Ali, Sonny Bill and Me

Peter Malcouronne
Westside Stories
Published in
10 min readOct 28, 2015


Peter Malcouronne reflects on The Greatest — and the Second Coming.

In January 2011, moments after Sonny Bill Williams outpointed ham-handed forklift driver Scott Lewis, his trainer Anthony Mundine Snr had an epiphany.

“He could be anything,” Mundine said of Williams. “If he keeps on boxing seriously, he will be the second Ali.”

Now, Mundine’s a good man. An honest man. From Baryulgil, a small New South Wales town best known for the asbestos mine that’s killed a fifth of its inhabitants, Mundine Snr is probably the finest Aboriginal fighter of all time. Over his 16-year career, no Australian — from middleweight to heavyweight — could beat him. In 1974, he fought the murderous Carlos Monzon for the world middleweight title and survived seven rounds. He knows boxing.

Still, to compare his man to The Greatest, Sports Illustrated’s ‘Sportsman of the Century’, was a ballsy-bordering-on-bonkers call. Williams, notable enough now to be an acronym — SBW — was more circumspect. He simply wants to be the greatest cross-code athlete ever.

Aim for the stars and all that. Poor Mundine was mocked — Williams ridiculed by association — but is the comparison as fatuous as it sounds?

Compare Sonny Bill to Ali in his prime. Both men are exactly the same height (1.91m) and weight (107kg). Both are preposterously beautiful, and that’s really the best description for they’re more, much more, than merely “handsome”, “hunky” or “hot”.

Look at them. Look at them ringside. Often lazily likened to Greek gods, their physiques — sinewy, muscled, but not excessively so — are near-perfect, close to the Golden Mean (the shoulders 1.6 times wider than their waists). A photoshop nerd could swap one man’s head for the other and, SBW’s tatts notwithstanding, you’d struggle to tell them apart.

Both men boast compelling foundation myths. Both are from the wrong side of the tracks. Both converted to Islam in their early 20s. And both redefined their sport.

Both men are from the wrong side of the tracks. Ali grew up in the Jim Crow-sickened South, in Kentucky, where schools, buses and public parks were segregated and interracial marriage outlawed. Williams came from Auckland’s working-class western suburbs: he grew up in a state house, his father a painter, his mother a carer at an old folks home. “It was a fairly normal happy upbringing,” Williams told The Australian newspaper. “Not a lot of money, but a lot of love.”

Both boast compelling foundation myths. Ali had his bike nicked and was taught to box by a local policeman who felt sorry for him. Sonny Bill signed for the Canterbury Bulldogs, aged 15, on the bonnet of a league scout’s beat-up Nissan Sentra.

Both men converted to Islam in their early 20s. For a time, Ali’s closest friend was Malcolm X; Sonny Bill’s favourite book is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he says he’s read four times. Both are in thrall to charismatic Svengalis: Ali fell under the spell of Elijah Muhammad and his son Herbert, while SBW seems hypnotised by Khoder Nasser and Anthony Mundine Jnr.

Both redefined their sport. Sonny Bill’s shuddering shoulder-charges sent Convict commentators into paroxysms, and his offloads threatened to revolutionise two rugby codes (not to mention schoolboy lunchtime test matches). And in the ring — fighting with his guard down, and his head up — there’s a bit of Ali about him.

A bit. You don’t want to model yourself too closely on The Greatest. Ali broke all the rules: he held his hands insolently low, preferring to duck or dance away from trouble. He didn’t ‘sit down’ on his punches; he didn’t bother with body shots and instead went after the head.

He got away with it because he was quick. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is the better-remembered half of his mantra. “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

So quick. “Fast! Fast!” he cried, before fighting George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. “Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch and was in bed before the room was dark!”

At his peak, in the early 1960s, he may have been the fastest boxer there has ever been. Sports Illustrated got him to hit a balsa board half a metre away and timed him with something called an Omegascope. It took him four one- hundredths of a second — the blink of an eye. Watch the old clips — watch the flurry of 11 punches in three seconds that knock out Brian London — and even that flickering footage, shot at just 18 frames a second, looks like it’s on fast forward. It’s mesmeric; Ali seems to be fighting in another dimension.

Photos: Patrick Hamilton. AFP | Getty.

