No sporting icon has ever matched the popularity of the man from Louisville who was as brilliant outside the ring as he was in it

 

Alan Hubbard

Alan Hubbard

 

Muhammad Ali celebrated his 70th birthday this week

Muhammad Ali celebrated his 70th birthday this week

Muhammad Ali was 70 on Tuesday, yet even though the dancing years have ebbed away and the famous shuffle is no longer a dazzling quickstep but a distressingly slow wobble, he remains the most recognisable human being on earth, and among the best-loved.

When he told the world he was The Greatest, we believed him, because he surely was. Perhaps not the greatest boxer ? Ali himself always ackknowledged that Sugar Ray Robinson held that title ? but when the argument turrns to who is the greatest sports figure in history, it is no contest.

There has only ever really been one Lord of the Rings. “Parachute me into High Street, China,” he once said at his zenith, “and every kid would know who I am.”

I was fortunate enough to travel the world with the phenomenon who so ennobled his art that his act as the undisputed heavyweight champion has proved impossible to follow.

Sport’s biggest irony is that the greatest orator it has known is now reduced to a mumble, the face that launched a thousand quips partially paralysed, like much of his body, through Parkinson’s Syndrome, the nerve-numbing condition from which his housepainter father died, but which in Ali’s case was surely exacerbated by 10 fights too many.

His birthday will be marked by a big bash in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at the downtown cultural centre and museum that bears his name. Another tribute is planned for Las Vegas, the scene of so many of his triumphs, and sadly of his eventual demise.

In 50 years of covering sport, there have been moments when I have been tempted to shed a tear but only once have I ever done so. That was on the night of 2 October 1980 in the car park of Caesars Palace, where an 18,000 crowd assembled for what was to prove Ali’s penultimate fight.

It was the night that an icon disintegrated before our eyes as Ali, a 38-year-old robotic shell of the sublime athlete of his heyday, suffered a savage beating that even his opponent, Larry Holmes, was reluctant to administer, repeatedly beckoning to a dispassionate referee to end his erstwhile idol’s agonising humiliation. Even the media were pleading “stop it, stop it” amid counter-cries from some in the Ali entourage fearful of losing their meal ticket.

It was Ali’s career-long cornerman Angelo Dundee who finally defied them. “I am the chief second and I stop the fight,” he yelled to the referee, a dull-eyed Ali slumped on his stool at the end of the 10th round. It was too late to save Ali’s career, but it probably saved his life.

Ali had reigned in an age when boxing crowns were not tawdry bits of bling. He turned it into an art form, making a ballet out of brutality.

Being a sportswriter around him was bliss. We were never short of a storyline. Once, back in the 1970s, on arriving to interview him in Dublin, we discovered that Ali was flu-stricken and being attended by a doctor in his hotel bedroom. We explained to Dundee that all we wanted was to talk to Ali for 10 minutes. “No chance,” came the reply. “He never talks to anyone for less than an hour.” He phoned Ali’s room and winked. “Hey guys, the champ says go on up.” We emerged two hours later, notebooks overflowing.

Not that Ali was a saint. A serial womaniser, he had a darker side which surfaced after he became champion and a member of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam movement ? perhaps understandably considering the past injusttices to black people by white America. Having been barred from a local fast-food restaurant because of his colour, when he returned from Rome after winning the Olympic light-heavyweight title in 1960 he placed his gold medal on the counter and ordered a hamburger. “We still don’t serve niggers,” he was told. “That’s OK,” the then Cassius Clay is said to have cheekily replied. “I don’t eat ’em.”

But there is no longer a trace of malice in him. Throughout his illness he has never had an ounce of self-pity, and he is as generous with his time as he is with his money. “Whenever you see him, you just want to hug him,” says one of his seven daughters, Hana.

I know what she means. I shared a hug with Ali not so long ago, and was again close to tears when he placed a trembling hand on my shoulder and leaned down to whisper: “It ain’t the same any more, is it?”

Ali hasn’t floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee for over 30 years but he is still in there fighting, perversely outliving the majority of his 50 opponents, among them Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper, whose left hook back in 1963 came within a split second, or a split glove, of changing the course of boxing history.

