Saturday, 4 June 2016

Siegfried versus Ali

I do not, of course, refer to an imaginary boxing match between our hero and the recently-departed Muhammad Ali. Such a contest would be extremely one-sided, Siegfried's reach being of little assistance against the sheer speed and skill of such an opponent; he would be lucky if he lasted a round against the "Black Superman".

No, I was thinking more of a comparison between the two men as cultural icons who became serious political figures because of the moral stance they took in two very different wars. Many of you "baby boomers" reading this will still remember Cassius Clay, the young man who started boxing at the age of twelve, won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics and went on to become heavyweight champion of the world at twenty-two.  Those who do not remember "the greatest" in his heyday - or at all - may find it hard to understand why he was so widely admired and simultaneously reviled by different sections of society, especially in his US homeland.

He was born during the Second World War, one of five children, brought up a Baptist in the city of Louisville, Kentucky (hence he earned the nickname "The Louisville Lip", among many others). Even after being knocked to the floor in two of his early professional bouts - one of them with Britain's beloved Henry Cooper - he remained unbeaten and soon came up against the champion, Sonny Liston, a man with a criminal record and Mafia connections, who, some suspect, was using ointment on his gloves to temporarily blind his opponents. Clay fought through it to emerge victorious, and quickly established himself as a man with a big mouth, who defeated his opponents through a combination of outstanding physical prowess and psychology.

Like Sassoon - though at the same time quite unlike Sassoon - Clay was a poet. Prior to his match with Liston, he came up with a 14-line verse that culminated:

   "Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money, 
   That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."

Before winning back his title from George Foreman in 1975, he claimed:

   "I can run through a hurricane and don't get wet.
   When George Foreman meets me,
    He'll pay off his debt."

Call it doggerel if you like, but can you name another boxer who would not have been ashamed to produce original verse?

Less than a year after winning the title, Clay shocked the world again by converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali.  Following one of several successful defences of his title in 1967, it all came to an end, seemingly forever, when Ali was convicted of draft-dodging and sentenced to five years in prison. His explanation for his actions was quite simple:

"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... Just take me to jail."

Despite this, he was denied the status of conscientious objector.  After a successful appeal in 1970, but having lost his licence to box, Ali had begun to take on the status of a popular hero.  Those who had found him arrogant and offensive in his youth saw that there was another side to him.  His refusal to fight began to win him popularity, especially among the younger generation, so that, by the time his conviction was overturned on appeal, many were disappointed to see him defeated, for the first time in his career, by Joe Frazier, whom Ali had dismissed as "too ugly to be champion".

But Ali bounced back.  In 1974, the 32-year-old won back his world title, and he managed to hold on to it for four years, despite several close calls. Sadly, his career lasted too long; he was still fighting, and losing, in 1980. It was then that he began to display the first tell-tale symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, which he would continue to battle for the next thirty-plus years.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed Ali on British television several times, says that an appearance by Ali guaranteed his chat show an additional two million viewers, but at the same time admits that he didn't ever feel he had got to know the boxer properly.  Like most of us, he found it hard to tell when Ali was being serious and when he was playing a psychological game with his audience.

President Obama, on the other hand, is a long-time admirer and said that Ali "shook up the world" and "fought for us" (meaning America's black population).  "He spoke out when others wouldn't," added the president.

When you look at it that way, Ali is almost unique - a sportsman who had a much wider appeal than merely to sports fans. Call him an entertainer, call him a political activist, call him a philosopher-poet if you like. George Foreman said of their encounter, "Little did I know I would be facing something greater than a boxer."  How does one account for this level of popularity?

To compare Muhammad Ali with Siegfried Sassoon would be like comparing chalk with cheese.  One was brash and loud, the other diffident and self-effacing, but both were men of principle. Moreover, both were full of contradictions.  And both left an indelible mark on their times.

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