Tuesday, 7 June 2016

More Than a Boxer: Mohammed Ali

Isn’t it strange how some sports grab the limelight for a while, and then just fade from public view?

Boxing is one of those sports which used the feature heavily on TV. Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a great sports fan. I do not watch sport.

The great days of TV sport are now gone – on Saturday afternoon there used to be Grandstand on BBC 1, broadcasting from 1958 to 2007. I still fondly remember the endless football scores at the end of the show, followed by that jingly music, and the camera swooping round. I was of course watching because I wanted to see Doctor Who, which back in its early days was on at 5.15, just after Grandstand.

And over and ITV, you had Richard “Dickie” Davies presenting “World of Sport”, which ran between World of Sport 1965 and 1985. Amazingly, age 83, he is still alive.

Back until 20 April 1964, there was only BBC1 and ITV, and even when BBC2 began on that date, it was only ever broadcasting in 625 lines colour, when most sets until the late 1970s were black and white, picking up the older 405 line service. So for pretty well all of my childhood years, Saturday afternoons were TV boredom, with no choice but sport...or sport.

And yet the big boxing matches had a buzz about them, and made the news. Even from memory along, I can remember Cassius Clay (who later of course took the name Mohammed Ali on his conversion to Islam), George Forman, Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier, Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson. For someone who is as illiterate as Ian Hislop when it comes to sporting matters, that shows how high a profile boxing had, not just in the TV schedules, but in the news, and the newspapers.

This was not just ordinary boxing, of course, these were the championship matches, and usually just the highlights which made their way onto the news. I have to look up the fights, of course, as I am not a boxing fan at all.

Between February 25, 1964, and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion, nicknamed "The Greatest".

And hardly surprisingly, because Ali was a showman as well as a boxer. I remember watching him on Michael Parkinson’s chat show:

MP : But without that, even without the dispute about the judging, the fact is that you’re a crowd-puller and Frazier is not. Why is that?

MA: Well, number one: he is ugly. He has no rhythm, no footwork, no class, he cannot talk. And who told him he could sing? He got him a big band to travel the world with his new title thinking that he’s gonna sell ‘em all out. Every time I read the paper they say, ‘Joe Frazier, he played an area that held ten thousand and 37 people showed up’.

And this piece is a gem from that interview, almost certainly deliberate in the last sentence, which Ali must have known was funny.

MP: Whether you want it or not, you are. People have been saying, for years, you’re on of the most attractive men in the world.

MA: I know. I was just… No I don’t pay it attention. I never heard that before I got to England - seriously, I never heard this before. But I just try to stay half way decent looking. Boxing’s a rough sport and you get hit a lot. Right after a fight I run right to the dressing room and right to the mirror and make sure I’m still, you know, presentable. It’s a rough sport being punched on all the time. A lot of people’s features change. Mainly when I fight them.

Of the other boxers, the only ones who were “personalities” were Henry Cooper, whom I always remember for some rather cringe-worthy adverts for “Brut” . This was the brand name for a line of men's grooming and fragrance products first launched in 1964 by Fabergé, which Cooper made his own with the catchphrase "splash it all over". Presumably, if a tough man like Cooper used it, it was not for sissies!

Mike Tyson I remember for all the wrong reasons, not the way he pulverised his opponents, but the conviction for rape.

Frank Bruno I remember mainly for being defeated by Mike Tyson, and thereafter appearing as a guest celebrity on all sorts of TV shows and panels and pantomimes.

But none of them really stood out as much as Ali, or made such a wonderful subject for interview. He had intelligent things to say, but also probably took himself too seriously.

And he had some extraordinary beliefs at that time, for instance, the idea that people of different ethnic groups, and cultural and religious backgrounds could not have relationships. I suspect that will be downplayed in the tributes:

MA: When you say separation, what you’re saying is that black people must do something for themselves and not always beg white people to move in to their neighbourhoods. And when you say integration, that comes with a marriage too, right? And I’m sure no intelligent white person watching this show, in his or her right white mind, want black men and women marrying their white sons and daughters and in return introducing their grandchildren to half brown, kinky haired black people. And you can’t take no Chinese man and give him no Puerto Rican woman and talking like they’re in love and emotionally in love and physically. When really they’re not happy because she got some Puerto Rican music, he’s got him some Chinese music and they’re going to be clashing all the time.

But his roots were in the segregated South America, so while he saw himself as throwing off the shackles of slavery, signing that with his change of name from Clay to Ali, he seems to have remained in a sense, a child of those roots. He spoke out for African-American civil rights in the 1960s, but when he was caught up in the Nation of Islam, he was trapped in the deep seated prejudices of his own past. But he overcame that trap.

Ali converted from the Nation of Islam sect to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. Now the Parkinson interview was in 1971. And there were clearly changes. It would be wrong to only see him in his early and more prominent and outspoken interviews, as if he was a fly caught in amber, and unable to change. Clearly he did change his views, while not losing his faith in Islam, he broke from its more radical and segregationalist teaching. 30 years later in 2005, Ali began began adhering to Sufism, another change within his Islamic faith.

He met Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990 and brokered the release of Americans who had been held hostage after the invasion of Kuwait. In 2011, he called on Iran to release the captive US hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

As testament to his work in developing nations, the United Nations named him a Messenger of Peace, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In September 2012, he was the recipient of the prestigious National Constitution Center Liberty Medal.

And this is what he had to say on the 9/11 attacks. Look at how different it is to the pugilistic interview with Parkinson.

"I am a Muslim. I am an American. As an American Muslim, I want to express my deep sadness and anguish at the tremendous loss of life that occurred on Tuesday (September 11, 2001). Islam is a religion of peace. Islam does not promote terrorism or the killing of people. I cannot sit by and let the world think that Islam is a killing religion. It hurts me to see what radical people are doing in the name of Islam. These radicals are doing things that God is against. Muslims do not believe in violence. If the culprits are Muslim, they have twisted the teachings of Islam. Whoever performed, or is behind, the terrorist attacks in the United States of America does not represent Islam. God is not behind assassins. Anyone involved in this must pay for their evil."

“Hatred caused this tragedy and adding to the hatred that already exists in the world will not help. Instead, we should try to understand each other better. Americans are warm, loving and hospitable people, and we share many of the same values. I ask that churches and synagogues all across the nation invite representatives of the Islamic faith into their places of worship, to better understand Islam. This could help us all respect each other more. I pray that God blesses the people and families of those who were killed, and our great country.”

Following the Paris terror attacks last year, and a massacre in California, he released a statement in December last year stating: “I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

When I began this obituary, I was largely reading the Michael Parkinson interview, and seeing a rather loudmouthed racist, but as I dug deeper, I found a man who continually educated himself, overcame his own prejudices and became wiser and wiser, someone to admire, and who showed that beyond the world of boxing, he became a truly great man.

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