Monday, 28 January 2019

Joyous With Words

Hugh McIlvanney was more than just a sports writer, the man was literally 'joyous with words' as is obvious from this remarkable and fitting tribute to Muhammad Ali. 


Hugh McIlvanney on the most compelling figure in the history of sport

The combination of a magnetising physical presence and a personality that was uniquely captivating made Muhammad Ali one of a kind

Hugh McIlvanney - The Sunday Times
Fist pump: perhaps the most famous photograph of Ali, standing over Liston during first round knockout of Sonny Liston in May 1965 - NEIL LEIFER

It is pretty much incontestable that at the height of his fame as the most compelling figure in the history of sport, and self-appointed master of ceremonies to mankind, Muhammad Ali was the most widely recognised human being on the planet. No contemporary political figure, however influential or notorious, impinged on the consciousness of so many people. Nor did the most celebrated film stars or popular entertainers.

When the Beatles met up with him on their tour of America early in 1964, he was still two or three weeks away from the sensational defeat of Sonny Liston that made him undisputed heavyweight champion of the world barely a month after his 22nd birthday. Yet even then John, Paul, Ringo and George accepted happily enough that while they were in his company they would be the supporting act.

The legitimising platform for his capacity to enthral billions around the globe was always the prodigious scale of the athletic gifts that enabled him to become the only boxer who has ever reigned three times as the master of the heavyweights, a distinction whose worth is unimaginable now that the proliferation of sanctioning bodies has fractured the world title beyond recognition and the scraps are being hoovered up by a generation of fighters who are at best dully efficient. Ali would not have been able to behave as if addressing the earth’s masses from a celestial podium had he not brought a sense of the epic to the blood-and-snot business transacted inside the ropes.

His feats there provided the original and sustained validation of his claim on our attention, from the toppling (amid unforgettable scenes a full decade and thousands of miles apart) of two men who had assumed the fearsomeness of ogres, Liston and George Foreman, to his dramatic trilogy of confrontations with his truest and most respected adversary, Joe Frazier.

His immunity to convention helped him expand the tactical inventiveness in which he took huge pride

But his appeal owed at least as much to the effect of a beautiful and magnetising physical presence and an essentially unsophisticated but uniquely captivating personality, a central element of which was a genius for the comic so engaging that he was capable of spreading not just laughter but joy.

Like his joking, the entire impact of his life owed much to its timing. He erupted among us when the reach of electronic media was widening exponentially, and television swiftly identified him as demanding tireless coverage. His iconoclasm, too, as a sportsman and as a social force, gained in authority from having a helpful historical context.

The 1960s was a period when rebelliousness was rife in many societies, especially among the young, and he was adopted as a symbol of its best aspirations. But the circumstances of the age don’t begin to explain the miracles of popularity and relevance he wrought. Future historians, when assessing the Ali phenomenon, may find themselves concerned less with the self-transcending power of sporting greatness than with the mysterious alchemy by which he generated in a huge swathe of humanity not so much affection and approval as a feeling that permits no definition other than love.

By no means everything he did contributed to the accumulation of that near-universal warmth towards him. Even the defiance of white society’s oppressive attitudes that earned him the status of a standard-bearer for black pride might have been considered tainted when he showered taunts and cruel Uncle Tom insults on ring opponents with much rawer experience of colour prejudice than he ever had.
An old trainer in Louisville told Ali that if he practiced in the pool the water resistance would act just like a weight - FLIP SCHULKE

And listeners did not have to be redneck bigots to be appalled and angered by the deranged virulence of the racist diatribes he spouted when preaching the doctrines that constituted the creed of the Nation of Islam while Elijah Muhammad, aka the Messenger, was its leader. Yet Ali was never remotely convincing as a hater and his admirers didn’t feel they were being naive in claiming to recognise, beyond what they saw as outrageous role-playing, the lovable core of an intrinsically good man. They remained sure it was not merely natural but right to be enraptured by him.

