The death of Muhammad Ali is mourned worldwide, on a scale normally reserved for heads of state, church leaders or monarchy. In truth, we lost Ali some time ago, when illness cut down this giant of a man to a shadow of the irrepressible force of nature, one of the most charismatic figures any of us will have witnessed. But today, even after so many years out of the public eye, the loss of this icon and hero still stops us in our tracks.
How did this individual, a mere sportsman, transcend the limits of boxing to be adored and revered by even those with no interest in his physical ability or his sporting art? Ali’s remarkable back story set him apart, and if we were not already aware of his presence, he made sure we would find out.
It helped that he was an inspirational figure; it helped that he was principled; it helped that he was handsome; it helped that he was a natural entertainer; it helped that television allowed characters such as Ali to explode on to the scene, and into our living rooms. And it helped that he was one of the greatest sportsmen we have ever known.
Even at a time of grief like now, we must acknowledge that Ali was no angel. There are episodes from his life which shocked even those who worshipped him. But while those incidents showed another side of his character – and we should not be surprised that a born fighter had a dark side – the bigger picture was of a man who pushed the boundaries wherever he went, changing his sport and changing the world. Over the Vietnam War and civil rights, he emerged as the figurehead that millions of previously voiceless people responded to, and his personality pushed those cases further than any mere mortal could have achieved.
Who in the bloated and cynical business that top-level sport has become could even make us begin to think of Ali? Not a soul. We mourn the loss of a legend today, but we should also celebrate his genius. He told us he was the greatest, and few disagreed. In his prime and in his pomp, he enriched all our lives.
There has been no-one else like Ali, and there never will.