Tuesday 21 January 2020

Following the steps of a childhood hero

Weird Wide World of Sport

Muhammad Ali addressing the crowd before his fight with Leon Spinks in New Orleans, in which Ali went on to regain the world heavyweight title
Muhammad Ali addressing the crowd before his fight with Leon Spinks in New Orleans, in which Ali went on to regain the world heavyweight title

Dave Devereux

When I was an angst-ridden, spotty teenager my heroes were mainly plucked from the exciting rollercoaster of the rock and roll playground.

Posters of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Perry Farrell and the recently-deceased Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell all adorned the walls of the musical museum I called a bedroom at one time or another.

Given my penchant for the loud and raucous when it came to sounds emanating from my then state-of-the-art 1990s ghetto blaster, I guess it was no surprise that I was also drawn to flawed geniuses from the world of sport.

I loved Alex Higgins' carefree, irreverent swagger around the snooker table and was mesmerised by clips of his fellow Northern Irishman George Best's artistry on the pitch and playboy personality off of it.

Diego Maradona was another footballer that made you sit up and take notice. The things he could do with a ball were out of this world, and the way he almost single-handedly dragged Argentina to World Cup glory was one of the greatest sporting feats this planet has ever seen.

The fact that he also played on the edge when he crossed the white line and was never too far from controversy away from the bright lights of the stadium only added to the intrigue.

One star that certainly transcended sports, and crossed into politics and the glitzy world of entertainment, was Muhammad Ali, so it was with keen interest that I tuned into Frank Skinner's documentary on the late, great boxer on BBC One on Thursday night.

It might seem like a peculiar match-up, having a comedian from West Bromwich regaling us with tales about the biggest sports star the world has ever seen, but because Ali was known as much for his larger than life personality as he was for his supreme ability within the ring, it kind of worked.

Ali was Skinner's idol growing up, and it was more of a case of a fawning fan tracing the footsteps of their hero, rather than an earth-shattering documentary that tried to get to the bottom of his cult of personality - although admittedly that could take a lifetime to complete.

It's obvious that Ali had a profound affect on Skinner's life and helped him forge a strong bond with his father as they listened to the fights together on a small radio in the wee hours of the morning.

'The Louisville Lip' also played a significant role in Skinner's decision to go down the path of stand-up comedy, with Ali's natural wit and perfect delivery in interviews only heightening his admiration for the champion.

A few less well-known stories about Ali were highlighted in the hour-long programme, with Skinner talking to his co-star from the Broadway musical 'Buck White', in which the heavyweight legend donned an oversized wig and sported a retro beard while belting out the tunes, while we were also informed about his baffling battle against a Japanese wrestler in a mixed bout in 1976.

One of the more interesting segments focused on Ali's visits to the UK, when he used to stay in a rough council estate with an ex-pat Irish bareknuckle boxer called Paddy Monaghan, whom he struck up a relationship with after Monaghan had started a petition to have his boxing ban overturned, following his draft-dodging stance.

Normally when you advance in years, your heroes change from rock stars or sportspeople, who are essentially just entertainers, to those that make a genuine difference in the real world. Civil rights activists like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi spring to mind.

Despite some well-documented flaws, particularly surrounding his involvement with the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali was a remarkable boxer, human being and a figurehead for racial equality, whose name doesn't look out of place in that exalted company.

But then again, he was The Greatest.

Wexford People

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