I know we have all figured out that 2016 is a potentially hazardous year to be famous, but it isn’t that famous ‘ish people are dying that is surprising me.
It is the iconic status of those who are being recalled to … (insert your own thoughts here, God’s Bosom, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Atomic stardust, wormfood). Seriously… Bowie, Prince, Professor Snape, it’s like the Grim Reaper has turned on Icon Recall mode… Yet all these, the rest and more, pale to a fragment of a sparkle compared to the shining brilliance that was Ali.
He was the first global superstar that I became aware of. Yep, I know there were other sporting legends I was aware of prior to him, I mean, seriously, I grew up in Northern Ireland, a tiny place that gave the world the Best football player ever, the most maverick snooker player, the finest pentathlete and the most iconic biking road-racers, but these were homegrown. I was later aware of Borg and Năstase, Pele, Beckenbauer, Spitz, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci but they were mostly later and none of them, not one, reached into my consciousness like Ali.
1974 – I was eight (and a half) and there was a fight in Africa. The Rumble in the Jungle, Kinshasa, Zaire. Held at the 20th of May Stadium on the night of October 30, 1974 and I remember it like it was yesterday. But not just the fight. The build up. This brash, boastful, loud yet fantastic and lovable man, telling anyone who would listen (including the brilliant Harry Carpenter) that he would come back, (he had been stripped of his title for conscientiously objecting the draft) and now, after battling up through the contenders, he would beat a younger, bigger, stronger and arguably faster George Foreman.
The night, the fight, the tactics and the result are iconic in themselves and need no further explanation, but it was this man, who shouted after that fight that he was the Greatest and I and the world quickly understood it to be true, it was him that would be the centre of the world’s attention. The most famous, the most iconic and in the spotlight, the simple truth; this was a good man. Kind, considerate, caring..
This incredible power of nature, who transcended the ring, his sport, all sport, the colour of his skin, the faith he held and the people who undermined him. This man, later to become a close friend of his beaten opponent, held an Olympic title, regained the world title an unprecedented three times, overcame persecution, ridicule and disbarment. He talked loud, move fast and light and hit hard, yet when all was done, this man was a true sportsman. Embodying the aggression and passion to win and immediately, on completion, being respectful and serving his fellow human beings.
I never met him, I didn’t know him in any way other than what I saw on TV, yet I felt like I knew him. I felt like he was a good man. I understood him to be the true meaning of a good man. That is why I felt so much empathy and sympathy for him when he was struck with Parkinson’s. Why I cheered and cried when he lit the flame in Atlanta. Why I did the same when they restored his Gold Medal and now, on the 4th of June 2016, why I mourn him in a way that is much keener than it should be for just a famous person I never met. He was Ali, a childhood hero, a good man, the Greatest. Rest in Peace.
Ian Andrew is the author of the alternative history novel A Time To Every Purpose, the detective thrillers Face Value and Flight Path and the Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses. All are available in e-book and paperback. Follow him on social media:
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