Muhammad Ali, who died at aged 74, called himself the greatest and made good the claim, not merely as the most talented world heavyweight boxing champion, but also as one of the most irresistible and compelling personalities of his age.
If his emergence as a symbol of political and racial protest was rather more specious, Ali became the most universally recognised figure in the world. And unlike so many other icons of the Sixties – John and Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, and Martin Luther King – he survived the hostility he aroused.
His tragedy, rather, was that his long career in the ring reduced him to a physical wreck, albeit a greatly loved physical wreck. “Hell, even people who don’t like Ali like Ali now”, it was observed in the 1990s. In 2005 George W Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Poll after poll recorded that he was regarded as the most influential sportsman of the century.
Yet when he first burst upon the scene in the 1960s, as Cassius Clay, he appeared as the most outrageous braggart ever to have adorn a boxing ring. “If Liston even dreamed he could beat me,” he taunted the world heavyweight champion, “he’d wake up and apologise.”
His admirers warmed to the high spirits and good humour that underlay his unremitting self promotion, and loved him the more for taking such huge delight in his own act. But American boxing commentators – men who had blithely ignored the gangsterism that surrounded the sport – fulminated against the upstart for undermining what they conceived as the dignity of the ring.
It gradually became evident, however, that Clay possessed the talent to match his own hype. In the first stage of his stage of his career, it was difficult to lay a glove on him. If Henry Cooper succeeded in knocking him down at the end of round four of their fight in 1963, that was largely because Clay was fooling around prior to fulfilling his prediction that the British boxer would fall in five.
Clay’s mantra, that he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was an accurate description of his boxing style. In his prime he would glide effortlessly around the ring with his hands down, casually swaying out of the way of fearsome blows, and countering with lightning punches from all angles.
Even so, before Clay fought Liston for the world championship at Miami Beach on February 25 1965, the experts were virtually unanimous that he would receive his comeuppance. The result seemed so inevitable that the arena was only half full.
Liston was a terrifying figure, who had scored even more knockout victories than he had served prison sentences. Clay privately admitted that he was scared; in public, though, he redoubled his braggadocio and baiting, turning up at Liston’s training camp with a lasso, to go “bear hunting”.
“I’m going to put that ugly bear on the floor,” he boasted, “and after the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whip him.”
“This will be the easiest fight of my life,” he assured incredulous reporters. “I’m too fast. He’s old. I’m young. He’s ugly, I’m pretty.” And he produced some new verses for the occasion:
Who would have thought When they came to the fight That they’d witness the launching Of a human satellite.
Liston, never loquacious even in his rare moments of affability, could only promise pain and destruction. At the weigh-in it seemed that Clay was breaking down in hysteria as, with his pulse beating at twice its normal rate, and his eyes rolling, he shrieked insults at Liston.
But when the fight began Clay proved, gloriously, as good as his boasts. Surviving a desperate fifth round when he was blinded by some mysterious substance, he completely demoralised Liston, and by the sixth round was hitting him at will. The supposedly unbeatable champion failed to appear for the next round. “Eat your words,” Clay screamed triumphantly at the hacks from the ring.
On the morrow he gave the assembled scribes fresh cause for grievance him by declaring that he had become a Black Muslim. He was renouncing his “slave name”, and would thenceforward be known as Muhammad Ali.
In fact he had been involved with the Nation of Islam since 1959. Before the Liston fight, Malcolm X, the movement’s most charismatic figure, had been at Miami Beach to instil the challenger with a sense of destiny. “Do you think Allah has brought about all,” Malcolm X demanded, “intending for you to leave the ring as anything but champion?”
The Black Muslims were dedicated, under their leader Elijah Mohammad, to the separation of the black from the white race. White civilisation, they believed, was the product of the devil’s race, and Christianity was the means whereby they maintained their domination.
From such doctrines Ali now claimed to draw his spiritual sustenance. He became scathingly dismissive of what he called “Uncle Tom” negroes, and cast himself as folk hero to underprivileged American blacks who found a role model in his cocky and confident demeanour.
“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” he would say years afterwards. “I had to show the world.” This meant taunting even black opponents – Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton – with being great white hopes.
Yet no one who knew Ali could believe for a moment that he really hated whites. His membership of the Black Muslims was a shameful inconsistency, another of the myriad paradoxes that formed his character.
The accomplished chat show performer, full of charm and wit, and razor-sharp with his repartee, could turn on the instant into a ranting religious lunatic. The high-minded Muslim, given to expressing disgust at the provocative dress of white women, was a promiscuous womaniser with a penchant for foul-mouthed jokes.
The supreme practitioner of the most brutal of sports continued to pride himself – and with some reason – on being “the prettiest”. The most joyous of pranksters, a man who genuinely loved children, handed out a vicious beating in the ring to an incapacitated Ernie Terrell – merely because Terrell had insisted on calling him “Clay” rather than “Ali”.