John Riordan


Ali still the Greatest, still the heartbeat of America

As Muhammad Ali turns 70 today, a nation honours a sporting hero that has come to define what it means to be American, writes John Riordan

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

SEPTEMBER 1977, Madison Square Garden, New York City. Muhammad Ali is 35 years old and still — just about — the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I don’t know how you do it, you son of a bitch,” Ali’s famed cornerman Angelo Dundee thinks to himself, “but I love you for it.”

He makes it to the final bell but he has to drag one last effort out of somewhere unknowable simply to stay upright in his corner as they deliver the favourable verdict. “I’m tired. I’m so damn tired.”

His hard-hitting but over-the-hill opponent, Earnie Shavers, makes him suffer so much in their 15 rounds that Ali will promise to finish his career with the title and what’s left of his health.

“I’m through,” he will be overheard saying afterwards in the locker room by Sport’s Illustrated writer Pat Putnam. “I don’t need anyone else to tell me.”

Teddy Brenner, who has the final say on the famed venue’s boxing diary, warns anyone who’ll listen: “As long as I’m around, the Garden will never make another offer to Ali to fight.”

His last night near Broadway was the bookend of a more significant era: a four-year win streak, his late period of dominance, 14 wins over a mix of questionable opponents with a sprinkling of Manila Thrillas and Jungle Rumbles.

Alas, he wasn’t through. By fighting for another four years and in losing three of his last four fights, he would go on to embody the wrongheadedness of his country of birth.

“I am America.”

Of course that’s only part of the story because, as Ali turns 70 today, his status as hero to millions is undiminished by time and ill-health. And that’s why, for all his failings, this landmark birthday, is celebrated with such joy. Above all, he is America.

So much has changed since Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr arrived into a grim world, just weeks after Pearl Harbour was bombed, precipitating the burgeoning global power’s entry into World War II.

He grew up in the predominantly black West End neighbourhood of Louisville, Kentucky. He came of age with civil rights. He took up boxing at age 12, slighted by a stolen bicycle. Within a year, Rosa Parks would refuse to sit at the back of the bus.

As a new decade dawned, he fought and won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome in spite of the fact he was representing a divided country, one in which so many wrongs continued to be perpetuated against his race.

He was growing and so was America. But things would get worse before they got better. After his return from Italy, he claims to have been refused service at a whites-only restaurant which led him to throw his medal in the Ohio River. He walked away from Kentucky and amateurism in 1960.

Four years later, he walked away from his Baptist Church too, converting to Islam after defeating Sonny Liston. He would remain untouchable in the ring throughout that decade of head-spinning revolution.

But his greatest battle was outside the ring, the only place they could drag him down from his lofty perch, undefeated champion of the world. His courageous refusal to fight in Vietnam is easily underestimated nowadays in these highly politicised, liberated times. But in 1966 and 1967, the vast majority of the US public had yet to turn against the war and the brash opinions of this black athlete who hit and got hit for a living was as welcome as a Red under the bed.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong... no Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he would famously declare but even his own sport didn’t see it that way: he was stripped of his title.

While he lost three years of his athletic peak, America continued to grow, rolling with the punches before empowering itself to the point where it could bring down a president and rail against an unpopular war, just as its champ had a few years before.

Later came the oft-chronicled fall and decline. When he lit the flame at Atlanta in 1996, it wasn’t just the fight game that struggled to contain its shock. And yet, the sporting hero of a wide array of athletes refused to cower in the shadow of his disease. He became a bigger public figure, channelling the spirit of 1967, refusing to be held down.

They celebrated Muhammad Ali in Louisville on Saturday night.

The Greatest is still with us, diminished but present. An enduring allegory for this still young century.

A Muslim in a post 9/11 society, he is still America.

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