Alan Duff

Muhammad Ali - The world has lost a great hero

Charismatic kid from Louisville proved to be as great outside the boxing ring as in it, writes Alan Duff.
Ali did, arguably, more for the civil rights cause in America than even Martin Luther King. Photo / AP
Ali did, arguably, more for the civil rights cause in America than even Martin Luther King. Photo / AP

Millions of words have already been written and spoken on Muhammad Ali, and virtually nothing new can be said of a legend. In his own words, he was more well known than Jesus Christ. Ali was a Muslim long before this age of growing antagonism to that religion, due almost entirely to the terrorist faction. Yet there isn't a country that won't give his life and times lavish media coverage.

As a heavyweight boxer he had no peer. Though my friend Bob Jones (who interviewed Ali on a 1979 visit to New Zealand) would argue with that and possibly pick Joe Louis as the best heavyweight.

Leave the boxing side to the experts, I'm merely a fan of the sport. Muhammad Ali was as great outside the ring as he was in it. He did, arguably, more for the civil rights cause in America than even Martin Luther King because his heavyweight champion title gave his defiant actions more credence. He had much more to lose and for more than three years of being banned from fighting, he did lose an awful lot.

His world title was stripped, they denied him a heap of purse money and therefore the right to ply his trade; he was put before a Senate hearing and insultingly asked why he'd changed his name.

He suffered the opprobrium of much of white America and in refusing military service on the grounds of his Muslim religion, he famously asked, "Shoot them (Viet Cong) for what? They never called me nigger." He said white people wouldn't stand up for his religious beliefs; his views incensed racist white America. How dare he stand up to them and call them for what they were?

"Sugar" Ray Robinson was probably the greatest boxer, with 200 fights and 173 wins compared to Ali's 61 fights and 56 wins. Robinson was a better all-round fighter, but as a man he was recklessly profligate with his money and self-centred and selfish.


What the kid from Louisville, Kentucky had was magic - charisma, to apply that overused word. He was a beautiful mover, extremely fast for a heavyweight, lightning reflexes that enabled him to evade blows at the last split-second. He could dig deeper than just about anyone, and adjust his style to suit the opponent.

Black America pinned all their hopes on Joe Louis defeating German Max Schmeling in 1938, and so did white America as a symbolic victory over the odious Hitler. Louis won two minutes into the first round and Schmeling, a decent man, went home to Germany in disgrace. Louis' victory did nothing to change life for black Americans - the white people went right on oppressing them in a country that for blacks was a police state and sadly still is.

In 1942 Joe Louis donated two fight purses totalling $100,000 to his nation's war cause. As a "thank you" his own tax department went after him, claiming unpaid tax on the amount. With added penalties over the years, he was bankrupted, owing the IRS more than US$1 million. So much for beating Schmeling changing white attitudes to blacks.

Ali fought Cleveland Williams, a renowned hard-puncher whose debilitated health was the result of being shot in his car by a cop over a traffic offence. This 1966 bout was one of Ali's greatest. Despite the fact that the head of the Muslim movement, Elijah Muhammad, was an egomaniac who had Malcolm X murdered, Cassius Clay embraced a better human being within, renouncing his "slave name."

Many of his utterances were downright crazy, and a lot of defeated opponents say he could be verbally cruel in the ring as well, deliberately stretching out a fight to extend the punishment. He was no saint and thank God or Allah no one saw him as one, least of all himself.

Wherever he went in life people uniformly remember how kind he was, both with money, time, even to those the world ignored: skid row bums, the down-and-out. From a boxer to an international figure of statesman status, an icon, Muhammad Ali was truly unique.

On a visit to New York in 1993 the movie When We Were Kings had just been released, a film about his title challenge for George Foreman's crown. I opted for the movie while my wife took a cruise. I sat in the theatre with only three other people and shed tears throughout.

I've watched countless videos on both his boxing and interviews. The world lost a hero, bigger than Nelson Mandela, than anyone, ever.

- NZ Herald

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