The Greatest!

The Greatest!

Perhaps the most pertinent birthday tribute comes from Dundee, himself now 90. “Muhammad was great outside the ring, he was great inside it. Right now there is nobody out there to turn people on like he did.

“It is unfair to try and compare anybody with him because he’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy. There’ll never be another Muhammad Ali.”

Rome 1960: A golden future

A brash 18-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr wins the Olympic light-heavyweight title, defeating Polish opponent Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final and showing early signs of the uniquely flamboyant, fast-fisted style that was to become his hallmark. He was so proud of his gold medal, he didn’t take it off for two days. Born on 17 January 1942, the younger of two brothers (Rudolph Valentino Clay was later to box as Rahman Ali) he was named after the 19th Century slave abolitionist and politician, and brought up as a Baptist. As a 12-year-old, Clay had taken up boxing on the advice of a white Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, after saying he wanted to “whup” the thief who had stolen his bicycle. He went on to win two national Golden Gloves titles, recording 100 wins and five losses. In an early biography he claimed he threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River in disgust after being refused service at a “whites only” restaurant. He later admitted he actually lost it and was given a replacement during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he lit the flame in one of the most moving moments in the history of the Games.

Champion of the world

When, aged 22, he beat the Mafia-run Sonny Liston, an ageing but seemingly invincible ogre in Miami in 1964, he indeed “shocked the world” twice, first by forcing Liston to retire on his stool after the sixth round and then announcing that Cassius Clay (“my slave name”) was no more and he accepted the teachings of Islam and Malcolm X’s influence. “Until then”, Angelo Dundee said, “I always thought Muslim was a piece of cloth.”

Return of the draft-dodger

Banned, stripped of his title and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in early 1967 for refusing the Vietnam draft (“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong ? they never called me nigger”) Ali’s licence was finally resttored after a three-and-a-half-year exile in which he lectured in mosques and colleges. With a new anti-war mood sweeping the United States, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction ? he never did go to jail ? and Ali was free at at last to exercise his civil rights, and some uncivil lefts, against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in 1970. Fight night was like a scene from Porgy and Bess as Georgia’s black community hailed the returning hero, a pugilistic Pied Piper who had hundreds of kids scampering in his wake wherever he went. Quarry was a quality opponent but Ali had lost little of his speed and sharpness, his slicing punches bringing a third-round stoppage on cuts. He had one more win, against Oscar Bonavena, before Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who had become champion and helped him with cash handouts in the lean years, became the first man to beat him, in Madison Square Garden’s “Fight of the Century” in 1971.

The Rumble in the Jungle

Ali’s eighth-round knockout of another ogre, fellow Olympic champion George Foreman, in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, remains one of the most magical episodes in sport. “Oh my God, he’s won the world title back at 32,” declared the BBC commentator Harry Carpenter as Ali’s right hand sent Foreman corkscrewing to the floor, with an 80,000 crowd chanting “Ali bombaye” (Ali kill him). All through the fight Ali employed his “rope-a-dope”, leaning back into the ropes that were purposely slackened by Dundee to absorb Foreman’s thunderous body blows. “That your best shot, George?” he challenged a befuddled Foreman, who Dundee correctly predicted would “blow up like an old bull elephant”. As he was counted out at around 3.30am the heavens opened and the ringside became a raging torrent. Ali had been re-born as dawn broke over Africa, a renaissance that was commemorated in the award-winning film When We Were Kings while Norman Mailer wrote a book about it simply called The Fight.

The Thrilla in Manila

Thrilla in Manila. The 1975 Ali Frazier flight

Thrilla in Manila. The 1975 Ali Frazier flight

It was, said Ali, “the closest thing to dyin'” after the epic they called “The Thrilla in Manila”. Ali, on the point of exhaustion, collapsed with relief when, in the last of their celebrated trilogy, Joe Frazier, bloodied, bruised and half-blind, was forcibly retired on his stool by compassionate trainer Eddie Futch with just three minutes left of an all-time classic in which boxing’s most bitter rivals had punched much of the hate out of each other.