The light that dazzled so irresistibly was doused long ago. For nearly 30 years the man who persuaded us to regard him as The Greatest had been imprisoned in the twilit existence decreed by an inexorably engulfing infirmity, a merciless decline directly caused by absorbing too many punches to the head.

When his feet were dancing and his gloved hands were achieving a swiftness and fluency never seen from a man of his size before or since, when he revelled in acting out and verbalising his own Superman scripts, untold numbers seemed to be mesmerised into imagining the violence they witnessed was occurring in some kind of comic-strip dimension where their hero wasn’t subject to the harsh consequences of his trade. But Superman was suffering brain damage.

Universal grace: Ali is quite rightly remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time - ALAMY

Years prior to his retirement in 1981 there were unmistakable portents of the problems ahead, of the Parkinson’s syndrome (not, it should be stressed, Parkinson’s disease but a condition with similar symptoms attributed in his case to physical trauma of the brain stem) that would freeze his once vibrant features into an expressionless mask, make his arms tremble uncontrollably, bring a leaden ponderousness to his walk and reduce the voice that riveted his global audience to a blurred whisper often indecipherable at a distance of a couple of feet.

Eventually the noisiest of athletes was trapped in virtual silence, generally restricted to communicating the mischief still active in his brain through simple sign language — as when, while at the White House in 2005 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he responded to George W. Bush’s mock offer to trade punches by putting a shaky right index finger to his temple and twirling it.

There was as much irony as poignancy in that playfulness at the medal ceremony. Ali was anything but the darling of his government on the previous occasion when he could be said to have fronted up to the Commander-in-Chief, by refusing to be drafted into the US army in 1967.

He cited his religious beliefs but the quotes forever connected with his stance present a plainer justification: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and the later appropriation of the black activist Stokely Carmichael’s line, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”. The five-year jail sentence handed down for refusing the draft hung over him as a genuine threat until in 1971 the Supreme Court — as the result of a tortured process of argument and negotiation among eight justices and, ultimately, their homing in on a legal technicality —swung abruptlyfrom 5-3 in favour of affirming his conviction to 8-0 for overturning it.

He did have to endure the incarceration of his talent and his earning power. American boxing authorities reacted with vindictive alacrity to his declaration that he wouldn’t serve in the army, ruling he was no longer champion and ensuring that no US state would license him to fight. With his passport revoked (routine after conviction of a felony), he faced an exile from the ring whose cost was certain to be physical as well as financial. It was to last three and a half years and when he returned to action in October 1970 the leg speed that had been such a vital component of his extravagantly idiosyncratic fighting style was largely a memory, and he had to rely increasingly on his freakish ability to withstand head punches. No boxer I ever saw did that more amazingly than Ali but the awe his resilience evoked was always accompanied by deep dread of its implications for his health.

However, long before the misgivings closed in on our appreciation of him with the full force of guilt, he had used the second phase of his career to make irrefutable the case for acknowledging that, in the entire annals of sport, he was an unparalleled wonder. That span contained the dramas with Frazier and Foreman, the second and third winning of the heavyweight title, countless demonstrations that he could be as hypnotically theatrical outside the ring as he was in it — and, above all, the maturing of the world’s love affair with the story begun in the maternity ward of Louisville General Hospital in Kentucky on 17 January 17, 1942.

The child who would grow up to be The Greatest clearly inherited much more than an unignorable name from his father

At birth Ali, who would stand 6ft 3ins and have an ideal weight of a few pounds over 15st in his prime, was an unspectacular 6lbs 7oz but it’s recorded that the size of his head meant doctors had to use forceps to ease him from his mother’s womb. The mark left on his right cheek would seldom be noticed amid the striking handsomeness his face developed through his teenage years.

His parents could scarcely have presented more of a contrast. His mother had been Odessa Lee Grady (one of her grandfathers, Abe Grady, was from County Clare, Ireland) when she married Cassius Marcellus Clay, whose resonant name was bestowed on him in honour of the brilliant and tempestuous 19th-century Kentucky landowner, politician and abolitionist who had freed his grandfather from slavery.

