Muhammad Ali Clay

Floats like a butterfly stings like a bee

For those of us d’un certain age the above title sums up Muhammed Ali. Unusually this eloquence was not coined by the Champion of all Champions but by Drew “Bundini” Brown one of Ali’s corner-men (unwelcomed by coach Angelo Dundee) a hyper-ventilating fluffer who’s task was to pump Ali up for the battles in the ring and out of it.

As so much commentary has centred on Ali’s political and religious life let me take a moment to take you back…

It was 1964, I was ten years old, and my father got me out of bed in what seemed to be the middle of the night, to watch the apparently crazed contender the then Cassius Clay face the mighty smouldering hulk of Sonny Liston then heavyweight Champion of the World.

Few, at least among us white folks, gave him a prayer of any kind. My father and therefor me were exceptions to that rule. No-one else in his factory or my school gave the “Louisville Lip” a hope in hell. And almost all looked forward to the lip being fattened and the boastful braggart being flattened by the stoic ex-convict Liston.

Liston had been awarded temporary membership of the white race in the run up to the fight because Clay wasn’t no “Gentleman Jim”.

Clay was everything which terrified most whites at that time. He didn’t just look the descendants of the slavers in the eye as an equal but stared them down in contempt. He was the black folks revenge. He was 22 and handsome he was 6ft 3ins big and strong. But more than that, he was smart.

And as a boxer he was sublime. No-one before or since combined such gigantic physical stature with such grace such speed. He could dance like a Prince he could punch like a piston. And he was the only man alive who wasn’t scared of Sonny Liston.

Muhammed Ali could dance like a Prince he could punch like a piston.

Cassius Clay or Muhammed Ali as he would become just days later gave birth that night (at least for the white world) to a new kind of blackness. It was the arrival of the field negro in the drawing rooms of the rest of us. It was the beginning of the end of the house servant image of maids and white-jacketed black butlers. And for people like me it was a moment of epiphany.

When Liston slumped on his chair and failed to rise for the heralding the beginning of the 8th round the bell tolled not just for him but for the old order in which he had played his last allotted part.

Clay cascaded across the ring looking for the ropes and the cameras beyond. I told you he said, I told you…

Most of the rest of the 60s passed as a black and white TV boxing blur with Ali doing his shuffle his left jab lacerating all who came before him finishing an array of opponents usually in the round he had predicted.

Sometimes he kept them standing for further punishment, usually if they had failed to keep up with the lightening fast transformation of blackness which he personified. If he considered them “Uncle Toms”.

Remarkably swiftly, looking back, then came the draft. “White people sending black people to kill yellow people for a country they had stolen from red people” as Ali put it, none too politically correctly.

In 1967 Ali was drafted to fight in Vietnam in the war then raging, where 58,000 US soldiers perished, hundreds of thousands were maimed and damaged and where more than two millions of Vietnamese and later Cambodians were slain, their countries drowned in an ocean of chemical weapons which still bear strange fruit in the maternity wards of Indo-China half a century later.

Again, no-one could have put the dilemma more clearly than the Champion himself:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail”

Ali was sentenced to five years of imprisonment, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for nearly four years – at the very height of his athletic prowess. The US committed many more terrible atrocities in this era but this crime must be added to the list.

And yet as so often what seemed like his darkest hour became in fact the making of a legend.

If Ali had been “just” a prizefighter, even the greatest the world has ever seen his death this weekend would have been notable but limited in scope and duration.

But Ali has died – after 30 years of virtual silence from the most talkative man on the planet – to truly universal regret and a round of applause which will surely never die out.

His enemies, now long forgotten, together with the gifts given to him by a God in which he truly fervently believed made him into the best known man on the planet and surely one of most loved, ever.

When I think back to that middle of the night sofa in 1964 that all seems like some kind of a miracle. And maybe it was.

Ali was no angel though with the angels he surely now dwells. He was a man. Take him for all and all, we shall not look upon his like again.