Saturday, 29 November 2014

MUHAMMAD ALI, THE MOST FAMOUS AMERICAN OF ALL TIME?

The claim is made in the new Universal Pictures documentary 'I am Ali', produced by Claire Lewins, which I saw last night. I've been thinking about this all day. Is he really? He's got to be a contender. Alongside whom? George Washington. Teddy Roosevelt. JFK. Marilyn Monroe. Humphrey Bogart. Frank Sinatra. James Dean. A lot of other folk, people I've never heard of, people they tell me are very famous, and 'they' should know. If I have to look them up, they're not quite there.
The acid test was once described as taking a stroll into an African kraal with a handful of pictures, to see which ones people could pick out. Her Majesty the Queen is usually chosen. The Beatles - or at least Macca and  John. Nelson Mandela. Elvis Presley. Madonna. Michael Jackson. Of those, five are British, one South African, three American. A 'fifty-fifty' three. No one of any age, creed or colour ever mistakes Ali.
It's a curious documentary in many ways. I am biased towards liking it, as it largely came about because of my father, former sportswriter Ken Jones. Dad's first contact with Ali was in 1972, '73 - long before journalists were considered important enough to be significant in the story. 'That's when I remember being no longer a face in the crowd, but part of it,' he says.

When he and his late close friend, Sports Illustrated journalist Pat Putnam, introduced Claire to Gene Kilroy, aka 'the Facilitator', that was it. Claire was made. Gene knows everyone. She had everything.
A million people could have done this story. It's out there.  Whatever your take on professional pugilism, and the mood is shifting, there is no denying the impact on the fight game of the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay. The film features much personal family video and a lot of audio recordings made by Ali of his children when they were small - all supplied by Ali's daughters Maryum and Hana, who were there last night for this screening, and who were delightful.
I was unsettled by the movie's timeline and shape. I would have edited it differently. Parts were jumpy, and lacked pattern. More could have been made of its contributors. I'd have woven them throughout the piece to illustrate key points, rather than feature them chronologically and then cut them off, before they'd hit their stride. Its salvation was the soundtrack: exquisitely chosen pieces, many of them rock and soul classics, which breathed fire into the visuals, and which resonate.
Two important aspects of Ali's life linger in my mind today. The first concerns him having refused the draft. Ali did not fight in Vietnam. For a fighter, he was probably the ultimate pacifist - although my father points out that he does not recall having met many violent prize fighters, with the exception, perhaps, of Mike Tyson: 'but he's a psychopath.' 

The other is the fabled 'Rumble in the Jungle', when Ali went to Zaire to fight George Foreman. It was akin to the Second Coming. He could have gone into Africa, said 'I don't like what's happening here, let's have a war', and there would have been one. Parts of the dark continent would have gone up in flames, because he said so. As well as being a cauldron of contradictions, he was that famous, that powerful. People came to him. He was the Pied Piper, he was the Messiah. Don't get on my case about this. I'm not John Lennon. The comparison doesn't add up, anyway. Jesus Christ preached on earth in ancient times. Muhammad Ali was a fighter in the television era. You know what I'm saying.
That night in Zaire, the great ogre Foreman was destroyed. He'd battered everyone who ever got in his way. That night he got battered. They talked, at the time, of Foreman's life turning into an eternal silent turmoil, while Ali would be forever famous.
It turns on a sixpence. George came out of it. He's lucid, he has a life. He's in this film. Looking back on it all, he didn't have many fights. Most of them were pushovers. He rarely got hit. He emerged with a clever brain intact.
Ali, so often smashed in the head: he can't even speak, now. He has Parkinson's. He probably won't live very long. The Greatest irony.
The point is made perfectly in the film. It made us weep.
When Ali started out, boxing was the fastest way for a black American to make it.
'I was not that bright nor quick in school,' he said. 'I couldn't be a football or basketball player because you have to go to college, pass examinations and get degrees. A boxer can just go to the gym, jump around, turn professional, win a fight, get a break, and he's in the money. If he's good enough, he makes more than ball players make all their lives.'
He paid the ultimate price. Those who were along with him for the ride tell his tale. They tell it wonderfully. 

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