Muhamad Ali was full of himself

On the myth of Muhammad Ali : Madness, size and grimace

One child quickly realized that there was something bigger about him than about anyone else. Parents suddenly did weird things to "be there" when he struggled. Got up at night, switched on the television and woke the sons so that they could also watch. So that they too understood: the mystery of great Ali battles.

At such moments America was the center of the universe. Because although the fights also took place in Manila or in Kinshasa, it was always two Americans who fought in the ring for the crown of the world. And one of them was always Muhammad Ali. When he went to the third fight against Joe Frazier in 1975, his long-term rival, to whom he actually lost when he first met, which actually never happened, my father took me on a business trip. We could have been home that evening, but my father interrupted the journey in Hamburg and rented us a room in a splendid hotel on the harbor because there were televisions in the rooms. We didn't have one at home.

My father woke me up at night. I had hardly been able to fall asleep for excitement, now I was greeted by the telegenic noise of a mass event, which stemmed half from the problematic transmission technology, half from the masses themselves, who had gathered around the ring in Manila in feverish anticipation. It was a long fight. Infinitely tough, enormous in its relentlessness, fought out to the point of complete exhaustion. Ali won. But it was Joe Frazier, whom I had learned to respect as an eight-year-old toddler in a Hamburg hotel room. As a stooped man crawling into cover, who hadn't fallen over and had hit back again and again. After the 14th lap he just sat on his stool. He could no longer see Ali through his puffy eyes.

"This was the closest thing to death", Ali would later say about the Manila Ring Battle, he never got closer to death. And of course this sentence can also be found in Jan Philipp Reemtsma's wonderful fight study "More than a champion", which tries to fathom "the style" of the boxer Muhammad Ali. As if the movement sequences and the springy elegance explain the phenomenon of the man who had announced to the world: "I am the greatest" - and had promised not enough.

The electronic media fueled his fame

What is size Pop culture has had its own criteria for this, since teenagers fainted at the sight of the Beatles in so many numbers and unleashed an infernal screeching roar that a special power seemed to have attached itself to them. It was the power of electronic media. Since then, collective madness tied to the individual has been the formula for greatness in the media age. And of course the Beatles wanted to meet one person above all on their first US tour in February 1964, which established their world fame: Cassius Clay, as he was still called at the time. It was seen as the top meeting of the greatest of its kind. Although neither the Beatles nor Cassius Clay had already shown what was really in them.

The encounter took place shortly before the first title fight against Sonny Liston. They fooled around, the photo in which Ali knocks the Beatles down in a kind of chain reaction has become famous. He hopped around the British with his mouth wide open and eyes wide in panic, as he often did at public appearances. This hysterical puppet show, completely unusual for a boxer, was part of Clay's cultural program. With that he had made his terrifying opponent Liston for months with verbal attacks ("he smells like a bear, if I hit him, I'll give him to a zoo"), hyper-nervous appearances and grimaces to believe that he is not sane.

It turned out that Liston was no match for this diversion. He thought he was facing a madman whom he didn't need to take seriously. Error.

The problem with Ali was that even if you knew he was making offers to his opponents to hate him and not take him seriously, there was no recipe against it. Immediately after defeating Liston, Clay dropped his "slave name", as he said, and called himself from then on Muhamad Ali. An affront to the white establishment that deeply divided the boxing world. How dare he? That was the phrase that accompanied his career.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page