’s not always a happy ending for a champions career.

    The early view of the uppity blackfella is so much like the abuse meted out to Adam Goodes. White society will admire your sporting magic, but don’t dare question the world that oppresses your people.

    Vale The Greatest.


  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful words Peter.
    What a man. The historical context of his stories make the Ali tale even more important, and fascinating.
    What an era for boxing, a golden age the sport is highly unlikely to ever get close to again.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific tribute PB. Much sagacity inspired by Ali.
    The truths of the best of Ali contrasted against Trump, Putin and our own hateriots. A boxer, poet, comic, resistor- Arguably America’s greatest sporting hero was a draft-dodging, African-American Muslim who could out-talk and out-fight them all. Extraordinary legacy.

  4. A fine summation, PB. Well done.
    And well done Muhammad Ali on a life well-lived

  5. Ali fought in a golden age. Chaps like Liston, Frazier, Patterson, Cooper and foreman were all greats. Ali conquered them all.

    I can say i’m happy to lived in his time, being fortunate enough to viewed him at his peak. He was the greatest.


  6. I think the phenomenon of Muhammad Ali could only have taken place in the 1960s and 1970s, as so many of the dramatic cultural and political changes were played out on his canvas. The transformation of his legacy is in many ways the transformation of everything that swirled around him, and that he embraced. And the outpouring of love and respect here in his hometown is a nice counterbalance to a lot of the more negative things that occupy far too much of our time these days.

    [I should explain that Glenn B is from Louisville, Kentucky – more from Glenn another time. JTH]

  7. The opening line said it all, Ali was a force of nature.

    2016 claims another legend.

    Nicely done PB, like the Great Man you have a way with words.

  8. A beautiful essay PB.

    When Ali opened the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 I recall Bruce saying, “Here’s the most famous man in the world…” Initially I dismissed this as Bruce hyperbole, but then decided that he was right. Ali was, indeed, the most famous man in the world. Who else could it be?

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