Even when the dancing years ebbed away and the famous shuffle became no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble, he remained, until his death today at 74, the most recognisable human being on earth, and among the best-loved.
There has only ever really been one Lord of the Rings. “Parachute me into High Street, China,” he once said, “any every kid would know who I am.”
I was fortunate enough to travel the world with the phenomenon who so ennobled his art that his act as the heavyweight champion of the world has become impossible to follow. Yes, there have been those who have worn the crown, or tawdry, fragmented versions of it, since but none with such style, such guile, such skill and such charisma.
It is one of life’s great ironies that the greatest orator sport has known, the street poet of pugilism was in his later years reduced to a shambling shadow of his erstwhile self because of Parkinson’s Syndrome, the nerve-paralysing condition inherited from his house painter father that was probably precipitated by having ten fights too many. Alas, he never was the retiring sort.
A four-times wed father-of-nine, Ali always was a ladies’ man and it was the ladies in his life, those who were his family, who nurtured and cared for him.
Philanderer he may have been in his dancing years - trainer Angelo Dundee once caught him "deflegrante" so to speak with a female journalist after a title fight weigh-in - but in retirement it was the love of one good woman that helped keep him alive. His fourth wife, Lonnie, had devoted her life to nursing him since they were married in 1986, a year after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Certainly Ali was no saint. He had his dark side particularly in his the early days of conversion to the Black Muslims. His refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong) led to a five-year prison sentence which he successfully appealed but only after being exiled for three-years from boxing at the peak of his career,
But for a fighting man there was an absence of malice outside the ring and throughout his illness he never had an ounce of self-pity, and he remained as generous with his time as he was, in his heyday, with his money. He was strong, but never militant in his Muslim beliefs, and was the first in sporrt of his faith to put his head above the parapet and condemn Islamist extremists in no uncertain terms, insisting his religion was one of love, not hate
Ali, born as Cassius Clay on 17 January 1942, was a world champion in every sense, traversing all continents to defend a title which he won a record three times in a 21-year, 61 fight professional career, of which he lost five. He finally retired in December 1981 following a humbling defeat by Trevor Berbick.
The charisma remained undimmed, despite the toll that Parkinson’s and those last few fateful punches took. In recent years it was not so much shaking the hand of Ali that brought a lump to the throat, but the shaking hand of Ali. Those of us privileged to have travelled the world with him, covering his fights from Atlanta to Zaire, Madison Square Garden to Manila could never countenanced such tragedy would engulf him because of who he was, what he had achieved and the prospect of what he might have become.
The greatest irony of all is that while Parkinson’s did not affect his brain he struggled to get out the words that were once his trademark because his facial muscles were paralysed. Never has a face been more photographed. Ali was not only the snapper’s delight, he was the scribe’s dream. No interview was ever spurned, no agent barred the path, no fee was ever demanded.
Being a sportswriter in the Ali era was bliss. Media groupies we may have been, but we were never short of a storyline. Those were the days when we, too, were kings.
Once, back in the 70’s, on arriving to interview him in Dublin, we discovered that Ali was flu-stricken and being attended by a doctor in his hotel bedroom. We explained to trainer Dundee that we had hoped to talk to Ali for ten minutes. “No chance," came the reply. “He never talks to anyone for less than an hour.” He phoned Ali’s room, “Hey Champ, some Limey press guys’ here to see you…” He put the phone down and said, “Muhammad says, go on up.” We emerged a good two hours later with notebooks overflowing.
“Ahm sooooo pretty”, he would say, patting the features that captivated the world. And he was, transcending boxing almost from the moment he won the Olympic light-heavyweight title in Rome in 1960 with a fleet-footed, backward leaning technique that defied all the sacred norms of the sport. The "Louisville Lip" was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a well before another of his acolytes, Drew "Budini" Brown, coined the most famous phrase in sport.
From his early days in Louisville, Ali lived for the limelight, soaking up the adoration of the fans and celebrities which fuelled his very existence, whether Rumbling in the Jungle or Thrilling in Manila.
In 1964, when aged just 22 he challenged the Mafia-run world champion Sonny Liston, a seemingly indomitable ogre, he indeed “shocked the world” twice, first by forcing Liston to retire on his stool after the sixth round and then announcing that Cassius Clay (“My slave name”) was no more and that he had accepted the teachings of Islam and the influence of Malcolm X and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Ali reigned in an age when world boxing crowns were not bits of bling. He fought, and beat everyone of note as well as many others of little consequence. No challenge was shirked, though some proved more difficult than others. His three fights with Ken Norton, for instance, in one of which his jaw was broken, all ended in controversial points decisions.
