Perhaps the saddest part about the passing of Muhammad Ali was the inability of the greatest communicator of his time to express himself publically the final decades of his life.
He was ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, which not only severely restricted his speech but also gnarled his extraordinary physical body, which was a sight to see at its height.
Poet, philosopher, spokesman, wit, raconteur, outrageous jokester, Ali had it all, and would surely have enlivened debate and sparked controversy aplenty had he been healthy. No doubt he would have also been an outstanding spokesman for his people who badly lacked one after Martin Luther King’s death.
Then there was the fighter in the ring, the greatest heavyweight of all time who won the title three separate times, despite losing the best years of his life to legal battles over conscription to Vietnam.
As Ali memorably remarked, he had no fight to pick with the Viet Cong and refused to take part in what he termed an unjust and useless war.
History has borne him out as it has many other stands he took, changing from his slave name of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, speaking out against blatant racism and defending those with few able to protect them.
But it was his incredible ability in the ring that marked him out. He broke every rule in boxing, hands held low, sticking his head out, retreating in a straight line, joking and taunting opponents, doing the Ali shuffle which distracted opponents. Ali did it all.
If you watch his demolition of British boxer Brian London and also of Cleveland Williams, all before the draft issue, you are looking at the best boxer ever, the lightning punch speed, the Ali shuffle, the dance like a boogie nights guy in the ring. We’ll never see his likes again.
To be great, of course, you have to have a great opponent, and Ali certainly had that in Joe Frazier. Ali mocked him unfairly. Frazier had lent him money and supported his Vietnam stance, but Ali was ruthless in his mockery.
Their three fights were instant classics, as was the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, now the Congo, against George Foreman.
Ali had Irish links. His great great grandfather Abe Grady from Clare married a free slave, and Ali paid tribute by returning to his Irish hometown in Ennis, Co. Clare a few years back.
Tens of thousands turned out to see the legend, a fitting tribute to a man who was the most famous in the world at his height. Ali also fought and won in Dublin against Al Lewis early in his career.
A great champion has left the ring. As Mike Tyson tweeted, God needed a champion. He surely got one.