The Greatest has been granted his last request. The most recognisable man on the planet has gone to touch gloves with his maker after the longest, bravest, most anguished struggle of his phenomenal fighting life.
The final bell has tolled for the boxing artist, formerly known as Cassius Clay. As those sonorous chimes reverberated around a saddened world, they signalled the end of his protracted battle with one of the most pernicious diseases to afflict mankind.
Parkinson’s took the decision on points. Not at the conclusion of 15 rounds of dazzling fisticuffs, but after more than 30 years of grievous attrition. Muhammad Ali is still the all-time heavyweight champion of the world. Forever will be.
Simplicity was but one part of the complex sum of Ali’s genius but in this basic, brilliant rhyme he set down the definitive statement of his unique gift for the art he truly ennobled.
From the butterfly to the bee. From the Ali Shuffle to the Rope-a-Dope. From the Rumble in the Jungle to the Thrilla in Manila. From Clay to Ali, he found the explicit phrase to match his epic performances.
The most extraordinary pugilist of all found expression outside as well as inside the ring. Ali spoke in the tongues of poets and, after he found Islam, the prophets.
To the red-neck city of Houston, Texas. To the night when tough Ernie Terrell came to challenge the world champion by refusing to call him by his adopted Islamic name.
‘What’s my name?’ asked Ali as the referee called them from their corners.
‘Cassius Clay,’ replied Terrell.
‘What’s my name?’ demanded Muhammad, time after time after time, as he rained punch after punch after punch on his insolent opponent but kept withholding the knock-out blow so he could inflict further retribution, round after round.
It was a message hammered out not only to the head and body of one foolishly bigoted, if brave, individual but to white America at large. A message delivered by the Black Muslim champion of civil liberty and freedom of speech.
In 1967, with America at war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali declined induction into the United States Army. The heavyweight champion of the world, the glistening totem of his nation’s global power, refused to fight. That decision required at least as much courage as even the most extreme of his conflicts in the ring.
There were undercurrents of racism in the ensuing torrents of public outrage. Less than 24 hours after he failed to answer his country’s call to enlist, Ali was stripped of the WBA belt and banned from boxing.
Within two months he had been convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He never served his time. After three years of appeals he lifted the last, lingering threat of incarceration by announcing what proved to be a temporary retirement from the ring.
Within another 12 months America had relented, if not forgiven. Ali’s comeback was already under way by the time the Supreme Court set aside his conviction.
Redemption, adulation, deification even, were to be a lot longer coming for the devilishly handsome black boy who announced that he had cast his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after returning triumphant from the 1960 Games in Rome, only to be denied service in a Louisville diner because of his colour.
Thirty-six years later – on that warm and emotional night in a stadium in Atlanta when the world watched with its heart in its mouth and a tear in its eye as he defied Parkinson’s to safely ignite the 1996 Olympic flame – they gave him a replica.
From the maternity ward at Louisville General Hospital at 6.35pm on January 17, 1942 to his rocking chair beneath the shady trees of his ranch at Berrien Springs, Michigan, this was the most improbable journey. One which improved and excited the lives of all those of us fortunate enough to encounter him along the momentous way.
It is a story summoned up from the indomitable spirit, told from the enormous heart and beaten out by the lightning fists of Muhammad Ali. In its gut, it is the chronicle of the No 1 fighting man. From draft dodger to freedom fighter. From the fastest mouth in the Midwest to supreme sporting icon.
From reviled to revered.
‘Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
The hands can’t hit
What the eyes can’t see’