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A Life In Three Acts: The Making Of A Great

Sky News: “A Life In Three Acts: The Making Of A Great” By Paul Kelso.

Muhammad Ali transcended first his sport, then all sport in a three-act life that elevated him to a peak of fame, respect and even reverence few have occupied.

Whether in the ring, in defiance of the authorities and the law, or for decades in illness, it was bravery that defined his brilliance.

The first act came inside the ropes.

He was a heavyweight who moved like mercury, threw punches with enormous power and, fatefully, could soak up enormous punishment too.

And then there was the lip, spouting a ceaseless stream of wit and boastful doggerel. (A personal favourite: “I’m so fast when I turn the light off at night I’m back in bed before it’s dark.”)

Here was a prizefighter you would pay to hear talk, who goaded his opponent’s before, during and after they met, not always elegantly.

It set the template for the boastful trash-talk that accompanies every fight today. Unlike so many who have followed, he backed it up when the talking stopped.

No-one had seen anything like this bolshy, brilliant young man, not least Sonny Liston, the Mike Tyson of his day, who Ali, then still Cassius Clay, dethroned as world champion in Miami Beach, Florida in 1964.

Most pundits expected a slaughter, some publicly fearing for Clay’s life. Instead they saw the announcement of a regal talent.

The best judges say Ali’s best years came in the three years that followed, when he was still at his physical peak.

But arguably his most influential moment came outside the ring, bringing his boxing career to a temporary halt and beginning the second, political act of his remarkable life.

In 1967 he refused the US Army draft, citing his objection to the Vietnam war.

It was an act of defiance that put him at odds with the establishment.

The first shoots of his political consciousness were seen the day after he defeated Liston, when he joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name, allying himself with the cause of black empowerment and the growing counter-culture.

By refusing the draft he laid down a profound challenge to white America, which was much more comfortable watching black athletes than it was listening to them.

Ali returned to the ring three years later and secured his legend in 1974 with the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman – an event that saw sport, seventies excess and the new celebrity culture collide in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Once again he was under-estimated, his defeat of the fearsome Foreman credited to the “rope-a-dope” tactic that in truth was less a cunning plan, than a necessary response to his opponent’s awesome power.

Ali fought on, and on, long after he ought to have stopped, and even shamefully after the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, when the authorities should have stopped him.

In a third act of frail retirement Ali’s status only grew.

He lost his physical force and, rendered almost mute by the disease, his ability to express himself.

But his commitment to humanitarian causes, and his dignity in illness, made him a force for good, and a vessel for an idealised view of what sport can and should mean.

He was not as perfect as that. But he is as close as sport has ever seen. Truly, The Greatest.

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