Muhammad Ali’s life was a masterpiece of our time

The world said a final goodbye to Muhammad Ali today as 'The Greatest' was laid to rest in his native Kentucky. To mark the occasion we have decided to highlight an editorial written earlier this week by our chief leader writer, Jack Power, which we are sure you will agree is a fitting tribute to the man.  

IF beauty without purpose is an incomplete, rattling thing, then Muhammad Ali’s wonderful life showed how an irresistible force can be created when great beauty and unwavering purpose align.

That beauty was first undeniable in the ring, sports’ most demanding, coldly unforgiving arena. Over the half-century and more since he had won Olympic gold in Rome, in 1960, Ali had lived a life built on unequalled charisma, an unflinching social conscience, a deep, confident spirituality, and a determination to be a positive agent for change.

He insisted, quite correctly, that he was The Greatest, but used that platform to try to instill in millions of people a belief in personal achievement — if not greatness. He used his first great professional victory, over the dangerous and brooding trade-union enforcer, Sonny Liston, to become one of our world’s great empowerers. He saw life as an equal- opportunities employer and, in a very different time, did all he could to make that message real for millions of people of every race and religion.

In the years after Rome, he demanded — ‘campaigned’ would be far too effete a word — that America end institutionalised racism and disadvantage. That obligation persists today, as it does in many societies, but it is hard to underestimate how influential this articulate, funny, and fearless young man was in forcing that great sea change.

He used wit and derision to hollow out the segregationists and the haters. Just as Ku Klux Klan terrorists try to mask their cowardice and fascism, Ali masked his seriousness, his radical, revolutionary intent, with clever jokes about cheeseburgers or Tarzan. A culture that predated America’s civil war was dealt a decisive body blow by the Louisville Lip.

Muhammad Ali’s life was a masterpiece of our time

The scale of that influence is recognised by US president Barack Obama who has a picture of Ali hanging in his private office — an acknowledgement that he might not be president of America but for game-changers like Ali.

Despite being crowned heavyweight champion of the world three times, that influence is Ali’s finest achievement. Here in Ireland, where we have just marked the first anniversary of the marriage-equality amendment, it is necessary to recall

The scale of that influence is recognised by US president Barack Obama who has a picture of Ali hanging in his private office — an acknowledgement that he might not be president of America but for game-changers like Ali. Despite being crowned heavyweight champion of the world three times, that influence is Ali’s finest achievement.

Here in Ireland, where we have just marked the first anniversary of the marriage-equality amendment, it is necessary to recall that demanding rights we take as absolutes was a dangerous business in the America of the 1960s.

John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luter King were assassinated for doing so, and, for many years, Ali’s life was at far greater risk outside the ring than in it.

That risk was exacerbated when he refused to fight in Vietnam.

The scale of that principled sacrifice, and the courage required to sustain

That risk was exacerbated when he refused to fight in Vietnam. The scale of that principled sacrifice, and the courage required to sustain it, cannot be underestimated.

He was banned from the ring for three years, at the very pomp of his career, but he could not be silenced and was vindicated when his anti-war view eventually, finally, prevailed.

He was banned from the ring for three years, at the very pomp of his career, but he could not be silenced and was vindicated when his anti-war view eventually, finally, prevailed.

A contemporary version, albeit a protest-lite, of that sacrifice would be if, say, Cristiano Ronaldo were to refuse to play in next week’s Euro 2016 championships, because of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. Just how likely is that?

As if to underline his humanity, Ali indulged character flaws that seemed unforgivable. His attitude to women was deeply hypocritical.

He was, at one time, the worst kind of chauvinist, but the glowing, soul-warming love shown by the women around him, for the last decades of his life, suggests that he confronted and defeated that demon, too.

His hateful goading — returned with interest — of the equally brave Joe Frazier was unbecoming and cruel. His brief flirtation with radical Islam was a mistake he came to regret.

And then the fates intervened, as they always do, to balance the books, to take their pound of flesh for bestowing such abundant and uplifting gifts on such an unlikely recipient, in such an unlikely time and place.

In December 1981, Ali fought his last fight — a ten-round humiliation at the hands of the much-younger Trevor Berbick — just weeks before his 40th birthday.

The wheezing, dulled, husk of what once was unquestionable magnificence was a harbinger of decades of painful public decline. Three years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

That terrible disease could not break his spirit, nor quench the soul that shined so brightly through mischievous eyes.

Every public appearance, ever more faltering but always brave, was a reminder of the closeness of our own mortality, of the fate none of us can escape. Where Ali once showed the world what could be, he now showed us all what would be.

In 1971, Ali and Frazier crashed like shifting tectonic plates in ‘The Fight of the Century’. That year, Bob Dylan, his contemporary and compatriot, wrote ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’.

If a life can be a masterpiece, and surely that is possible, then there’s no need to look for any other definition than the one that ended on Friday night, after 74 brimming years, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

READ MORE: PICS: Thousands gather for Muhammad Ali funeral procession

More on this topic

Muhammad Ali to be mourned with traditional Muslim prayer serviceMuhammad Ali to be mourned with traditional Muslim prayer service

Muhammad Ali's funeral to be live streamed in London's O2 ArenaMuhammad Ali's funeral to be live streamed in London's O2 Arena

Tributes flood in for Muhammad AliTributes flood in for Muhammad Ali

Boxing great Muhammad Ali dies at 74Boxing great Muhammad Ali dies at 74


Lifestyle

Children’s creativity is inspiring, says Helen O’Callaghan.Inspiring creativity: Kids on call for climate essay

'I came here for one thing, and that's to shine. That's why I'm wearing all this sparkly shit.'Review: Mick Flannery and Valerie June, Right Here Right Now festival, Cork Opera House

While love was in the air earlier this month, An Garda Síochána has warned daters of the potential dangers of looking for love online.Making Cents: Online daters can risk more than just their heart

It’s natural to worry if your kids keep picking up colds and tummy bugs at nursery or school.Can I prevent my children getting sick so often?

More From The Irish Examiner