By now you might have guessed I’m a fan. I have been since I was a kid. I have 16 Muhammad Ali books, nine DVDs and six wall posters. I’ve watched When We Were Kings a dozen times; I spend too much time on YouTube reliving his greatest hits. I’ve memorised The Greatest’s greatest lines. So I’ll tell you he’s the finest performance poet of all times. Like these lines, again before the Foreman fight.

I’ve done somethin’ new for this fight.
I have wrassled with an alligator. I’ve done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightnin’ And thrown thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad…
Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick…
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.

He’s 71-years old now. The Parkinson’s syndrome he’s endured half his life has left him frail, frozen and far from the Dorian Gray who boasted, “I’m young, I’m fast, I’m pretty; I can’t possibly be beat,” as if he was challenging mortality itself. A few weeks ago, his brother said he was a few days from death. He was wrong, thank God, but that day cannot be far away. I’m dreading it. There’ll never be another Ali.

So I take solace where I can. Such is The Greatest’s luminosity that even a pale imitation dazzles. There’s no shame, no shame at all, in being a poor man’s Ali. The second Ali: Sonny Bill.

And so why, this February, did I leap up off the couch, throw lounge-warrior uppercuts, and bellow at the box and plead, urge, implore a fat, washed-up, steroidal South African to punch Sonny Bill’s lights out? Why did I want to see an All Black World Cup hero — and New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion — sat on his arse?

It’s not envy. I’m not a backyard barbecue bore who bangs on about mirror-fond “pretty boys” and “poseurs”. While there’s some Gen-Y primping there — the hair, the clothes, the seemingly waxed armpits — that’s nothing next to The Greatest who declared, “I want everyone to bear witness. I am the Lord of the Ring… my only fault is that I don’t realise how great I really am.”

It’s not that I think Sonny Bill’s a bully. Sure his fights so far have been against a portly storeman, a sickness beneficiary, the aforementioned forklifter and a builder, Gary “The Baboon” Gurr, from Glenfield. But he’s never been nasty. Not like Ali who ‘carried’ Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell through their fights, spinning out their suffering like a matador who won’t use his sword. “What’s my name!” he snarled. “What’s my name!” (Patterson and Terrell had called Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay). By contrast, Sonny Bill demonstrates an unusual gentleness towards his opponents, a quality that augurs poorly for his future in the fight game, but is to his credit as a man.

It’s not that Sonny Bill’s a fraud. See a fight live… hear the wheeze when a fighter’s hit in the ribs, or the liver, or the kidneys and you’ll know what guts it takes.

I don’t think he’s a fraud. Though his fights have been against stiffs — and he was one punch from Disneyland in the Botha fight — it takes courage to get into the ring. Is there anything in life as lonely, anything that exposes a person so completely, as being in a ring with just one other? See a fight live — see the blood, the sweat, hear the wheeze when a fighter’s hit in the ribs, or the liver, or the kidneys — and you’ll know what guts it takes. While Sonny Bill will never be a great boxer — the Botha fight showed he has no chin — that has nothing to do with courage, with heart. It’s just his neurophysical ability to take a punch. That’s all. And yet it’s everything. “It ain’t about how hard you hit,” said Rocky in the first film. “It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take.”

It’s not that he’s boring. Sure he lacks Ali’s brilliance and braggadocio, but then you could say this of anyone. SBW, despite the branding, comes across as a humble Samoan-Kiwi-Muslim boy from Mt Albert. He doesn’t drink. He’s bought his mum a house, and bought another in blue-collar South Sydney where he lives with his father, his brother and his sister. That’s an appealing back-story.

It’s not even that Sonny Bill — or Money Bill, or $BW — is a ‘mercenary’, a code-switching turncoat. Granted, slinking out of Sydney Airport in the middle of the night without telling your teammates was poor form. And ditching the battlers’ game — league — for the silvertail’s code was a slap in the chops for blue-collar leaguies. But is that bad enough to make you the most hated man in Australia? Hated even harder than the Bali bomber, Amrozi? Come on. Really.

In any case, he says it was never about the money. His supporters tell you he turned down $2 million a season at Toulon. And then you hear that Money Bill came back to New Zealand for a quarter that. Just to have a crack at the All Blacks. That’s something.

Besides, the clubs who sell themselves out to Sky, who take millions a year from the pokies, that cosmic multiplier of human misery, are hardly in a position to preach. Is there meaningful loyalty from anyone in the professional game? Sonny Bill’s management will tell you the Bulldogs used their star as a battering ram and broke him down. “They had a Ferrari in the garage,” claimed manager Khoder Nasser, “and they drove him like a Mack Truck.”

