I am not into boxing. It’s really not my thing at all, but Muhammad Ali, who has died at the age of 74, was a part of my childhood and while not my hero in any real sense, he was a man to be admired. He was a brash fighter, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He was a celebrity for a reason and delivered on his claims, at least until he danced on too long and was beaten by younger lions.
I am too young to remember him as Cassius Clay, but I do remember how people were befuddled by his decision to change his name to become Ali. At the time, becoming a Muslim was not perceived with any real negative connotation, but it was unusual. Ali was not really a campaigner, but rather a showman, a man who showed what was possible and inspired people as a result. He was confident, he was cocky, but he was good. His refusal to serve in Vietnam was a courageous act and he paid for it, but then he came back to win again. His fights with Henry Cooper were big news in the UK and it was hard not to like Ali. He was a big character. After he was gone from the scene, boxing slipped away from the spotlight and to my mind has never really regained its former position. Those that followed him lacked his charm and his wit.
Ali was the kind of human being that every sport longs to have, a superstar in the very real old-fashioned sense of the word. A character who was bigger than the sport, but led people to it.
The nearest thing we have to him today in motorsport is Lewis Hamilton, who does great work bringing the sport to people around the world, but he is too reserved a character to be an Ali. Some racing folk criticise Lewis for his lifestyle. I don’t. As long as he races as he did in Monaco, how he leads his life is his own business, and if that helps the sport then all the better. A visible champion is a good thing for any sport and so much better than the virtually invisible Sebastian Vettel, who has so much to offer but wants to keep himself to himself. One cannot really criticise that, but having an Ali-style character would be great.