She was a sweet-natured churchgoer. Her choice of husband was good-looking, small and athletically trim, but he was also a roguish and volatile womaniser with a taste for whisky and an even bigger enthusiasm for fantasising exotic identities for himself. He worked as a painter, mainly of advertising signs for local businesses, though his version of his artistic scope suggested only prejudice had kept him obscure. Nothing could fetter his imagination. On one day, with a shawl and tasselled hat as props, he’d choose to be a sheikh, on another a sombrero and an aptitude for the siesta would turn him into a Mexican, or he might decide he had a vocation for serenading the neighbours from the street at three in the morning.

The child who would grow up to be The Greatest clearly inherited much more than an unignorable name from his father (he was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr until his Muslim conversion made him Muhammad Ali). As Dave Kindred, the distinguishedAmerican journalist who has written as informatively and perceptively as anyone about sport’s nonpareil, pointed out: “If Odessa gave Cassius Jr her kindness and generosity, the father was the son’s wellspring of manic energy and sense of theatre.”

Muhammad Ali stands victorious after his first-round knockout of Sonny Liston at St Dominic’s Arena - NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

Inevitably, Cassius Sr, known as “Cash”, too often took his wayward episodes far beyond the harmlessly thespian. Louisville police records reveal he was arrested four times for reckless driving, twice for disorderly conduct, once for disposing of mortgaged property and twice for assault and battery. Fuelled by alcohol, he could be a serious menace at home and on three occasions Odessa had to summon the police to protect her from him.

Though such happenings must have cast a shadow over the early lives of Cassius Jr and his year-younger brother Rudolph Arnett Valentino Clay (who would, much later, abandon a name reflecting his father’s delusive romanticism and become Rahaman Ali), their childhoods seem to have been mainly happy enough and, with Cash’s earnings from sign-painting supplemented by Odessa’s wages from occasional work as a domestic, the family were more comfortable economically than most of those around them in their black neighbourhood of Louisville.

That fact is illustrated by a detail in the most familiar story about the future marvel’s beginnings in boxing. Nearly everybody has heard of how the 12-year-old boy reported the theft of his bicycle to a white policeman while the officer, Joe Martin, was schooling young boxers at the gym he ran for the city’s recreation department, and how Martin told him his vow to beat up the thief would carry more substance if he frequented the gym and learnt how to fight. The rarely mentioned detail is that the stolen item was a shiny new Schwinn, the make of machine much coveted by middle-class American youth back then.

Before he met Martin, Cassius Jr had been briefly tutored by Fred Stoner, a black boxing trainer with professional associations, and once he had repaired a rift produced by Stoner’s objections to his precociously individualistic ways, he was a regular in both men’s gyms. But there is no evidence that either teacher influenced his ideas about how he should perform in the ring. Nobody ever did much of that.

He was an inspired autodidact whose techniques would be shaped by an impregnable awareness that he was the possessor of utterly special gifts: extraordinary speed in his hands and feet; preternaturally quick reflexes; the mental sharpness to read and frustrate or, preferably, exploit an opponent’s intentions; and the diamond nerve to keep faith with those assets when beset by extreme hazard.

By the time a glittering amateur career was climaxed with the winning of the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he settled the final by pounding the seasoned Polish southpaw Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to the brink of helplessness in the third and last round, he had made highly personalised unorthodoxies the fundamentals of his ring arsenal. And many veterans of the fight business saw them as doom-laden liabilities when he turned professional in October of that year.

He did not block, smother or duck threatening punches, opting instead to trust those divine reflexes and the flexibility of his torso to let him twist and lean fractionally out of range of danger, often with his arms dangling by his sides. He seldom set himself to punch with maximum leverage, content to deliver on the move, usually while circling his opponent. Fighting on the inside had no part in his method and his blows were aimed almost exclusively at the head.