Ali had a particular affection for Britain, and the British for him. “How’s Henry Cooper,” was the first question he would ask whenever he encountered a British scribe. It was in 1963, when, still as Cassius Clay, he was put on the floor at Wembley Stadium by ‘Enery’s ’ammer, the left hook he did not see coming because he was too busy glancing down at Elizabeth Taylor, who was at ringside. “Hiya Cleopatra,” he mouthed, just before Cooper caught him.
To this day Cooper argues that in the corner Dundee deliberately worsened a tear in Ali’s glove to give him an extra minute’s recovery time but the interval in fact lasted only a few seconds longer than scheduled. Ali, of course cut Cooper’s eyebrow to salvage his prediction of a fifth round victory, and similar damage ended their title fight at Highbury three years later.
In more than half-a-century of sports writing I confess the only time I shed a tear was on the night of October 2, 1980, when in a stadium built in the car park of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, an Ali, old out of shape and clearly unwell, was battered to defeat by Holmes. It was an awful night. Ali was a shell of his former self. He had nothing left except his pride.
Like the urgently beckoning Holmes himself, we pleaded from ringside for the referee Richard Green to stop the fight, but it was left to Dundee to do so at the end of the tenth round.”I am the chief second and I stop the fight!" he screamed at the official.
The lumps in our throats were as huge as the one covering Ali’s eye.
Ali fought his share of bums in his 61 fights, as most heavyweight champions do, but was always generous in victory even if he had been outrageously uncharitable in the build-up, always with an eye on the ticket sales. When he fought the hapless Briton Richard Dunn in Munich the United States television network screening the bout had begged him to at least let it go seven rounds, because they had sold so much advertising. But at the end of the fourth, Ali who had hardly thrown a punch, leaned down to one of the producers and whispered, “Better get those commercials in quick. I can’t hold this sucker up any longer.”
But he also fought and beat the best, George Foreman, of course, in the renowned "Rumble in the Jungle" when he regained the title for the first time at 32, but also Joe Frazier, who had defeated him on his return from exile at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Their third meeting, the "Thrilla in Manila" four years later, remains etched in the memory as perhaps the greatest heavyweight epic in history. “The closest thing to dying,” was how Ali described it, collapsing in relief when half-blinded Frazier was retired with just one round remaining.
Later, in a darkened dressing room, Frazier’s then 14-year-old son Marvis sat sobbing alongside his father as Ali entered to offer his commiserations to the bruised and bleeding “Smokin’ Joe", with whom his rivalry had been intensely bitter. “What you cryin’ for, boy?” Ali demanded of young Frazier. “I’m crying’ ‘cos my daddy got beat.” Ali looked down at him, “You stop that you hear. Your daddy lost nuthin’ tonight. He’s a winner. Just you remember that for the rest of your life.”
The one quality about Ali most overlooked was his bravery. He took more punches than he ever needed to, because he wanted to psyche out his opponents. “That your best shot, George,” he enquired of Foreman as swinging punches crunched into his ribs in Kinshasa. “You’re punching like a cissy.” The rope-a-doped Foreman later confessed to being destroyed psychologically before he was physically by the right hand punch in the eighth round that spun him off his feet and caused BBC commentator Harry Carpenter to yell, “Oh my God, he’s won the title back at 32!”
I often wonder what he might have become had he not been hit by the most devastating punch of all, Parkinson’s. An ambassador not just for sport but for his country and world peace?
Like Manny Pacquiao and Vitali Klitchsko could he have punched his way into politics? Can you imagine him delivering those devastating verbal KO’s to Donald Trump right now, especially as Trump rhymes so conveniently with Chump?
Like Sonny Liston and so many others, Trump would never know what hit him.
During a career in which we applauded his sublime skills, cheered his fight for humanity and laughed at his famous doggerel, Ali spilled millions of words.But he truest constituted a mere half dozen.
”There’ll never be another like me.”
Ali always had an affection for the Olympics. Indeed, the last time he had a global audience was as a member of the New York City contingent which bid unsuccessfully in Singapore for the 2012 Games.
They took him along not just because he had been a precocious teenage Olympic light-heavyweight champion in Rome 1960 but because of the impact he had made on three billion viewers when his trembling hand lit the flame in Atlanta in 1996.
But it proved a dreadful mistake. Ali had clearly deteriorated. His movements painfully slow and robotic, his gaze blank, and unrecognising, save for the constant blinking of his eyelids.
The last time we had met was during a visit to London a few years earlier, when he received an award as the BBC Sports Personality of the Century. Ali always remembered your face, if not your name and he placed a trembling hand on my shoulder as he leaned down to whisper in my ear. “It ain’t the same any more, is it?” “No champ,” I replied, “It ain’t.”
Nor can it ever be now that the Greatest has gone. Finally, a legend has been licked.
Liam Morgan will appear tomorrow