Saw this in the paper yesterday, about Muhammad Ali making a trip to visit the home of one of his great-grandfathers in Ireland. It turns out that Ali’s ancestor emigrated from Ennis in County Clare to the States around 1860 and settled in Kentucky, where he married a freed slave, Ali’s great-grandmother.
I only mention this because Ali has been one of my idols since I was a very small child. I grew up watching his fights, seeing his wonderful combination of speed, grace and power that made him seem different than the other fighters who entered the ring against him. There was something very beautiful in the way he glided around the ring, feet barely touching the ring as he circled. It belied the brutish, ugly aspect of the sport, gave him an almost ethereal quality, especially in the early part of his career.
Then there was his personality that absolutely glowed from the TV screens in those years. His float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rat-at-tat poetry and his over the top mugging before and after his bouts were candy to the kid I was at that time. There was a level of intelligence at play with Ali that seemed so unusual for a boxer. I remember reading Wilfrid Sheed’s early biography of Ali (a beautifully photographed book I bought when I was a kid and still get shivers when I open it today) where he wrote that Ali had been tested and found to have a very low IQ in standardized tests of the time. Knowing Ali, the author deduced that the tests were deeply flawed and couldn’t measure the natural brilliance and innate intelligence that Ali possessed.
There is so much to say about Ali, who may possibly be the most recognizable man on the planet, his photos hanging in mud huts in Africa and thousands filling the streets in Ireland to see the aging king. The controversies over the name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali upon his conversion to Islam and his subsequent refusal to enter the armed services made him a polarizing figure but never quieted his voice. And that trueness to his beliefs, agree with or not, made him even larger than life.
Even his last fight, his tragic struggle with Parkinson’s, has grown his myth as this man who was truly a beautiful creature in his youth has somehow gracefully made his fight public, raising awareness for the disease.
And now, he adds the luck of the Irish to the myth. Good for you, Ali O;Grady.