We knew it was coming, but it still hit like a Sonny Liston jab – The Greatest, dead at 74.
Of all the stars of last century, none shone brighter, dug deeper or loomed larger in the public consciousness.
He was as good a heavyweight boxer as we have seen. He was the first man to win the world heavyweight championship three times. His conversion to Islam and refusal to serve in Vietnam made him an icon. Culturally, there is no athlete more important.
His engaging, playful personality, his smile, his rhymes and his wit that captured hearts, and made him the most beloved athlete in history.
Yet Ali could be extraordinarily cruel.
‘He’s the other type of Negro’
Joe Frazier, his fiercest rival, died in 2011.
Ali and Frazier go together like heads and tails, yin and yang. Their rivalry was highly flammable, and they brought out the best in each other.
But if Frazier brought out Ali’s best in the ring, he brought out his worst outside of it.
There was a dark side to Ali, best written about by Mark Kram in the searing Ghosts of Manila where he takes to task those who mythologised the man – like the writer Norman Mailer and broadcaster Howard Cosell.
During Ali’s feud with Frazier, which lasted until the latter’s death, he taunted him mercilessly – about his looks, his intelligence, for being an ‘Uncle Tom’.
“He’s the other type Negro, he’s not like me,” Ali once told an interviewer.
“That’s what I mean when I say Uncle Tom – I mean, he’s a brother, one day he might be like me, but for now he works for the enemy.”
The comments hurt Frazier to his core.
Revelling in Ali’s misfortune
Although there were periods of détente after their careers, Frazier’s dislike of Ali burned inside him all the way to the grave and he seemed to take pride in the fact Ali suffered health problems in later life.
“I sent him home worse than he came,” Frazier said.
“Him and me had three fights – he won two of them, I won one.
“But if you look at him now, you can see who won them all. Me.”
In later years, Ali was contrite.
“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him,” Ali said.
“I apologise for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”
The taunting of Frazier was Ali’s most savage, but it was by no means unique. He used to berate and belittle his opponents at every opportunity, all in the name of ‘promotion’.
Boxing gave everything to Muhammad Ali, but it exacted a price in return.
The last laugh
In the cruellest of ironies, he of the razor-sharp wit and scything tongue was rendered mute for the last 20 years of his life.
But while articulating his thoughts was problematic due to his Parkinson’s Syndrome, his sense of humour was as quick as ever.
In a 1990 appearance on the Phil Donohue Show with Frazier, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, Ali was asked if he felt boxing and all the punches to the head contributed to his condition.
Quick as a flash, he pointed to Frazier. “He took more than me,” Ali said.
There could be no denying boxing’s effects on Ali – listen to the rapid-fire speech patterns of the pre-1970 model compared to the one before his disastrous 1980 fight with Larry Holmes.
The epitome of greatness
In his prime, pre-1967, he was supernatural.
He had speed and grace and the reflexes of a Formula One driver.
When he came back, after his three-year ban for refusing to fight in Vietnam, he was stoic and wily – getting by with toughness and fox cunning as the physical gifts of his youth fell away.
His greatest rivals – Norton, Foreman and Frazier – all came along once Ali had reached the top of the hill and begun the long, slow ride down the other side.
After retiring, his status as a generational spokesperson grew as his physical condition deteriorated.
His lighting of the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996 remains an indelible image in the minds of those who saw it – Ali’s trembling arm in one final show of strength.