Much of what he did in the glory years would be in violation of the hallowed tenets of the professional ring

The harshest judges couldn’t withhold admiration of his exceptional speed and agility, and they had particular praise for the accuracy and suddenness of his left jab, but they felt there was something insistentlyamateurish about his work in the ring. They weren’t wrong, and the elements of his style that caused them to wince were not temporary.

Much of what he did in the glory years ahead would be in violation of hallowed tenets of the professional ring. But he made it hard to distinguish between amateurishness and creative originality, and his immunity to convention helped him to expand the tactical inventiveness in which he took huge pride. He rightly believed he understood his fighting equipment better than anybody else and he prosecuted the belief with an unbreakable resolution that was as crucial to his success as any of his physical attributes.

The 18-year-old Cassius Clay was launched into professionalism under the auspices of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a collection of wealthy white men whose reasons for investing in him ranged from the straightforwardly commercial to a more idealistic concern for the welfare of a local hero. Their contract with him would last until the autumn of 1966 when, with the draft controversy swirling around him and his commitment to the Nation of Islam firmly established as the central influence on his life, the management of his career was taken over by one of Eijah Muhammad’s sons, Herbert Muhammad.

Herbert couldn’t complain about what he got out of a deal that never brought him less than a third of Ali’s income from boxing and other activities. With Herbert, worldliness always outweighed ideology when it came to protecting his interests, which was why from the moment he became Ali’s manager he had never shown any inclination to question the wisdom of the Louisville Sponsoring Group in having appointed the Italian-American Angelo Dundee as the prodigy’s trainer.

Cassius Clay stands proud at the top of the podium after winning the light heavyweight gold medal the 1960 Olympics - MARVIN E NEWMAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

A small, intensely alert Philadelphian who acquired a gnomish aspect with age, Dundee studied at the most venerated of pugilism’s universities, Stillman’s Gym in New York, but it was with the Fifth Street Gym in Miami that he became synonymous and to which Cassius Clay travelled as a new client while preparing for his second pro fight (Fred Stoner had been with him for the introductory points win over Tunney Hunsaker). The partnership in Miami started with a smooth four-round demolition of Herb Siler a few days from the end of 1960, and 14 more victories were crowded into 1961 and 1962 as he was fast-tracked up the heavyweight rankings.

At that stage nearly every name on the list of victims was notable for being unnotable (the all-time great Archie Moore was a glorious exception but he was in his late forties and a light-heavyweight) and in disposing of them Ali hadn’t always been coruscating. There was still a widespread readiness to suspect that his brash volubility and the bellowed proclamations of how incomparable he was would far overreach anything he did in the ring.

Dick Sadler, a top-rank trainer who would much later be in George Foreman’s corner for the Rumble in the Jungle, tells in Thomas Hauser’s toweringly impressive oral biography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, of a train journey he made from California to Texas with the Cassius Clay who had one pro win to his credit. Sadler recalls: “The kid would be standing shouting out of the carriage, ‘I am the greatest, I am the greatest’. He’d shout this at the passing cars and sheep and fields and stuff.”

Dundee, who died at 90 in 2012, was an unfailingly cheery companion as well as an ally so skilful and supportive as to prove invaluable to more than a dozen world champions over his long career. He found the noisy excesses of Clay’s act enjoyable rather than grating, even when he began to declaim rhyming predictions of the round in which he would stop an opponent. Many of us were as charmed as Angelo by the mock grandiloquence of the fighting orator, though we understood the trainer’s reasons for saying: “There’s only one Cassius Clay — thank God.”

Angelo was indispensable in the corner during the minute between rounds. Regardless of how numerous and assertive the fighter’s entourage became, when the bell marked the start of hostilities only one voice and one pair of hands other than his own could do him any good. Resourceful and coolly decisive, Dundee was the boss in the corner and his authority grew if crisis loomed. Some thought it had when Sonny Banks, a limited but hard-punching Mississippian, caught Clay with a left hook and dumped him on the canvas in the first round of his 11th engagement as a professional but Dundee subsequently told me: “Cassius got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and finished the guy off in the fourth, as he’d forecast he would.”

