Many years ago, I came across the word ineffable in a book and, unsure of its meaning, looked it up in the dictionary. I have never forgot the definition of that rather obscure word because, when I read it, the image of one man sprang into my mind’s eye as vividly as if his beautiful profile really was staring out at me from the page.
Indescribable, indefinable, too great to be expressed in words, is what ineffable means. The man I thought of was Muhammad Ali.
My mother, a woman who rarely hid her total indifference or disdain towards sport and its protagonists, introduced me to Ali. She told me that in the late sixties and early seventies she would rise in the early hours with her mother, father and two sisters to watch this big, black boxer fight Terrell and Quarry and Frazier on their small, tenebrous screen. I could scarcely believe it and, initially at least, certainly didn’t understand it.
She bought me Thomas Hauser’s His Life and Times for my thirteenth birthday. I hadn’t read a book in years, but my mother chose well in her attempts to subtly steer me back towards academia. I got lost in it and immediately went in search of others. I found Mailer and Remnick and Marqusee and Miller, then essays by Liebling and Wolfe and Plimpton and Talese. I’ll revisit them all now, I’m sure, but really, Ali was placed in our world to be watched and listened to, not read about.
I don’t remember the first footage I ever saw of Ali. I imagine it was something from the BBC archives, Harry Carpenter adroitly playing the role of middle-aged, English straight man to Ali’s ageless, otherworldly charisma. He had an optical magnetism I have encountered neither before nor since. Physically, he appeared to me to be the most perfect specimen our human race has yet produced, the paragon of our species. Words like handsome or even beautiful don’t come close. Ali himself chose pretty and I loved how he so confidently commandeered that most feminine of adjectives.
I remember going to the cinema to watch Will Smith star in the Ali biopic and walking out about half way through. It was nothing against Smith or the movie, but attempting to replicate or imitate Ali’s life just seemed such a futile exercise to me. When the original subject has the presence of Brando, Elvis and JFK combined, it is best just to stick with documentaries.
Tyson came first for me: that barely restrained destructive force of nature was my hook into the sweet science when he obliterated Spinks and won me a 10p bet in doing so. Tyson’s viciousness was a peak of sorts in heavyweight boxing, it has been downhill in the division ever since he imploded in Japan. But before Mike, Ali, and his supporting cast of stars scaled much higher heights and shone so bright they’d blind today’s heavyweights into submission before the opening bell.
Watching Ali fight was and remains a surreal experience. I first viewed old Ali bouts during the golden era of Collins and Benn and Eubank and I remember thinking that the heavyweight seemed as quick of foot and fist as those great super middleweights in their pomp. And maybe he was. It wasn’t until he fought the great Archie Moore in his 16th bout that Ali tipped the scales over 200lbs, today’s lower limit for the heavyweight class. He always belonged with the big boys in what was then the sport’s marquee division, but Ali was a nimble but hurtful matador and they were just game, hefty bulls.
I used to get genuinely angry and frustrated when I thought about the three and half years Ali lost when he refused induction into the US army to play what would have been a superficial role in the Vietnam War. His inarguable peak, and the world never saw it. I tried to imagine sports stars of today placing themselves in a similar position. I tried to imagine myself having the guts to do something comparable with even less success. It took me years to see it from Ali’s point of view, that there are no superficial roles in a war you view as unjust, but I still struggle to comprehend his inner strength in taking such a costly stand.
He came back, of course, and continued writing history. But the enforced hiatus had fractionally dulled his reactionary genius and that was enough to force a change tact and show another side to his ring persona. With each passing fight he displayed an almost ungodly ability to absorb punishment from the biggest hitters in prizefighting. It proved a blessing and a terrible curse.
Many hail the Thrilla in Manila as the greatest professional boxing match ever witnessed. Incapable of seeing it without the numbing benefit of hindsight, I find it hard to watch. For many years I pretended Ali’s career ended that diaphoretic night in the Philippines. I refused to view footage of what came after or even read on in books that covered the painful battles with Young, Norton, Shavers, Spinks and, especially, the sad travesties of Holmes and Berbick. But after a while I came to realise that those bittersweet chapters are as important to the Ali legend as when he recovered against Cooper, bewildered Williams, taunted Terrell, felled Big George, or dropped Liston in one.
So much has been written about Muhammad Ali that there is precious little left to say. And what there is, someone better placed than me will wake up and say it today upon learning of his passing. I hope, therefore, you’ll forgive this very personal remembering of the only abstract person in my life that I can genuinely say influenced me.
I wrote to him once, more than twenty years ago now. Muhammad Ali, USA, I addressed the envelope and took a punt on a first class stamp. A month later a yellow envelope with a G.O.A.T imprint on it arrived in Belfast. Inside was an original black and white photograph of a young Ali leaning on the top rope, looking away from the camera with, I have always guessed, Angelo Dundee’s loving hand around the back of his neck. The Greatest Of All Times had signed his name in blue felt-tip just above his own perfect head.
I framed it and it is one of the very few possessions I have brought with me on each move I’ve made since. It still hangs above my desk, alongside photographs of family, and I look at it every single day. Sometimes I use it as a source of inspiration, on others as an excuse to dig out an old fight of his or read a passage from The Greatest: My Own Story. Sometimes I just smile and think that one day, if even just for a nanosecond in the most recondite of circumstances, Muhammad Ali had to have thought of fourteen-year-old me. And always, without fail, I shake my head at the undeniable fact that he really was as pretty as he so loved to tell us.