Ever since I was little, I used to listen to my grandad talk about the great boxers throughout the ages and despite him firmly cementing Sugar Ray Robinson as the most technically sound boxer of all time, his eyes would light up when talking about Muhammad Ali.
When I got old enough to get my own TV in my room, my grandad gave me a box set (remember them?) of “The Fifty Greatest Boxers Of All Time” and the Muhammad Ali chapter quickly became my favourite. There were quicker punchers, there were harder hitters and there were slicker defensive boxers, but no one captivated attention like Muhammad Ali. Two things were instantly clear to me watching the old black and white footage.
The first was that that he never gave up. He faced enormous hurdles throughout his career both in the ring and out of it. In the ring, this was never more exemplified than in his 1974 fight with George Foreman, the renowned Rumble in the Jungle.
Having had his titles taken away from him in 1966 and his boxing licence revoked, an aging Ali spent 7 rounds being battered by one of the hardest punchers of all time, seemingly having lost his ability to dance around his opponent that had characterised his rise to stardom. It looked bleak.
But Ali persisted.
Asking George “Is that all you’ve got?”, Ali sensed Foreman was tired, capitalised and knocked George out in the 8th round, and he reclaimed the belts he had never lost in the ring. Watching the finish still gives me chills.
The second reason I idolised Muhammad Ali was his steadfast commitment to doing the right thing. He believed that it wasn’t enough for an athlete to just perform well in their sport, you had to use your platform for justice and equality, something that is just as important today as it was then.
Despite being rightfully hailed as a civil rights hero in the modern day, this fearless approach to social justice meant Ali in his prime was hated by the country he represented. After winning gold for his country in the 1960 Rome Olympics, he attended a restaurant in Louisville he always dreamed of going to as a child. He was met with racist slurs and refused service.
The ultimate testament to his willingness to sacrifice himself for what he believed to be right was his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war in 1967. Believing that he shouldn’t have to fight and die for a country that denied it’s own people basic civil rights, Ali refused to serve in the US military.
After sticking to his ethical code, Ali’s titles were stripped and he lost his boxing licence, even facing 5 years in jail. The greatest of all time lost the prime fighting years of his life. He lost the titles that no one could take from him in the ring.
He could have enlisted and probably coasted in an easy assignment as other celebrities have done in the past, but he committed to his principals and underwent huge personal sacrifice to stand up for what he believed in. This was a huge inspiration to me as a kid and still is now, and there are only a handful of people on the planet who have the fortitude of character to do what he did.
When he died in 2016, I was crushed, but Ali was bigger than life. His principals and eloquent expressions have stuck with me to this day, and whilst there will be quicker punchers, harder hitters and slicker defensive boxers, there will never be another Muhammad Ali.