True legend: Ali picked up Sports Illustrated’s 20th Century Sportsman of the Century Award in 1999 - MARK LENNIHAN

A year on, in March 1963, his tail should have been between his legs after he predicted a similar duration for his meeting at Madison Square Garden with the experienced Doug Jones, then had to labour to a 10-round decision. The poet-seer was, however, unchastened and immediately embraced plans to make his show international with a fight in London against the British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion, Henry Cooper, in June of that year. Cooper made a famously brave attempt to halt Clay’s progress as a heavyweight contender but both that meeting and a much more straightforward second, in 1966 when the then Muhammad Ali was world champion, ended in terrible blood-lettings.

He was anything but the favourite in February 1964 when he went through the ropes in Miami to challenge for Liston’s heavyweight title. His sensational victory over Liston was the big breakthrough on the road to acceptance as The Greatest.

And if the action in the ring had demanded headlines, the press conferences held on the next two days produced stories with far wider implications. They confirmed something already close to being common knowledge: the new heavyweight champion was a member of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims as the bulk of the press chose to call the organisation led by Elijah Muhammad. Cassius Clay was to be reincarnated as Muhammad Ali.

Nobody could then, or should now, doubt the sincerity of a conversion that instantly brought down on him the vitriolic hostility of the vast majority of white Americans and the troubled disapproval of many blacks. White sports writers were infuriated by his contempt for their idea of how a black champion should conduct himself, which meant adhering to the example of the inveterately amenable Joe Louis, the man one of the convert’s fiercest critics, Jimmy Cannon, had described as “a credit to his race — the human race”.

Reacting to such pressures, it wasn’t surprising that, as he sought spiritual moorings, somebody characterised by Ebony magazine in 1963 as “a blast furnace of racial pride” would be drawn to the Nation of Islam. His commitment to it would assail him with confusions, dangers and moral questions he frequently failed to answer creditably. It brought change to every area and every level of his life. As early as 1965, the year when his second defeat of Liston solidified his position as heavyweight champion, proof of how intimate the influence of the Muslims could be came with the ending of Ali’s first marriage.

Herbert Muhammad had introduced him to Sonji Roi, a beautiful 23-year-old mother who worked as a cocktail waitress and photographer’s model. Six weeks later they were married, in August 1964, but Sonji was neither a Muslim nor submissive to the Nation’s inhibiting rules and their relationship was over by the following summer and formally severed by divorce in January 1966.

Sadness was stirred in millions by the erosion of his powers

Ali’s second wife, Belinda, was 17 on her wedding day in 1967, a tall, striking and strong-natured Muslim girl who was to bear him four children. She resignedly tolerated her husband’s numerous adulteries (Ferdie Pacheco pronounced him a “pelvic missionary”, a proselytiser on behalf of “the horizontal rumba”) and when the stunning Veronica Porsche started appearing frequently at Ali’s side Belinda saw her as “just another one of the bunch”.

But when Ali, in the Philippines for the 1975 Thrilla in Manila and meeting the presidential couple, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, presented Veronica as his wife, Belinda flew from Chicago for a showdown. Its storminess rearranged the furniture in a hotel bedroom and it left their marriage in ruins.

Within 24 hours Belinda was flying home, knowing Ali had exchanged her for Veronica, although it would be a year and a half before he and his new woman completed the matrimonial formalities.

Veronica always seemed more of a glamorous adjunct to Ali than a caring partner or a benign presence and few were surprised when, with his boxing career long gone and his health rapidly declining, there was a divorce in July 1986 that provided her with an enormously generous settlement.

