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Muhammed Ali — indeed the greatest

By Frederic Friedel

I used to tell people that in my youth I had three great sporting heroes: Muhammed Ali, Bobby Fischer and Franz Beckenbauer. Nobody else came close to them. Fischer, of course, was the American chess legend, a man who took down the Soviet chess hegemony all by himself; and Beckenbauer was the most sublime football player Germany has ever produced.

Sporting heroes: Muhammed Ali, Bobby Fischer, Franz Beckenbauer/Johan Cruyff

Some years ago I heard a Dutch colleague, a journalist who is a rival and sometimes critic of mine, talking to friends. “In my youth I had three great sporting heroes,” Dirk Jan said, “Muhammed Ali, Bobby Fischer and Johann Cruyff.” Cruyff was Holland’s soccer equivalent of Beckenbauer.

Bobby Fischer, who had been hunted by US authorities and gone through harrowing incarceration in a Japanese prison, ended up with asylum in Iceland, where he spent his final years as a recluse, dying of untreated kidney problems in January 2008, at the age of 64. We all mourned his passing. A few months ago (in March 2016, at the age of 69) Cruyff passed away, succumbing to lung cancer, at the age of 69. DJ mourned his passing. Now (June 3, 2016) Muhammed Ali has died, after a thirty-year battle with Parkinson’s. He was 74. Dirk Jan and I both mourn him. I have Franz Beckenbauer left, who is hale and healthy at the age of 70.

Muhammed Ali’s death did not come as a surprise — take a look at the length of this wonderfully written obituary that appeared in the New York Times just hours after the news broke. They probably had it ready since 2013, when Ali’s brother Rahman announced that he was ailing and could be dead in days. But he hung on for another three years — good for him.

I myself took up boxing in my college days, mainly due to my hero-worship of Muhammed Ali. I watched all his fights, which in the beginning were only shown as trailers to blockbuster movies, and I tried desperately to emulate his style. I was skinny and underweight, but could come nowhere close to the speed and agility of the heavyweight boxer. I floated like a beetle and stung like a gnat. He was pure magic.

Today, after I learned about his death, I went to YouTube and looked at my history for the last two weeks. There are six videos I had watched of Ali, not because I had a premonition of anything, but because it is what I do periodically: watch the greatest boxer ever in his prime, just for pleasure. Let me share a few with you.

This is not brutal boxing, its ballet. Nobody came close anything like it before Ali, and nobody has since.
This one shows you vividly how Ali was simply out of this world — you just couldn’t catch the man. Or this one.

I could list a great number of videos of Ali practicing his sublime art, and you could spend dozens of hours compulsively watching them. But instead I am advising you to get hold of one of the best boxing documentaries of all time, When We Were Kings, made by Vikram Jayanti, who accompanied Ali on his “Rumble in The Jungle” against George Foreman. Vikram, who is a dear friend, used Norman Mailer (and others) to highlight Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” and his repeated use of the right-hand lead that so infuriated Foreman. Amazon has the movie, starting at $0.01 for a used DVD.



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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.