TUBES of flesh wrapped the old man’s stomach as he sat on his stool and waited for the bell. Dark rings gathered on his face, threatening to take the life from his eyes. Muhammad Ali’s final appearance as a prizefighter in December 1981 was a sad parody of what had come before. For the first time in his 39 years he knew he could not compete.
“I just couldn’t do what I wanted to,” he whispered when it was all over. His speech was slurred, the early effects of neurological deterioration stealing the edge from his words.
Ali’s career, the most hypnotic advertisement for the noble art, came with a price. But such astronomic levels of greatness always do.
The world will never forget what Ali achieved along the way. It wasn’t just exploits in the boxing ring that shaped his legend. He was so much more than his Olympic gold medal, his three world heavyweight championship reigns, and his outrageous feats of fistic mastery.
His courage shone brightly in the face of every boundary that life presented. Submission to those obstacles would have made his existence less complicated, and sheltered him from the harsh realities of his era. But, unlike the vast majority, Ali would never turn a blind eye to what he knew was wrong.
He rejected his slave name and anchored Muhammad Ali in black history.
In the 1960s he fought for what he believed in, and against the wrath of his country, when he declared the Vietnam War a pointless conflict. He sacrificed his world title, and three of his peak years, to remain loyal to his religion, his beliefs, and his race. As a young man he stood tall as his nation labelled him a traitor. His stance would play a huge part in the conclusion of that dreadful fighting in Vietnam.
Even when he was subdued by Parkinson’s Disease, he refused to stay in the background, protesting against the Gulf War, and voicing his disgust at the 9/11 terror attacks.
But it was his absurd talent for boxing that created the pedestal for Muhammad to shape an era.
He was such an intelligent boxer, whose biggest strength was his ability to break his opponents mentally and then physically. At his balletic pomp, his reactions were as quick as his lightning fists, and his mind as sharp as a razor blade. The way he befuddled the seemingly indestructible Sonny Liston in 1964, and subsequently dominate every challenger, has the power to seduce any sports fan.
And when he returned after his hiatus in 1970, he slowly adapted his game to cope with the menace of George Foreman, forge an indelible grudge with Joe Frazier, and emerge from the most talent-laden heavyweight era in history as the undisputed best.
He was far from faultless, both inside the ring and out; his mouth at times distasteful, his style occasionally clumsy, but no man gave so much in the pursuit of victory and righteousness.