At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, SBW handed his winner’s medal to a crash-tackled kid, offered his match tickets to Syrian refugees, and Fred Flintoffly consoled a shattered Jesse Kriel after the All Blacks knocked South Africa out. These actions, wrote Russell Brown, were a world away from his image as the ‘self-interested, unreliable glory-boy’. What was behind the transformation? Well, perhaps he was just ‘a decent guy in the first place’.

Ah, the villainous Khoder Nasser. Did I want Sonny Bill to lose because of my distaste for his manager, the Aussie huckster with his bullshit and bluster, his nonsense drugs-tests, bribes and fight-shortening rackets? The man who farmed a small stable of lost boys — Williams, Anthony Mundine Jnr, now Quade Cooper — and fattened them up on a diet of grievance, cod-black nationalism, Islam and venal turbo-capitalism?

I think that’s a bit of it. No one likes being bullshitted. For all Nasser’s talk, his man would get pummeled by a fighting footballer like Solomon Haumono. Or Ray Edwards.

You won’t have heard of him. Ray Edwards is the same age as SBW, and from the same Adoni factory except he’s bigger — 1.96m and 120kg. He can run 40 yards in 4.81 seconds. He played defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL. Was on three million US a year. He’s won his first three fights. He looks the part. Unsurprisingly, his manager reckons, “He’s a modern-day Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson combined.”

Ali and Tyson? Oh, for goodness sake. Risible managerial hyperbole is as bad a boxing cliche as the leeching entourage. So let’s blame Khoder. Blame the Puppetmaster. He’s an appealing scapegoat. The only problem is that Nasser’s no Don King. He’s not a meat-wagon manager. He’s looked after Williams. He hasn’t salted away his money.

So why? Why did I want SBW to lose? Part of it’s the awful allure of boxing — as terrible and brain-wrecking as it is (and you only have to look at Ali to see the worst of it). There’s a sense Sonny Bill’s disrespecting the game. Even in the modern era, even in a heavyweight division as debased as it is now, you can’t just walk in, fight once a year and seriously think you’re a contender. That’s Fight for Life vaingloriousness.

What about the other heavyweights? Not Cameron, not Tua — not the household names — but King Afa Tatupu and Joey Wilson, who will be contesting the other (slightly more credible) New Zealand heavyweight boxing title (just vacated by Chauncy Welliver). Tatupu, who works at a timber-yard, and Wilson, a meat-truck driver, battle for a pittance in front of tiny audiences at shows that don’t even make the sports briefs while another man claims to be champion of New Zealand.

That’s not fair. That’s not the Rocky story. But come on — that’s not Williams’ fault. It’s no good reason to hate on the man. No, I think I barracked for Botha because I was pissed off Williams walked away from this boy’s dream: to be an All Black. His last rugby games were heroic — the soaring-like-Superman act into the arms of Hamiltonians as he took the Chiefs to glory — and a man of the match performance in the Bledisloe. Boys Own stuff — only he gave it all away.

He could have been a great All Black. He could’ve played 50 tests, maybe more. He could’ve won us another World Cup — and our first on foreign soil. For those of us who’ve fought so hard to wear the black jersey and never got beyond playing test matches in the backyard, sidestepping feijoa and lemon trees, that doesn’t seem right. But, hey, that’s my problem. It’s not Sonny Bill’s fault he’s cursed with an extravagance of talent (albeit not so much in the ring). Fans are selfish, obsessional even. That’s why I think Peter Snell should’ve kept running for two more Olympics, Danyon Loader should’ve kept swimming and Rob Waddell rowing. It’s why I think Valerie Adams should keep throwing until 2020 (at the earliest).

Fans forget this. It’s not about us. It’s not about Men in Black. It’s not about the stats. It’s not even about Rugby World Cups. It’s his life. And Sonny Bill’s more than a rugby robot.

So if I saw him, I’d say sorry for cheering on the South African. I’d tell him if he wants to box, if he wants to be a little bit like Ali, then he should go for it.

Follow your dream, mate. Your dream, SBW — not Steve Hansen’s, not Khoder Nasser’s and certainly not mine.

First published in North & South in May 2013.

The Greatest at his greatest (gratuitous excuse to bust out some Ali action).



Peter Malcouronne
Westside Stories

The world’s only ABBA & AccaDacca fan.