It is just one of the thousands of testaments laid upon the man in the last few weeks that a TV music and film review site should pay homage to Muhammad Ali. The testament in this case is in the fact that we’re actually running a tribute on him at all – Ali was not a movie star, or a singer, or an artist, he was a boxer.
Already I’m re-reading what I wrote and the words laid down above don’t seem to sit right. It can be argued that Ali was the greatest actor, singer and artist of all time, all wrapped into one, on top of being the greatest of sporting icons.
Even more reason to pay tribute can be found in Vulture Hound’s brief as a ‘culture magazine’. There is no person in the last fifty years who has held more cultural significance than Muhammad Ali.
Keeping it within the parameters of art, and specifically televisual art, Ali made impact here too. There are dozens of films made about the great man including The Greatest (1977 EMI Films), Freedom Road (1979, NBC Network), Facing Ali (2009, Network Entertainment) and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013, Kartemquin Films) to name a few. Two versions of his epic story that particularly connected with me were the docu-film When We Were Kings (1996, Polygram Filmed Entertainment), a gritty documentary filmed entirely around and during the historic ‘Rumble in The Jungle’ between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
The other film that caught my attention was Michael Mann’s Hollywood biopic Ali (2001 Forward Pass, Overbrook Films) with Will Smith in the title role. The movie moved relentlessly covering one of the most significant decades of Ali’s life starting when he defeated Liston for the first time, unexpectedly becoming Heavyweight Champion in the process, through to his conversion to Islam, his refusal to join the draft in the Vietnam War, his exile, and his comeback and defeat of Foreman in Zaire to return to the pinnacle of the sport. It is a movie of huge ambition that contained at its forefront one of Smith’s greatest performances. Smith showed no fear in carrying the weight of Ali’s legend and portraying it on the biggest of modern stages. To his upmost credit he almost lived up to the great man, playing Ali with power, poise and charisma.
But this isn’t about Smith, or movies, this is about the man himself. Ali has more right than any star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for a seat in the pantheon. Gather all the scriptwriters and novelists and songwriters in the entire world put their heads together and still there would not be enough imagination to come up with the greatest story of them all. It is the more reassuring that it is not a story based in fiction, but a story very much of fact.
The boy from Loiusville Kentucky, born in the heavy shadow of America’s slaverous past, who rose up and with an intensity of courage never before seen kept his fists down and his chin up ducking and diving, taunting and dodging and defeating the most ferocious fighters in the history of boxing, using a brand of the sport never before seen and never to be emulated. Not only did the ‘Louisville Lip’ put all their asses on the canvas, but he chose what round he’d do it in. However, even more impressive is the fact that time would realise these fights were mere warm-up bouts to the champion’s greatest battles. Here was the man of African descent, who, through the 60s 70s and 80s, stood up against racism and war. Who finally gave black communities and particularly black kids, searching for a sporting icon that could represent them, someone to look up to. Ali united all through his wit humour charm and good looks.
‘From the history of the world and from the beginning of time, there has never been another fighter like me’.
And there never will.
Rest in peace champ.
Muhammad Ali 1942 – 2016