Thursday, 31 October 2013

Muhammad Ali: An icon for all seasons - by Jim Black

FEW of us are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to meet our heroes.
I have been blessed these past 40 years in my job as a sportswriter to meet many of those others can only admire from afar.
But if I had to pick just one from the many it has been my privilege to encounter up close and personal - from Pele to Palmer, Baxter to Best, Nicklaus and Watson and their Duel in the Sun - it’s no contest.
It was 20 years ago and Muhammad Ali had come to Glasgow to promote the publication of a pictorial history of his career.
HowardBingham’s “A Thirty Year Journey” charts Ali’s rise from Olympic gold medallist at the Rome Games of 1960 to his status as a three-time world heavyweight champion, the only man to achieve the remarkable feat.
Ali declared himself to be “The Greatest.” Others will argue a case for Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson et al. But, for me, Ali was the Greatest and always will be.
Not only was Ali the most famous sportsman on the planet, he was arguably also the most famous human being of his generation.
Ali transcended Presidents and Prime Ministers. They knew his name in the deepest jungles of Africa and the wilds of the Australian outback.
He is also a controversial and charismatic figure who has polarized opinion. But it has never mattered to me that he changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, converted to Islam, and refused to be conscripted into the U.S Military.
I idolised Ali and still do, so having the opportunity to meet the man face-to-face in October 1993 represented one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I can still recall the butterflies in my stomach and the dry mouth as I approached the King of the World that Friday afternoon for a brief audience lasting no more than five minutes.
In truth, there was never any hope of conducting an in-depth interview, not least because the hellish disease which has ravaged his body and mind had already taken hold.
Ali sat behind a small desk next to his close friend Bingham. His facial features appeared unchanged. Still handsome and clean-cut, Ali was smartly suited and booted and exuded a presence that permeated the entire bookstore.
I could think of nothing better to stammer than “Muhammad, can I shake the hand that shook the world?”
He nodded, rose slowly and offered his right hand. I took it and I swear had he been wearing a ring of papal proportions I would have kissed it. Instead, I settled for a simple handshake.
I cannot recall for exactly how long I held the hand that “shook the world” but I do remember telling him what he meant to me and when I had finished my wholly inadequate delivery, he replied in a barely audible voice hardly above a whisper, “Thank you.”
I think I wanted to burst into tears at that point. Here was my all-time hero, a victim of Parkinson’s syndrome, thanking me when all I wanted to do was stand and soak in every moment of an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life and one that I doubt will ever be surpassed.
I can still picture clearly in my mind as if it were only yesterday the fine-boned fingers of hands that had inflicted such terrible damage in the ring and yet appeared to belong to a concert pianist.
Ali hid those hands from view most of the time due to a developing tremor and the book signing consisted of Bingham pasting down labels bearing Muhammad’s signature in the flysheets of his splendid book.
Having secured my own copy and been photographed with my hero, I slowly and reluctantly left the stage for others to savour their moment in the company of true greatness.
Of course the cynicism that has grown in me over the years, dealing with the inflated egos of much lesser mortals, was not nearly so prevalent back then. But even if it had been it wouldn’t have made a scrap of difference.
I am not sure how long I remained on a high, but, suffice to say, when I entered my local that evening I was already partially drunk on adrenalin.
And, like a boy with a new toy, I proudly showed off my signed copy, explaining in detail to all those who were willing to listen that I had achieved a lifetime’s ambition.
One of the assembled drinkers, a Glasgow businessman offered me £1,000 for my prized possession. He would still have been wasting his time had he tried to tempt me with ten times as much.
Some years ago, someone asked me if I had really wanted to meet my hero when he was no longer perfect.
You bet I did, for whenever I catch sight of Ali in his wheelchair I don’t see a figure with a broken body.
I still see only the Adonis who transformed boxing and who transcended all other sportsmen of his or any other generation.
Ali has enriched the lives of so many, so why should he now be shut away in his twilight years?