(So sad to be republishing this tribute to a great man - four years after first writing it and posting it - Farewell Ali, RIP - 4th June 2016)
Was packing to move home recently, sorting out boxes of old stuff, and throwing things out. Wondered if I should just bin the VCR that had had been shoved away under the stairs when the DVD player took its place – who watches videos these days? Nobody I know.
Behind the VCR was a cardboard box of old videos – old recordings of old programmes that held no interest anymore – most of them had probably never even been watched, just recorded and stored for a rainy day and then forgotten.Sifting through the videos I was hoping there was none I would want to keep, because that would mean I would have to keep the VCR – so much junk in life, just want to get rid of it all.
Then I saw one video with a name written on the label and I knew straight away I would have to keep the VCR. Fifteen years have passed since I had recorded the event on the tape – a very special event – on the night of Monday, March 24th 1997.
Ten minutes later I had set up the VCR, plugged in, and replayed the tape, which brought a lump to my throat as it all, came back to me so clearly.Like most other insomniacs here in the UK, on Monday March 24th 1997, I watched the 69th Oscars all the way through until 5.30.a.m on Tuesday morning. We all knew – because the experts had already told us so – that The English Patient was going to pick up an Oscar in nearly every category, so it promised to be a boring and predictable night.
Was I in for a surprise! It happened about an hour into the show; the nominations for `Best Documentary Picture.’Suddenly the music and the fast rapping singing of The Fugees thundered out at the same time as the backdrop screen showed a series of shots of a young man in a boxing ring – a dynamically beautiful young black man who still has one of the most recognisable faces in the world. It was a face that took me straight back to the early days of my youth, straight back to dream city when anything was possible and our heroes really were great.
Back then there were no fake celebrities with minimal talent who spent most of their time peddling stuff in TV commercials – but there were a lot of stars – real stars of their professions.
The five nominations for `Best Documentary Film’ now over, Tommy Lee Jones opened the red-sealed envelope, and smiled his approval. When We Were Kings, made by Leon Gast and David Sonenberg, had won the Oscar.
The applause was good, but not rapturous. Maybe, like myself, many people were puzzled by the title, When We Were Kings, because for so many of us, the boxing world has only ever had one king – a man who was more than just the greatest boxer of his time and perhaps all time – three times heavyweight champion of the world – Muhammad Ali.
Everyone listened patiently as Leon Gast stood at the microphone and gave thanks, deservedly, to everyone involved in the making of the film. But when he finally said those two magical words – “Muhammad Ali” – the applause thundered, followed by the entire audience rising to a tumultuous standing ovation as THE MAN himself walked slowly onto the stage.
He was 55 years old, back then in 1997, and Ali was no longer the man he once was, impaired as he is by failing health. Where the punches of so many boxers couldn’t catch him, Parkinson’s syndrome finally did. Some of the audience were crying as they choked back the emotion, but I knew it was not pity or sadness they felt as they stared at this monument of a man with awe and reverence. They knew they were in the presence of a man who deserved to be honoured.
And if the film When We Were Kings helped to do that, helped to remind people of just how great Muhammad Ali was, then I hope it broke sales-targets all over the world.
The story of Muhammad Ali is not just the story of a great athlete; it's a story of courage, of determination, and a man who possessed a firelight magic of wit and charm that warmed up the world.
If you never knew him, if he was not a part of your world, or if you have just forgotten him, then let me remind you who he was, and who he still is.
In 1954, at the age of twelve, Cassius Clay, a black kid from Louisville, Kentucky, suddenly realised that he was never going to be able to buy the American Dream. His parents had no money, so nobody was going to hand him the good life on a plate for free. Also, his grades in school were no better than average, so it was unlikely he would end up a whiz-kid lawyer or financier on Wall Street either – even in a firm that did hire black people, and in 1954 many of them didn't.
But like James Brown, Cassius Clay was black and he was proud, and if he couldn't buy the American Dream then he would just have to earn it – by the pursuit of excellence in the game he played best.By the time he was fourteen he was training hard and relentlessly at his local gym and telling all his friends, `See me, Cassius Clay, one day I'm going to be the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.'
After that he went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships, two national Golden Gloves tournaments, and in 1960, at the age of 19, he went to Rome and won the Olympic Gold Medal for America.
Less than four years later in Miami, on February 25th 1964, Cassius Clay beat the previously "indestructible" Sonny Liston in seven rounds. At the age of 22 Cassius had fulfilled his dream and become the heavyweight-boxing champion of the world.
