Muhammad Ali was my childhood hero and one of the reasons behind my lifelong love of television.
He was the first thing I remember seeing and thinking Wow! The confidence, the physicality, the verbal dexterity. Obviously, I didn’t express it in those terms as a kid, but the huge impact he made on me was the belief that yes, it’s ok to acknowledge when you have a talent – but you have to put in the groundwork to maintain it: only then can you be proud of your success.
The thrill of being allowed to watch an Ali fight lived with me from the first second I saw – and heard – him. My parents would put my brother Nigel and me to bed early and, if we agreed to sleep, they promised to wake us up and bring us downstairs in our pyjamas to watch the boxing (they did the same with the Miss World contest, which was also thrilling, but in a different way).
It instilled in me a love of the sport, and when I was 13, in secondary school, and Joe Frazier beat Ali in what has been called the “fight of the century”, I was devastated. It was a unanimous decision that handed Frazier the Heavyweight title, and I went to school with a heavy heart that grew heavier when I arrived to see classmate Cerys writing “Well done Frazier” on the blackboard.
A couple of years ago, she got in touch via social networking, and I reminded her of how she had hurt me on that famous day. Naturally, she thought I was nuts even for having remembered; but I knew we could never be real friends, even so many decades on.
In 2013, I went to see Shane Mosley fight Floyd Mayweather in the MGM in Las Vegas. It was the greatest sporting event I had ever attended – not because of the main attraction (which wasn’t great, despite the hype), but because Ali was there. I didn’t get to meet him, but the cheers with which his name was greeted when the announcer said it (they single out all famous attendees) was a very emotional moment.
He truly was the greatest, and when I witnessed the appalling way the Mayweather camp treat everyone (the Mosley camp were adorable), I realized that while Mayweather might currently be the world’s greatest boxer, true superstardom is that extra something that he will never have.
I wasn’t a very political child, and I’m not a very political adult, but I recall it being a big deal when Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay. My parents were shocked, and I remember it was a big talking point. The sense that he had let people down was palpable; to me, it just seemed glamorous, and I loved him even more for his ability to change his identity.
He was not only the first modern athlete but the first TV star, and there has been no one since who made such an impression upon me in the medium that was to become my life. He was a self-publicist with a genius of a talent, unlike today’s reality stars whose only skill is taking their kit off in front of the cameras and behaving like slobs.
He had a sublime gift that was truly beautiful to watch, and it was heartbreaking to see the 32 years of suffering as Parkinson’s ravaged his once beautiful body.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, Ali, but today I wish there was one, because there are oh, so many people there whose lights I’d like you to punch out.
Goodbye, my hero.
You are one person I would love to have met.
It may be the final bell, but your legend and humanity will live on for many rounds to come.