Death of a Legend: Muhammad Ali – ‘the Nelson Mandela of Sport’ – Who Changed the World from Inside and Outside the Boxing Ring.
By iSportconnect | June 6, 2016
Michael Pirrie pays tribute to Muhammad Ali and a Life of Olympic proportions.
Winning an Olympic medal of any hue or colour is usually the highlight in the career of most sportsmen and women, but Muhammad Ali’s Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960 was just the start of a career so spectacular and so full of highlights that it overshadowed even his Olympic achievements, and so extraordinary that it seemed Ali may have somehow fallen to Earth from another planet.
While Alia’s abilities and aura transcended sport, his performance at the Rome Olympic Games however provided the platform and launching pad for something special in sport, an odyssey like no other which was to include many connections with the Olympic Movement and family to whom Ali would return throughout his career, in retirement and even in declining health, and which embraced him as a favourite son, most recently when Ali helped to carry the Olympic flag into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a city with which Ali had a special rapport, and perhaps fittingly, where the rules of boxing were codified.
The London Olympics also was perhaps appropriately Ali’s last global audience, and in many ways Ali’s life in sport and in society embodied the Olympic values of respect, friendship and excellence more than any other athlete of our times – indeed Ali became a role model and inspiration for other Olympians such was the awe in which he was held, including by my former boss, the dual Olympic gold medalist and chairman of the London Olympic Games organising committee and recently elected IAAF President, Sebastian Coe.
Ali was the Nelson Mandela of sport, and like Mandela, who at one stage harboured ambitions to be a boxer and even to go to the Olympics, Ali changed and shook up the world. It is interesting that similar outpourings of global grief and loss have also greeted the passing of both Mandela and Ali.
Ali was a different human being and different sportsman from the outset. Almost from the moment he stepped into the boxing ring, Ali was a magnet for the cameras, mass media and world of sport and beyond, curious about the emergence of a new figure with such an uncommon presence, charisma and self-belief that he even predicted the round in which his opponents would fall.
Ali was a sporting and human phenomenon like no other precisely because he was so different, so talented and motivated to help others fighting different struggles outside the ring against racism and racist systems, and this radiated out into homes, offices, classrooms, and community halls around the world and captured the imagination and admiration of the global community.
Ali took boxing to new levels and in doing so elevated sport to an art form – he was the physical expression of poetry in motion, a boxing ballet dancer. The Leonardo da Vinci of sport. Ali also mixed sport with preaching and the pursuit of racial justice and shocked the political and sporting establishments.
Like the great artists over the centuries, Ali defied the critics and pursued his vision, creating a series of stunning sporting masterpieces composed under some of the most hostile, adverse and brutal conditions that an athlete could experience, some fights so extreme that Jungle-like comparisons and descriptions of the fight settings and atmosphere were made, such as in Zaire.
Ali delivered performances that defied belief, and which went beyond what was thought to be humanly possible in elite sport, like winning the heavyweight championship title on three unprecedented occasions – even after he was thought to have passed his peak.
Ali filled his sporting canvasses with moves, strokes and flourishes so vivid, original and daring in their imagination and execution that he left impressions on the sporting landscape so unique they could never be copied nor repeated, and like the five famous Olympic rings, Ali came to symbolise sporting excellence across the continents.
His fights in the boxing ring evolved into global events, referred to as “thrillers” and he left a legacy of his own greatest hits long before Michael Jackson’s pop performances were similarly described.
Ali was the most famous athlete of his era, similar to the black Olympic sprinting champion Jesse Owens, who like Ali, became a celebrated human rights athlete after he demolished Hitlers white supremacy beliefs by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
While many people who achieve great things in their lives are often not fully appreciated until after they die, Ali came to be revered and respected in his lifetime. Indeed, the BBC World News devoted its entire news service to coverage of his death, which is almost unprecedented.
And what a celebration of life and the human spirit it was, when Ali haltingly ignited the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games in defiance of the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and four years later, when Ali was universally acknowledged as Sportsman of the Century.
While Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, the draft and his fight for human rights, improved race relations and embrace of Islam may have divided American society at the time, his courage and integrity in living with the consequences of his beliefs and actions, and in particular bringing God, religion, and morality into sport – perhaps best demonstrated by eye witness accounts of Ali handing out $100 bills to poor beggars lined up to see him on a visit to South America – have united the world.
Former and current US Presidents and international leaders led the world in mourning Ali’s loss, along with millions of sports fans and many others with little or no interest in sport, but who loved Ali and his fight for the disposed, less fortunate and victims of racism – a fight, which, like his boxing epics, transcended national borders.
Ali, of course, also brought much loved humour, entertainment and stadiums full of new fans to sport. He gave sport a good name, and he brought new styles, moves and innovation to his sport and to modern culture, including the ‘Ali foot shuffle’, perhaps paving the way for Michael Jackson’s famous Moon Walk!
Ali also brought a sense of wonder and joy to sport and a belief that anything is possible in sport, similar perhaps to the performances of Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt, and his wildly popular victory dance and gestures.
Ali was a sporting force the likes of which we will never see again. He is the closest we have seen to sporting perfection, and used his fame to engage the world in a conversation about wider society and treatment of people.
Ali was the perfect ambassador for IOC President Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reform programme, with its focus on taking sport into society and inspiring young people, and the IOC should perhaps look at setting up a permanent Muhammad Ali installation or exhibition in its new Lausanne Museum, if not a statue of Ali outside its headquarters.
In many ways he was the prototype Olympian as might have been envisaged by the founder of the modern Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin. And like de Coubertin, Ali was never won the award that he perhaps most deserved for his services to humanity, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps the time has come for the Nobel judges to change the rules so that its greatest award for the promotion of peace can be given post humously.
Like the Olympic rings, Ali brought the world closer though sport. He made the world a better place and will be missed like few others. He was known as “The Champ” and “The Greatest,” but perhaps he was really ‘The Greatest Champ.’
Perhaps also Marco Balich, director of the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, and his team should immediately start to restructure the ceremony so that a tribute to Ali can be included in the opening to the world’s greatest sporting spectacle coming soon to Rio. You can already hear the rapturous applause and standing ovations that would greet such a segment for a man who is admired in just about every city, community and village around the world, and who means so much to modern sport, the Olympics and the world.
Michael Pirrie is an international sports consultant and commentator who has worked in senior positions for successful major event bidding and organising committees, including the London 2012 Olympic Games Bid , where he led the international communications and media relations programme, and was Executive Advisor to the Chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Games Organising Committee, Sebastian Coe.