Ten years thereafter he was the most famous man on the planet, and possibly one of the richest. By that time he had discarded what he regarded as his "slave name" of Cassius Clay and had become the legend known as Muhammad Ali.
To fully understand the magic and impact of the man, I suppose – as that song says – `Guess you had to be there,' – when every young guy seemed to be perpetually raising both fists triumphantly in the air and chanting the Ali boast –
`I am the Grrrrrrr-eatest!'
Some older journalists will tell you that more words have been written in newspapers about Muhammad Ali than any other public figure in history. But if that's true, it was because Ali was a reporter's dream. He never stopped talking. He took care of his own publicity and promoted every one of his fights by upgrading bragging into an art form.
"Man, I'm so great, I impress even myself."
`Would you consider yourself a good role model for children?' a reporter once asked him.
`I'm a perfect role model for children,' Ali replied sincerely, `because I'm good looking, clean living and modest.'
`Well, you know, it’s hard to be modest when you're as great as I am.'
And then there were his poems, hundreds of them; some say he made one up for every fight and one for every reporter he ever met.
This is the legend of Muhammad Ali
The greatest fighter that ever will be
He talks a great deal and brags, yes indeed
Of a powerful punch and blinding speed.
Ali fights great, he's got speed and endurance
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance
Ali's got a left, Ali's got a right
If he hits you once, you're asleep for the night.
Inside the ring he had speed, grace and magic, a champion's champion. Outside the ring he was a non-stop entertainer, and it was the entertainer that all the females loved. He took the sport of boxing from the back page and put it on the front page. He turned the fight business into showbusiness. And when Ali stopped, all that stopped too. And the void he left behind has never been filled, not by anyone. As Ali himself used to say about his opponents, "I'm the greatest, they're just the latest."
Boxing has returned to the back pages and nobody gets very excited anymore.
Until, that is, on Monday night, 24th March 1997, when Muhammad Ali walked onto the stage of the 69th Academy Award Ceremony to receive the Oscar for When We Were Kings.
Watching the recording again tonight, I saw all those stars standing up in ovation, I saw James Woods simply mouthing the word “Wow” and other top actors biting their lips with emotion as they clapped and clapped their hands for the man who so deservedly was the star of the film “When We Were Kings.”And it wasn’t just empty or vainglorious emotion, no; because all of that audience knew that the awesome man standing up there on the stage was a true and great fighter, not only in boxing, but also in heart and in spirit.
They had all seen the proof of that only a year earlier, along with billions of people all over the globe, when Muhammad Ali, as ill as he was, had forced himself forward with every step until he finally and determinedly reached the flame and lit the torch for the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, holding the flaming torch high, not just for America, not just for the entire world – but for every young athlete who was preparing to take part in those Olympic Games, just as he had once done in his own youth, and won Gold.
Sure he was an audacious bragger about himself. Sure he said terrible things about his opponents before every fight, but a lot of it was just talk to create a buzz in the media and a frenzy amongst reporters so the fight would begin in the newspapers long before he and his opponent even stepped into the ring.
He later explained they were just “promotional insults” and so they may have been, because every opponent of Muhammad Ali immediately received a worldwide fame and riches that might never have been theirs if Ali had never entered the boxing world.The opponent who suffered the worst of those “promotional insults” was Joe Frazier – his opponent in the big fight screened all over the world and labelled “The Thriller in Manila.”
Yet, when Joe Frazier died only five months ago in November 2011 from cancer, Muhammad Ali, much frailer now, but showing the same heart and determination as he had shown in Atlanta, forced himself with every step to attend Joe’s funeral.Another opponent, the one he hurt the most with defeat in the ring, was legendary fighter and champion George Foreman who was beaten by Ali in Zaire, and although it took George Foreman seven years to finally forgive boxing’s biggest icon for beating him, he went on to become Ali’s close friend, paying tribute to him just three months ago in January when speaking about Ali’s illness.
“I don’t feel sorry for him; I feel proud that I even know him. All those years ago, Ali didn’t fall in love with being young and doing that dancing shuffle in the boxing ring, he fell in love with life.
“I don’t feel sad about his illness, because the guy is still a hero. He’s still living, he doesn’t hide himself away, he’s above pity. He’s still beautiful to me.”
In the world of boxing, Muhammad Ali is still regarded as “the greatest,” and not even his increasing burden of suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome will ever take that title away from him. Along with the Olympic Gold Medal he won for America at the age of 19, he won that title fair and square, in the ring.
(When We Were Kings – A documentary film about Ali’s winning fight against George Foreman in Zaire, labelled “The Rumble In The Jungle”)
© Gretta Curran Browne 2012
Ali Image (C) The Telegraph