First, Bowie. Then Cruyff. Then Prince. Now Ali.
A few years ago in a newspaper office Enda McEvoy, also of this parish, raised his objection to the liberal use of the terms ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’ in GAA coverage; just how many genuinely iconic figures and iconic moments could a small sport have? Pumping a fist after scoring a goal in a provincial or even All-Ireland final did not an icon or an iconic moment make.
Even Enda though would have to accept the use of such language been commonly used to describe the aforementioned, recently deceased four. Ziggy eating Ronson’s guitar and the lightning bolt slashed face.
The Purple Rain album cover and white cloud guitar solo. The Cruyff Turn. And then the Ali Shuffle, the gape-mouthed ‘I Shook Up The World!’, the Get Up! Impossible Is Nothing shot in the rematch with Liston... Those are iconic images. Those are icons.
What also distinguished them – and what they shared – was that they were true independent thinkers.
Two weeks into this grim year, Arsene Wenger nailed it when it came to articulating the significance of Bowie.
“The message he gave to my generation was very important,” he’d say at his regular press conference following Bowie’s passing, “because it was after the Second World War and it was basically – be strong enough to be yourself.”
So what if you’d got your mother in a whirl ’cause she wasn’t sure if you were a boy or a girl? Hot tramp, Bowie loved you so.
Similar sentiments were expressed a few months later upon the passing of another musical giant. Like Bowie, Prince didn’t get all the controversy about whether you were a boy or a girl or if he was white or black, straight or gay; it’s part of why he was to America and the ‘80s what The Thin White Duke was to the UK and the ‘70s, though their work would transcend those boundaries and decades too.
Upon Prince’s passing, it was commonly mentioned how he distilled an astonishing calibre and number of influences into a distinctly unique style of his own: Hendrix, Santana, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Earth, Wind And Fire, Nile Rogers, Miles Davis, even back to the ‘50s double threat of Little Richard and Chuck Berry who have somehow managed to outlive him. Yet one of his most profound influences wasn’t mentioned, mainly because he belonged outside the musical domain.
Last weekend in the deluge of Ali coverage, it surfaced Muhammad Ali and Prince had befriended each other after meeting for the first time in 1997.
Ali was supporting a World Healing project, and upon learning MTV would have a crew at the launch, suggested they should seek Prince’s support. “We’d known it was an incredibly long shot to get [Prince] to say ‘Yes’ and travel on his own dime at such short notice,” David Clark, the man who introduced the two of them to each other, would tell the BBC. Yet 48 hours later, Prince had flown in from Minneapolis to Washington DC. “[A friend] said, ‘Muhammad wants you to...’ and I said ‘Yes,’” Prince would say at the launch. “He could have said ‘Mow the lawn’ and I would have been down with it. Muhammad’s my hero. He has been since I was a child.” After Prince died, it was remarkable the number of associates who spoke about how he lived his life on this earth as “a free man”.
Wearing what he wanted, seeing who he wanted, saying and singing what he wanted. That boldness didn’t just come from thin air. He couldn’t have sung self-affirming songs like Baby I’m A Star and I Would Die 4 U if he hadn’t been a child of Ali’s America as much as he was of James Brown’s telling him to say it loud, he was black and he was proud, ’cause black was beautiful.
Why couldn’t Minneapolis – a small, white city in the Midwest become the hottest musical spot on the planet in the mid-80s, just as a young footballer from Amsterdam would question why couldn’t little Holland be the best and most innovative football nation on earth? As a lippy kid from Louisville told them, Impossible is Nothing.
They could be whatever they – and no else – wanted to be. He was the embodiment of Marianne Willamson’s ‘Deepest Fear’ poem; by being liberated from his own fear, he automatically liberated those others – who in turn liberated so many more.
That’s what made Ali The Greatest. He was not necessarily the world’s best sportsperson of the 20th century.
Sports Illustrated probably got it right in giving the nod to Michael Jordan in their 1999 special edition for his sheer night-in, night-out brilliance, dominance, artistry athleticism. No Ken Norton beat Jordan twice – for Norton, hardly a Frazier, did essentially beat Ali twice – in the playoffs. No one ever thought a Foreman-like figure like Shaquille O’Neal would be too much for a Jordan with a full regular season behind him; at 33, a year older than Ali was in Zaire, Jordan would dump O’Neal’s Orlando Magic out of the playoffs, 4-0.
Yet as much as Jordan transcended his own sport and sport in general, he did not have the same cultural impact as an Ali because he chose not to have the same sense of social justice. What made Ali the greatest wasn’t that he was the best but that he was the most important and the most influential sportsperson ever. So important and influential, he inspired and affected those with little interest in sport.
David Bowie wasn’t a jock – unlike Prince, he won’t be the source of a Charlie Murphy-Dave Chappelle pancakes and Game Blouses skit im mortalising his sporting prowess – but he was a stud, and it’s easy to see him, back when he was just plain old David Jones, dragging on his cigarette, reading the paper and thinking: that Ali is cool.
The second-last tweet Ali put out was to mark the passing of his friend, Prince. “We’ve lost a true original. Prince was someone who cared for others and used his genius to help many.”
If he were still around, the little giant from Minneapolis could have said the same about him. Ali was the originals’ original, A Rebel’s Rebel, the one who empowered them all that they too could shake up the world.