The third coming

A packed Superdome in New Orleans witnessed the “third coming” of boxing’s messiah in 1978. Having lost his title to Leon Spinks, a gap-toothed tyro of only seven pro fights ? although, like himself, an Olympic light-heeavyweight champion ? Ali became the first to regain the belt three times. He admitted he undertrained for Spinks, and underrated him, for their first fight in which he was strangely lackadaisical, but the return saw him floating and stinging again, just like the old days.

Gift of the jab: Memorable quotes

‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see’

‘It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila’

‘Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife’

‘I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him [Frazier] names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologise for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight’

‘If you sign to fight me, you need speed and endurance but what you need most is to increase your insurance’

‘Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up’

‘Nobody has to tell me that this is a serious business. I’m not fighting one man. I’m fighting a lot of men, showing a lot of ’em, here is one man they couldn’t defeat. My mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people’

‘If he [Henry Cooper] gives me jive, he’ll fall in five’

‘I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark’

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning British sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.

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Younghusbands score for child protection

Team Azkals members Phil and James Younghusband, two of the most famous Filipino-British faces in the country,  joined the British

Phil Younghusband in action with children from the Payatas football club in a friendly football match during the British Embassy’s 'Score a Goal for Child Protection' held on Philippine-British Friendship Day on 20 October. This event puts the spotlight on safeguarding children. (Mark Ypon photo)

Phil Younghusband in action with children from the Payatas football club in a friendly football match during the British Embassy’s 'Score a Goal for Child Protection' held on Philippine-British Friendship Day on 20 October. This event puts the spotlight on safeguarding children. (Mark Ypon photo)

Embassy on 20 Octoberat the British School Manila in ‘Score a Goal for Child Protection’, an event celebrating Philippine-British Friendship Day.

“There may be no better example of Philippine-British friendship than working together to protect our children and young people.  Hopefully this event will create new awareness of this important work. Every child matters and has the right to be protected from all forms of abuse and exploitation,” said British Ambassador Stephen Lillie.

The Younghusband brothers, who trace their roots to both the UK and the Philippines, conducted a football clinic for underprivileged children from the Payatas and Mango football clubs. This was followed by a friendly match between the Younghusbands, the children and some British Embassy staff headed by Deputy Ambassador Trevor Lewis.

The evening was capped by a reception where guests signed the ‘Child Protection in Sport for Development’ a pledge for adults and coaches which sets out basic standards of behavior that adults should follow when involved in sporting activities with children.

Poor funding hinders sports development

Says POC chairman Monico Puentevella 

Former three-term congressman for the Lone District of Bacolod, Monico Puentevella, was the guest speaker at the October lunch of the Negros Expats’ Group at Nature’s Village in Talisay on Saturday.

Monico Puentevella (center, standing) with (l-r) Rene Adad, former president of the Philippine Football Federation, British TV documentary film maker Hazel Stuart (standing). Germans Hans Golla and Joachim Haacker and Briton Peter O'Shea (seated) (Robert Harland photo)

Monico Puentevella (center, standing) with (l-r) Rene Adad, former president of the Philippine Football Federation, British TV documentary film maker Hazel Stuart (standing). Germans Hans Golla and Joachim Haacker and Briton Peter O'Shea (seated) (Robert Harland photo)

Speaking in his role as chairman of the Philippine Olympic Committee, Puentevella told the local foreign community that while Philippines sports were moving ahead in a very positive way, much more could be done if additional funds were available.

“The lack of money to heavily promote sports is a major obstacle to our dream of showing the world just what Filipino sportsmen and women are capable of in international competition,” he said.

“Look at Pacquiao. As an amateur he had to struggle, but as soon as he was discovered and became a professional there was no stopping him. And now he’s number one in the world.

“Under Philippine law Pagcor has to devote five percent of its funds to sports development. President Cory certainly did this, but after her term, the amount was whittled down to 2.5 per cent. Unfortunately, no one has explained the situation to President Noynoy Aquino. Those funds are desperately needed”

Puentevella is sure the president would respond positively and he hopes someone in his circle will brief him on this.

