SOME human qualities defy understanding and, occasionally, the less we understand these qualities the more they, and the people who enjoy them, inspire us.
Charisma, empathy, courage, sincerity, natural generosity and emotional intelligence are some of these enigmatic qualities. When they are combined with great physical beauty, amazing athleticism, a tremendously articulate and perceptive wit and exemplary moral courage they become irresistible.
All this sounds far too good to be true, far too sycophantic and manufactured, but any of us lucky enough to remember Muhammad Ali in his sensational, truly beautiful prime can easily accept that one person can be endowed with all of these enviable, uplifting qualities.
In every lifetime very few people embody these traits. In our age of vapid celebrity not even half a dozen people can be so categorised. Nelson Mandela easily falls into that category but virtually everyone else would need the skills of a good advocate to guarantee inclusion.
That Ali used these qualities to realise great achievements and to advance great humanitarian principles despite being born into a segregated and racist society makes the achievement all the greater.
That at the very height of his sporting fame he surrendered the great advantages an Olympic gold medal and a world heavyweight title confer by refusing, in 1967, to serve in the American army in Vietnam elevated him to another level.
This gesture was not the publicity-seeking gesture of some perma-tanned show pony on a flying visit from their tax haven of choice, but it was a brave, revolutionary decision with very real consequences.
It could have cost him his fortune and it did, for four years, cost him his licence to fight. At a period in American history when assassination was so in vogue — Kennedy, Luther King, Kennedy — there were very real fears for his life. He certainly provoked the depth of hatred needed to bring such a response. It cost him a lot but, in the end, won him so much more.
Try and imagine, if you can, which one of today’s stars would defy a superpower and risk the prospect of returning to the poverty of their childhood — and even risk death — on a point of principle. Exactly.
That he became so significant in the civil rights battles of the 1960s without being able to either read or write is another indication of the force of his moral courage.
It is 42 years since Ali took this stand and the admiration it engendered is as strong today as it was then. In recent decades Ali has reminded us all of our own mortality because which of us is not be moved by the sight of such a once beautiful athlete battling with Parkinson’s Disease. But such is the force of Ali’s persona, his presence and charisma that the disease has nearly always played second fiddle to the man. It is a terrible burden but it is not a defeat.
Nowadays Ali devotes his time to humanitarian causes and promoting Islam. Yesterday he was honoured in Ennis, Co Clare, the hometown of his great grandfather. This connection may at first seem implausible but in a life as fantastic as Ali’s who can rule anything out? Let us all welcome him. Let us wish him well and thank him for the great example he continues to show to us all.
He is, indeed, The Greatest.
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