Saturday, June 04, 2016

The greatness of Muhammad Ali and the decline of boxing

In his pomp Muhammad Ali was just about the most recognisable man on the planet. Supreme as an athlete, he risked everything that had earned him to stand up for his people and for what he believed to be right.

One reason for his extraordinary fame was that he was a great athlete in a sport that enjoyed a popularity it hard to imagine today.

Heavyweight boxing was the blue riband event. In the years of rationing after the second world war British men like Bruce Woodcock, who were really no more than middleweights, had to take on American heavyweights so we had someone to compete in it.

When I was a small boy the great heavyweight bouts were global events of extraordinary significance. I have a clear memory of listening to them on the radio late in the evening.

So much so, that when I was in New York I went to look round the foyer of Madison Square Garden, where so many of those great fights were held, just so I could say I had been there. (Admittedly, the recent Clapton and Winwood concert there may have had something to do with it too.)

Time moves on and sports lose popularity. In the first year of this blog's life I wrote:
Thirty years ago the British heavyweight boxing champion was just about the biggest name in sport - think of Henry Cooper. Can you name the current holder of the title without using Google? I can't.
That would have to read 42 years ago today. There are several credible British heavyweights around today, but I have not idea if any of them is British champion.

I fell out of love with boxing when Michael Watson suffered brain damage in a bout with Chris Eubank. That had been an era when there were great British middleweights - Watson, Eubank, Nigel Benn - and their clashes made for wonderful fights.

It was magnificent when Eubank got off the canvass and from God knows where found a punch to knock Watson out and win the fight. But the damage it caused convinced me that professional boxing was insupportable.

I did watch Eubank's son Chris Eubank Jr fight Nigel Blackwell. The younger Eubank is clearly a very talented fighter, but I found the proceedings sickening.

Not just because Blackwell ended up in a coma and almost died, but also because of the dishonesty of the commentators.

It was clear almost at once that Eubank could unload combinations on Blackwell's head at will and that Blackwell lacked the weapons to stop him. Yet the commentators talked up the idea of Blackwell fighting back right up until the point that the fight was stopped.

The nearest equivalent to Muhammad Ali today in talent and personality is Usain Bolt. It is hard to see how a boxer could ever achieve that sort of fame again.

Until things change (and they will), you have to put your money on the next sporting figure to matter beyond sport in the way Ali did being a footballer.

1 comment:

Phil Beesley said...

Jonathan in a mistaken moment: "Supreme as an athlete, he risked everything that had earned him to stand up for his people and for what he believed to be right."

"For his people"? The working man has had a go for years.