Despite budget problems, he said the country was moving closer to achieving its first Olympic Gold medal in the London 2012 Games.

“And guess what?.  That could be achieved by a Negrense.”

He cited the success of three Pinoy boxers Mark Anthony Barriga, Rey Saludar and Bacolod’s very own Joan Tipon in last week’s AIBA World Boxing Championships in Azerbaijan.

In answer to a question from Briton Peter O’Shea as to when the Philippines might make it to the World Cup of soccer, Puentevella praised the amazing progress the sport has made in recent years. He said this was thanks to such visionaries as Talisay resident Rene Adad, the former president of the Philippine Football Federation.

“As height is not important in soccer, except for the goal-keeper, given the skills and agility of Filipino players, there’s every chance we could achieve international greatness in this sport.

“But again it needs more funding and grassroots training projects like the Coca-Cola Go for Goal youth development program,” he added.

Puentevella ended his address by noting that many of the country’s top sportsmen have either Filipino mothers or fathers.

“Who knows, perhaps some of the children of foreigners in Negros might become national sports champions in the future.”

Submitted on Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pump boat racers hit the water

Fisherfolk from Lakawon and neighboring communities gathered last Thursday and Friday for the island’s boating highlight of the year – the annual Lakawon Bankarrera pump boat races.

Two modified pump boats thrill the crowds with a fast drive past  demo. These boats can reach speeds of 75kph.

Two modified pump boats thrill the crowds with a fast drive past demo. These boats can reach speeds of 75kph.

Staged over two days, the event features ‘small’ (under18ft) and ‘big’ boats (over 18ft). The pump boats must be regular fishing boats and not modified in anyway.

Some 20 boats vied for top honors. And spectators were treated to some close racing as well as one or two spills.

Winner in the small boat category was Nonoy Belegay. Second was Cocoy Ang and third Agi Cerafeno. Winner in the big boat category was Bagyo Caratao with Percebal Caratao in second place and Mark Caratao in third place.

A close finish

A close finish

The Lakawon Bankarrera is the island’s biggest annual boating event. Each winner took home a new Yoko pump boat engine. Prize donors included boat enthusiasts Manolet Lamata, Lakawon Beach Resort owner Victor Puey and NDB contributor Robert Harland

Jun Golfer takes Rotary Title

Paolo de Leon, a 14 year-old student at St. John’s Institute in Bacolod City, was the overall champion of last weekend’s Rotary ‘Golf for a Cause’ tournament held at the Negros Golf and Country Club in Bata Subdivision.

Rotary Golf champion Paolo de Leon flanked by Marapara Rotary president Jojo Montinola (r) and president-elect and tournament director, Al Picardal (l)

Rotary Golf champion Paolo de Leon flanked by Marapara Rotary president Jojo Montinola (r) and president-elect and tournament director, Al Picardal (l)

Paolo, who has been playing golf since the age of six, had a net score of 85 points under the Stableford scoring system.  He has a handicap of 10.

“I was surprised, but thrilled to take the title”,  he said. “It’s a real boost to my confidence and a strong motivator for me to do even better in the future.”

Other winners were: Class A: Boy Manaloto (hcp 10) 77 points; Class B: Fidel Fuentes (hcp 16) 81 points; Class C: Rudy Pranga (hcp 22) 83 points. Friendship Division: J J Coscolluela 72 points. Overall gross champion was Francis Gaston (hcp 4) with 70 points.

This was the 12th Rotary ‘Golf for a Cause’ tournament, said Jojo Montinola, president of the Rotary Club of Bacolod Marapara, organizers of the event.

“The tournament was a great success with an excellent turnout of players”, he said.

“Not only is the event a lot of fun, it raises vital funds which enables our club to continue its community programs, especially medical missions for the less fortunate in our society.

“I’d like to thank all the players, sponsors and volunteers for their participation, with a special mention of our main sponsors Coca-Cola, the City of Talisay, Shangri La’s Mactan Resort and Spa and Philippine Airlines.”