By then another woman — one 14 years his junior who, as a child, had hero-worshipped him when he visited the home of her parents, neighbours of the Clays — had resurfaced in his life as a supportive influence, and in November 1986 Yolanda (Lonnie) Williams became his fourth wife. They had been together ever since and had an adopted son. Ali fathered eight children, seven daughters (two out of wedlock) and a son.

Lonnie was in primary school when Ali was in his prime as an athlete, which he reached in the years between his double humiliation of Liston and the ban imposed for the refusal to be drafted. Some of his eight defences of the heavyweight title in that period invited opprobrium rather than praise, even from his staunchest admirers.

That was especially true of his taunting prolongation of the suffering of two outclassed challengers — Floyd Patterson, who had poured acid condemnation on the Muslims, and Ernie Terrell, who had called him Clay instead of Ali. But no amount of resentment of how he used his skills could blind anyone to the simple truth that his talent had soared to a standard the heavyweight division had never seen previously and was never likely to see again.

That was encapsulated in the greatest exhibition of boxing virtuosity he ever produced, the three rounds in which he dazzled and devastated Cleveland Williams on November 14, 1966, in Houston, Texas. Ali moved with the speed of a welterweight that night and his punching was a miraculous blend of timing, precision and punishing force. Opinions on where he stands in the pantheon of heavyweight champions should be based on how he was then.

By the spring of 1967, Ali was an outcast from boxing. He had originally failed the army’s mental tests in 1964, scoring 16 (which the military examiners equated with an IQ of 78) against a pass mark of 30. He was classified 1-Y and unfit for service. But two years later, with the Vietnam War expanding, the mental-aptitude percentile required by the military was lowered from 30 to 15, and Ali was eligible for the draft.

We’re all well acquainted with the saga of his resistance to it and his exile from the ring. Less attention is paid to the pain those tests caused him, the embarrassment he felt at being publicly branded “stupid”. Academically, he had always been inadequate. His reading was extremely poor and maths baffled him.

When he spoke at length it was invariably by rote, as with the Muslim propaganda in his lectures on the college circuit during the ban. Yet there was, palpably, a strange brightness to his mind. He could be genuinely witty and his best comedic rifts were extraordinarily, lyrically, imaginative.

Nobody makes more sense about these peculiarities than Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St Louis, who brings a black intellectual’s perspective to the Ali phenomenon. Seeing him as “a black man of some illustrious complexity”, Early has written: “Ali, despite all the talk of his brilliance, was not a thoughtful man. He was not conversant with ideas. Indeed he hadn’t a single idea in his head, really... his mind worked through formulas and cliches.

On the road to glory: Clay celebrated wildly after his historic defeat of champion Sonny Liston in 1964 - JOHN PINEDA

“His personality gave them a life and vibrancy that they would otherwise have lacked. He was intuitive, glib, richly gregarious, and intensely creative, like an artist. He would have scored better on the [army] test had he been better educated, but still he would never have had a score that reflected the range of his curiosity or his humanity.”

The artist in Ali had markedly reduced capacity for self- expression in the ring when he was permitted to box again in 1970. But many of his most unforgettable performances were yet to come. I had reported from ringside on the Patterson fight in 1965 and, naturally, the two meetings with Cooper in London, but it was after his return to action that covering his dramas provided the highlight experiences of my decades as a sports writer.

Not least because they include his three-part series with Frazier and the one-off blockbuster with Foreman, they are given separate treatment in other pieces in this section. There, also, are echoes of the sadness stirred in me and millions of others by the ineluctable erosion of his powers and the blatant signs that his increasing exposure to heavy punishment was building up health problems for him.

Along with evidence of how his kidneys were being violated that came with the passing of blood in his urine after hard fights, there were clear indications of a neurological toll. By the time a severely diminished, 35-year-old Ali was preparing to face the bludgeoning punches of Ernie Shavers at Madison Square Garden in 1977, an ominous indistinctness was already afflicting his speech and many who had his interests at heart were beseeching him to retire. No voice was more insistent than that of the alarmed camp doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, and when his warnings were ignored, Pacheco resigned. Medical advice had never stood much chance against the combination of pressures pushing Ali in the opposite direction.

