In my office at AS I have photographs of three great athletes, my own personal podium of the history of sport. In the middle is Muhammad Ali, flanked by Pelé and Michael Jordan. Some people are happy to argue with my number two or three, but nobody has ever argued about Ali, pictured on my podium standing over Sonny Liston. His was a unique adventure. A sporting hero who faced some harsh consequences because, as Barack Obama said on Saturday, “he spoke for those who couldn’t.” And he did in an era, let us not forget, during which Martin Luther King was assassinated. Taking the stance that these men took in America at that time was no joke.
But Ali did so, placing his career, his fortune, and his life in jeopardy. He faced up to half of his country, even if it was the half that he cared less about: the white and reactionary half that still applauded Ku Klux Klan atrocities and who suffered through every one of Ali’s triumphs. Those glorious victories, unquestionable, achieved by boxing like nobody had ever boxed in the heavyweight division before, moving with the effortless subtlety of Sugar Ray Robinson. Slender, beautiful, precocious, witty, singing his predictions, announcing to the world in which round he would stop his next opponent. The way Ali boxed was a form of perfection.
He refused to go to Vietnam (“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”), a stance that split his career in two. When he returned to the ring he was a different boxer, we were deprived of his best years. But that was when he engaged in his legendary combats, with Joe Frazier and George Foreman. And at that time American society was changing. And it changed even more when the Atlanta Olympic Games arrived and it fell to Ali, stricken by Parkinson’s disease, to light the flame. His cause had finally been understood; it was the cause of almost everybody. We still have videos, a couple of great books, and a lasting example. Sport serves a greater purpose than merely to entertain.