Unending inspiration will be the greatest legacy

It has probably cropped up here previously, but now merits another spin. For many of my younger years we didn’t have ‘all’ the television stations. That is to say, we only had RTE by two. When that eventually changed, initial greatest glee centred on being able to watch Match Of The Day and Father Ted. At that point – and for reasons which said a lot about a prevailing mindset that’s hopefully diminishing – the home broadcaster wouldn’t show the latter. Now read on…

Journalist Hugh McIlvanney

As part of the sign-on deal with Cable Link, as it was then, there was a free month’s access to Sky Sports and Sky Movies. Hardly surprisingly, extensive ‘canvassing’ was engaged in to retain the former. Thankfully, and with life-changing effect, it worked. The most obvious perk at the time being the ability to watch Premiership matches – and related programming – before mass domestic proliferation of same took hold.

What it also did, mind you, was allow for the development of interests in other sports. Boxing being one of the first to take hold. That was purely down to timing as it coincided with the best period in the career over Steve Collins. The bouts against Chris Eubank – who must now presumably be referred to as ‘Senior’ – and Nigel Benn.

Bernard Dunne then enjoyed some great years which deepened the enthral for pugilism another bit. However, it’d be remiss not to admit that the fare within the amateur ranks of ring craft has always held more allure. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the efficiency of Irish competitors in that arena.

More than that, though, it surely can’t have been solely here that professional output lost some of its gleam. Owing to a combination of a multiplicity of available world titles and a noticeably increasing stench of nefariousness at the highest level. While it’s unfortunately unlikely that there will be any alteration concerning the last named reservation, the initial is equally as dispiriting as it must count as a devaluation of the intended accreditation. Remember, the winners of the major American sports – NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball are declared ‘world champions’ even though they are predominantly only practiced thence.

Yet, every so often, there will be a happening, or several of them, that will re-ignite a flicker of intrigue. Lately, part of that has been seeing the offspring of the two English protagonists mentioned above cut their own teeth inside the ropes. Though it’s been tempered considerably by a sense that Eubank Jnr is every bit as ‘flamboyant’ as his father – and not in a joyous sense!

Of equal or perhaps greater interest has been the continued ascend of Anthony Joshua as well as the equally noteworthy accomplishments of Anthony Crolla and Rickie Burns. In the case of Crolla, greatest commendation must stem from his recovery to win a world title having sustained serious injuries during a burglary at his home.

Scotland’s Burns has also assured himself a place in the annals of his sport by of late becoming a world champion for a third time. Accentuating the feat by dint of his doing so at three different weight disciplines. Now, this might seem strange – and is admittedly wholly inadequate justification – but it was the accomplishment of the man from Lanarkshire in annexing a third crown which prompted by to keyboard a few lines about the recently deceased Muhammad Ali.

It’s difficult. Not only and most obviously because he was at his zenith before my time. Also, however, out of feeling wholly unqualified to comment on the man born Cassius Clay. Misgivings are allayed, somewhat by a sense that nobody could fully do justice to what the three time belt holder pulled off, both inside and outside the ring.

Thanks to the eloquent excellence of Hugh McIlvanney (and the assistance of another media colleague and Meath man, Gavan Reilly of Today FM, in pointing me in the direction thereof) a nigh on 5,500 word synopsis of his career push flesh on things I’d heard of and wondered about for years such as the Rumble In The Jungle and the Thrilla’ In Manilla.

What was equally reassuring was seeing my friend and fellow writer Cathal Dervan put together a wonderfully moving piece following the passing of The Greatest. In reality, I really only have one memory of Ali, that being his involvement with the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996.

Time has proven that to be a seminal moment. Research on my part has proven that, whatever about bravado pertaining to his alacrity in regarding opponents disdainfully, physically and in other ways, he certainly rubbed plenty of people up the wrong way with the gloves off too. Atlanta, though, led even the detractors to appreciate him as most had continuously.

Some saw his being in Atlanta as exploitative and wrong given the frailties which had beset the Kentuckian after his years of toil. Such a take was easily understandable. However, for somebody like myself with a disability, seeing Ali light the Olympic flame was another – quite possibly the last – declaration of defiance that anything was (and is) possible.

From this position, one simply has to adhere reverentially to that mantra. That’s why I feel unending inspiration will be Ali’s greatest legacy. Very easily could that be said in non sporting terms as well, but let’s not go there. Complications arise when you actually try to surmise the impact he had.

It’s often been said previously that a good measure of a person’s standing was their familiarity to those with little or no connection to or interest in their area of expertise. Think Rory McIlroy, Phil Taylor, Lionel Messi or Paul O’Connell. Ali dwarfs them all. He was, most likely, the best known person on the planet, transcending sport or anything else.

Consider the generations who took up boxing having been regaled with tales – and possibly footage – of him floating like a butterfly and stinging like a hive of bees. Sometimes, it amounts to over-romantic twaddle to suggest that we may never see the likes of a certain person again. In this case, it’s definitive.

Doubtless, many have tried to mimic The Greatest. Thoughts immediately turn to the talented extrovert, Prince Naseem Hamed. Those who engage in the histrionics which besmirch much of boxing nowadays problem think they are ‘taking off’ the great man. Such madness is not only an insult to Ali but also a sully on the entire sport.

However, it’d be far easier to recount the many – and often special – ways in which his legacy is more positively remembered and acted upon. As is often the case with me, some bit of closeness to familiar territory, no matter how tenuous, makes these things easier. Thus, one thinks of the fact that Ali once fought in Croke Park. And that he also – like so many well known stars – was found to have Irish traits somewhere in his bloodlines.

From a personal viewpoint, the most amazing thing has to be how lasting his relevance has been. In a serious sense when it’s noted how many quotes from the former master of the prize ring are still – and will most likely be eternally – used in a motivational sense in numerous walks of life.

Reading McIlvanney’s tome of homage was very educational for me – and probably better than the many biographies produced. Even from this remove, if I was to nominate a favoured Ali story it would be that of him sending a letter to the Armagh footballers some years ago. Well, that and learning that he was also known as the Louisville Lip – which would explain why JP McManus once had a horse of that name in training with Pat Flynn.

One of the more novel manners in which his memory is celebrated. May there always be a way.

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