The artist in Ali had markedly reduced capacity for self-expression in the ring when he was permitted to box again in 1970

He had been given a lot of help in disposing of the $40m in purses he was estimated to have collected to that point, most conspicuously by Herbert Muhammad, who wasn’t about to let compassion blunt his appetite for plunder. The need for money and an addiction to centre-stage attention guaranteed that Ali would resist retirement until every possibility of postponing it was beaten out of his skull. After his hard-earned 15-round decision over Shavers, he went on to lose a similar verdict and his heavyweight title in Las Vegas to a 24-year-old having only his eighth professional fight, Leon Spinks, then broke with long- established habits to train hard for the return match in New Orleans, where he outpointed the novice to begin an unprecedented third tenure of the championship.

Everyone knew, however, that Larry Holmes had become the dominant force in the heavyweights and when the two met in October 1980 the fact that Ali looked reasonably trim was an unconvincing cosmetic illusion. He was in need of hospital before he ducked through the ropes, rendered desperately lethargic by the dangerously wrong-headed administering of a thyroid medication, Thyrolar, which had put him at risk of a stroke or a heart attack.

Holmes was as relieved as anybody when Ali’s corner refused to allow him to come out for the 11th round of a lamentably one-sided contest. That stoppage was the first he had suffered in 60 fights and his career, too, should have been terminated then. But the actual exit, 14 months later, was an unanimous points loss to Trevor Birbeck, a brawling journeyman he would have swatted aside disdainfully in his prime, on a monstrously shabby promotion in the Bahamas.

It was in September 1984, nearly three years after that final misery in the ring, that Ali checked into the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre in New York for a marathon diagnosis under the supervision of Dr Stanley Fahn, a professor of neurology at Columbia University and a specialist in movement disorders. Ali, he found, did not have Parkinson’s disease but Parkinsonism or Parkinson’s syndrome.

Fahn explained the difference: “With Parkinson’s disease, the cells in the brain stem that produce dopamine progressively degenerate and die and produce less dopamine. In Muhammad’s case there’s damage to these cells from physical trauma ... my assumption is that his physical condition resulted from repeated blows to the head over time.’’

Neither Fahn nor Dr Dennis Cope, a professor of medicine at UCLA who treated Ali regularly over the years, detected signs of dementia pugilistica (punch-drunkenness) but they agreed the source of his afflictions was boxing. “If Muhammad hadn’t been a professional fighter, none of these problems would have occurred,” said Cope.

Another transformation of his life awaited. If the publication of Hauser’s book in 1991 reminded the public how worthy he was of the spotlight, it was at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that a profound change in attitudes took place, especially in the US but elsewhere too.

There were people beside me in the stadium, and no doubt millions in the worldwide television audience, who thought it was unforgivably exploitative, almost sadistic, to ask him to take the Olympic Torch in his violently shaking hands and struggle with agonising slowness to where he could light the flame that would burn through the Games. But there were infinitely more of us who were unbearably moved by the white-clad figure we couldn’t resist regarding as an embodiment of tragedy and triumph.

For a majority of Americans, the moment swept away the ambiguities of feeling that had lingered around all the contradictions of his controversial past, and only love was left. The effect would be somewhat contaminated by the subsequent marketing of him as a symbol of goodwill, a taxing programme of appearances orchestrated by Lonnie. Old friends complained that the supreme individualist had become a controlled commodity.

Yet there remains a conviction that Ali never ceased to deserve Early’s assessment: “Like all great heroes he showed us the enormous possibility of the true meaning, the incendiary poetics, of actual self-determination.” Through most of his adult life Ali delighted in making handkerchiefs disappear, in trying to persuade watchers he was levitating and in performing other feats from the amateur magician’s repertoire. But the world knew that the most magical trick of all was himself.