Unless you were a black adult or child in the 1970s, it is difficult to imagine the enormity of Muhammad Ali.
The outpouring of love and affection since the news of his sad death is up there with the very greats, including Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Ali was, of course, different to the other three great men. He set out to be the best boxer in the world, but on route he found a black conscious- ness that elevated him within the community to an almost God-like status. The price he paid for his consciousness was unprecedented. He lost the best years of his sporting life, at the same time relinquishing a fortune, but in doing so he made a black world feel the greatest pride.
For young black boys like myself, going to almost all-white schools, with the spectre of the National Front skinheads chanting, “send the wogs to Vietnam”, was about as frightening as it gets. But in that very racist environment, Muhammad Ali gave us strength, pride and the to survive. After all he was handsome, fast-talk- ing and when he won, which was nearly always, he won with great style. No heavyweight boxer before or afterward moved with such grace in a brutal gladiatorial arena.
Because of Muhammad Ali, all my friends took up boxing. I remember as an 11 year-old, climbing into the ring, dancing around my opponent as if I was the great man, jabbing away, dodging big punches. And then, bang, I would get hit. “Oh, that hurt! Get me out of here.”
My best friend at that time could not only dance like Ali but he could take a punch too. He went on to be a British and world champion, did my friend Chris Pyatt
But Ali was not content with being the greatest boxer and sports personality of the century. He was also one of the greatest advocates for black civil rights and empowerment. A motor- mouth you wanted on your side, a man who could talk anyone down with facts, wit and great guile. His motivation was all about addressing a racial wrong, highlighting a racist construct.
“They,” he said, “talk about a white lie, the White House, the white dove. In contrast, the language of black is always negative, for example; given them a black look; or you’re the black sheep, the Black economy.”
In refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam war, he said, “No Vietcon has ever called me n*****!”
Through Ali, knowledge about the civil rights movement became accessible to us. It was through Ali that we learned more about Dr King and Malcolm X. We instinctively learned that by supporting Ali we were supporting the Black struggle, not least because too often the white world was desperate to for anyone, black or white to beat Ali.
With the sad death of Muhammad Ali, many more people around the world will get to know the extraordinary life this man led, especially his immense political bravery.
As a child of the 1970s, Ali was that God-like, father figure you thought you knew so well. And knowing his importance, I’ve brought my own son up on the political and sporting prowess of what he achieved; to the extent that my son will say, ‘Dad, the way Ali dissed Joe Frazier – one of his fiercest opponents – was wrong’, but then adding, ‘Come on dad, let’s fight. I’m Ali, you can be George Foreman. Put your hands up, you’re nothing but a bum.’
Muhammad Ali, you have no idea just how much you gave to us, but in your resting place, I somehow hope you do, because your impact on all our lives was truly immense.
By the way, if you haven’t seen the film When We Were Kings, see it. It’s perhaps one of the best boxing or sporting films ever made.
To the greatest, Rest in Peace
Simon Woolley is one of the founders of Operation Black Vote and a former commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.