I have deliberately left writing about the passing of Muhammad Ali for a short time to digest the many tributes that have been made to the man and the analysis of his significance. The focus of my blog is supposed to be on sports medicine which will be covered at the end but it would seem amiss to not consider the sociopolitical and cultural implications.
Last Sunday, the local shop was full of newspapers that featured images of Muhammad Ali, despite the fact he has not actually boxed since 1981, on their front cover. I could think only of Pele who might be treated in a similar way. This elderly man who had lived much of his life with Parkinson's syndrome had seemingly stopped the world in its tracks. And he wasn't even British.
I am of the opinion that British people do not tend to take to brash, self promoting sports stars very well but Ali was somehow different. What British people do like is an underdog and each time Ali won the world title, he did so as an underdog. In the case of George Foreman, Ali was so much of an underdog that many were concerned he may actually be killed. I am also of the belief that people enjoy watching those who genuinely dice with death. That may be unpalatable to some and there may be some schadenfreude to it but when I reflected on Ali, the names of James Hunt and Barry Sheene also entered my head. These two very popular petrol heads also diced with death but lived the champagne and cigar lifestyle that came with that risk. Professional racing drivers may be able to drink champagne and smoke cigars, boxers however are not afforded that luxury. This is particularly true of the Muslim Ali.
What also endeared Ali to the public and was true of Hunt and Sheene was good looks and a natural charisma. Ali shone on television in a way that most boxers do not manage. This was in the days before careful public relations became such an industry but it is the personality that put the sport in the public eye rather more and that is how interest is created.
So to the medicine part. We cannot say for certain if Ali's medical problems later in life were a direct result of his chosen career but that repeated blows to the head can lead to dementia like symptoms is true. Why it happens to some and not others is unknown. One of the elements that I have reflected on is that, if had my way, two of the most iconic fights the world has ever seen would never had happened. The "rumble in the jungle" and the "thrilla in Manila" have gone down in sporting folklore but to expect boxers to go thousands of miles to fight in conditions unfamiliar to them is simply unfair and potentially dangerous. The Manila fight in particular was fought in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Filipino morning. It would appear that the wishes of the broadcasters outweighed the safety of the boxers. A generation later, Barry McGuigan fought Steve Cruz over 15 rounds in the middle of the Nevada desert which seems anathema to me.
Did Ali go on too long? The evidence from the tributes to him would suggest so. There exists a much greater awareness today of safety and I find it difficult to believe that some of Ali's last fights would have been sanctioned today. It is however worth noting that Ali fought professionally 61 times, Sugar Ray Robinson fought 200 times albeit in a lower weight category and Ali had three years away from boxing due to his refusal to go to Vietnam. If we are serious about looking after boxers, we do need to consider career length and number of fights but these are not specific and each boxer needs to be looked at on a case by case basis.
It is pertinent to acknowledge that Ali did live until into his seventies and died a rich and respected person and it was boxing that gave him the platform to do that. Boxing fans are not naive to the impact the sport may have had on him in terms of health but many motor racing drivers in the same era where killed directly by their sport in their relative youth. Heavyweight boxing was at its peak in Ali's time, much (if not all) of that was down to Muhammad Ali. Farewell Champ, boxing has much to be grateful for.