Viewed at speed, Muhammad Ali’s notorious “split gloves” look like a giant’s beating heart.
How appropriate, for this exhibition at The O2 in Greenwich , which aims to look beyond the fighter and the peacemaker, the entertainer and the brute to reconcile all those qualities in one man.
It has been curated by his friend Davis Miller with 100 personal artefacts, unseen footage and rousing showcases of his epic bouts.
Davis said: “It’s deeply personal. We want each room to tell a story and those stories to humanise Ali.
“And that’s why I was brought in – to tell stories through our audio tour so by the time someone has spent 90 minutes or so in here they would feel that they have toured this exhibition actually in his company.”
There are parallels with the previous incumbent of this space – Elvis Presley. Both were kids from dirt poor origins who negotiated their way to unparalleled fame and then became encased in amber, icons easier to remember as milestones than men.
Ali is all too human now, too frail to attend the opening of I Am The Greatest.
He has faced decades with Parkinson’s and watching him on screen shake uncontrollably as he lights the Atlanta Olympic flame, the temptation is for pity. The perfect antidote is at a screen nearby playing the Rumble in the Jungle on a loop.
The wild and flailing 24-year-old world champion George Foreman looks odds-on to beat the 32-year-old challenger. Both men are at the end of whatever physical reserves a man can have.
“That all you got, George,” says the Louisville Lip as Foreman’s onslaught never relents. Then out of nowhere, Ali’s five-punch combination culminates in a left hook that presents Foreman’s head for a hard right. He goes down, never comes up. Ali regains the title and the world goes crazy.
After years fuelled by hatred Foreman became friends with Ali. He said: “Ali is the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer – that’s too small for him. He’s not pretty he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”
Ali remains the embodiment of the essential sportsman. He was named Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year more times than any other boxer; he was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Century in 1999. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
In fact, he was awarded the gold medal twice. The first he flung into the Ohio river when he was refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant. The second was a replacement given at the Atlanta Olympics before an awed and rapturous crowd.
Ali’s own epilogue is on the wall at the exhibition: “I’d like to be remembered as a great boxer and a champion of the people. I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
One man did all this. One man in one lifetime.
The Split Glove
■ It was June 1963 and the young US pretender Cassius Clay was facing up to Our ‘Enry – London’s Henry Cooper – at the Wembley stadium.
■ Cooper was lighter and more lithe in the non-title fight, and he proved an elusive opponent.
■ At the end of the fourth round, Cooper’s left hook – 'Enry’s 'ammer – sent Clay to the canvas.
■ Ali said later that Cooper “had hit him so hard his ancestors in Africa felt it”.
■ He was left sprawling on the ropes, dazed, down. Never did a man look more defeated. But he was saved by the bell.
■ Seeing that Clay was still groggy after the minute long break, trainer Angelo Dundee opened up a split in Clay’s glove, the horse hair suddenly protruding.
■ He called over the referee to inspect the glove and time passed in discussion, allowing Clay to recover his composure although the gloves were not replaced.
■ Clay later caught Cooper and cut him under his eye and the fight was stopped, with Clay the winner.
My GREATEST memories, by Davis Miller, curator and friend
I met him March 31, 1988. I was working in a video shop in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky. I found out that I had lost my job, I was depressed, and I drove past a house that I knew was his mum’s house. There was this ivory RV parked in front with the licence plates ‘The Greatest’.
As he was a childhood hero I wanted to thank him for what he had meant to my life. I drove back, went up and knocked on the door of the Winnebago.
Before I could knock, he answered the door. He was standing there looming over me. He’d already had Parkinson’s for 10 years and beckoned me with the slightest twitch of his fingers.
He signed things for me. He was a good amateur magician so he did magic tricks then he invited me into his mum’s for dinner. We’ve been friends ever since.
That first night was a transformative experience. I’ve never done LSD but if I had that’s what it would feel like. It was an out of body experience and I knew I was changed.
My favourite memory is personal. It was on my 40th birthday, his 50th – we share the same birthday, January 17 – and I was visiting him at his home at Michigan with my six-year-old son Isaac and it was snowing and at the end of our time together he walked down the long drive to my car for my drive home – 1,000 miles.
He had Parkinson’s disease and he would sometimes fall and I was concerned that he might fall while he was standing on the snow.
He picked up my son Isaac held him to his chest, pointed him to a video camera I had in the back seat which I switched on and he said, ‘This is the next champion. This man will win the crown in 2020. Look at the face! I will be the manager, I will be 93, and we will be the greatest of all times.’
My son Isaac, whose now 30, will take that to his grave, and I will too. Does that matter to anybody but Isaac and me? Maybe not. But maybe it does because it’s a sort of a humanising experience that I hope people can share.
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