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What Ali taught me

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Ben Dirs | 17:12 UK time, Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Ask a young tennis pro to name the greatest player ever and it is highly unlikely he'll pick a legend from the 1960s or 70s, a Laver or a Borg. Likewise, ask a young rugby union pro the same question and the answer will not be Colin Meads or Barry John.

Game-changers in their individual sports rarely stay game-changers for long. Most games move on and one era's game-changer eventually becomes a modern-day fossil. What does Laver have to teach the kids today, the kids themselves might argue, when he was 5ft 8in, 10st wet and wielded as his weapon a hunk of laminated wood?

But after Muhammad Ali changed boxing, boxing remained forever in his thrall. Illness has diminished him, but the reality is, rather than boxing fossilising him, Ali was so great he fossilised boxing.

BBC Sport speaks to five of British boxing's finest young talents about why the 70-year-old Ali still means so much to them.

George Groves

George Groves, 23 - British super-middleweight champion

For any young kid coming into boxing, Ali will have affected them to a point they probably don't even realise. I love boxing for many reasons but when I was a really small kid, watching British boxers like Naseem Hamed, Chris Eubank, Frank Bruno and Nigel Benn, Ali was always the greatest fighter of all time.

He packed up boxing before I was born but I know everything about him because of the great things he did. People who don't know about boxing know Ali - who he boxed, what he represented. The average punter might not be able to understand some of the finer points of technique but if you can sing and dance and tell a good story, that appeals to everyone.

He reinvented boxing in many ways. He was one of the first fighters to trash-talk and some of the things he said were bad - very bad. But he understood the business of boxing before anyone else; he knew what sold and what captured the public's imagination.

I remember as a kid watching a video of his fight against George Foreman, the 'Rumble in the Jungle', on loop for about two weeks. And now you can flick on YouTube and learn from his fights. As a smaller fighter, you don't normally learn that much from heavyweights - sometimes they just stand there, plant their feet and 'whack' - but Ali had the full package.

Amir Khan

Amir Khan, 25 - former two-weight world champion

Ali has always been my idol, ever since I was a child. I remember watching the 'Rumble in the Jungle' on video and it was amazing how Ali adapted so fast to the conditions.

After the first few rounds it did not look possible that he could win. George Foreman had been knocking everyone out and was incredibly powerful. But Ali found a way to win by leaning on the ropes and taking shots to the body to wear his opponent out. He had incredible boxing intelligence.

When I met him [in 2006] it was one of my proudest days and something I will never forget. He touched the lives of so many people, both inside and outside boxing, and that's the reason he became 'The Greatest'. I want to wish him all the best and many more happy years.

Luke Campbell

Luke Campbell, 24 - World Championships silver medallist and Olympic hope

He was one of the first boxers I ever watched and when I watched him it made me feel good, made me get excited about the sport. That would have been when I was about 13 years old, when I first started boxing. Once I'd seen him, I just fell in love with the sport.

There was one stage in my boxing career when I used to watch a bit of Ali before every fight. I'd go on YouTube and watch a couple of his fights, not just to feel good but also to see how he did things. I used to think the 'Ali Shuffle' was ace. I've tried it once or twice but didn't manage to pull it off.

He was a boxer, a mover. You never used to see him tuck up and fight on the inside. He used to work to his strengths, keeping his opponent at range, using his feet. I'm a bantamweight and I'm watching a heavyweight for tips - it should be the heavyweights looking at us little guys, seeing how we move our feet and how quick we are.

And you could watch him talk all day - he was just as exciting outside the ring as he was inside. To think that he retired 30 years ago and hasn't really said much for 20 years, it's crazy the influence he still has. I wouldn't like to think of what boxing might have been like without him. I wouldn't like to think of that at all.

Kell Brook

Kell Brook, 25 - former British welterweight champion and world title contender

Ali is the main man in boxing. If you talk about boxing, his name is right at the top of the pile, the first person you mention. He made the sport what it is today, he's the all-time greatest and no-one will ever take his position.

He had that big mouth on him, amazing charisma, and he was just as entertaining when he got in the ring for those big fights against Liston, Foreman and Frazier. Ali was the complete package: he could box, he could talk the talk, he could promote a fight. He had everything.

Every boxer, whether they know they're doing it or not, will imitate things he did. They may not box like him but they all know who he is and some of Ali will have rubbed off. I always watch his videos: the 'Thrilla in Manila', the 'Rumble in the Jungle' - they're classics. And the gym where I'm from [the Ingles' gym in Sheffield], he's imitated: fighting on the back foot, coming from angles. I'd like to think I've got some of the flair Ali had.

Even when Ali has gone he'll always be the greatest. When a young boxer comes along, people will say 'he's got the flair like Ali, he dances like Ali, he talks like Ali'. But you can't ever imitate him - people try but they never get it right.

Nathan Cleverly

Nathan Cleverly, 24 - WBO light-heavyweight champion

Ali is an icon. Everyone who takes up boxing knows the name Muhammad Ali. All the talking, all the bad-mouthing that takes place during the build-up to fights, the head-to-heads, the uproar at weigh-ins - that's all down to Muhammad Ali.

There are plenty of fighters now who try that kind of thing and you get members of the public who love and hate that kind of thing. But that's what generates the hype around fights, and Ali is the reason it became part of the business.

But as well as being a great character - the way he talked, with confidence and wit - he also had tremendous fighting ability. The way he boxed was different, he brought a new style to heavyweight boxing - supple, a lot of movement.

I obviously didn't see him fight live but you can certainly learn from the old guys, and I've seen enough clips of him to know how much of a gifted fighter he was. I've seen all the old classic fights - against Foreman and Frazier. It was raw back then, full of intrigue, a real buzz round the fights, and just great to watch.

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  • Comment number 1.

    simply the greatest, and still fighting to this day

  • Comment number 2.

    Never has been nor will be surpassed.
    A giant among giants and brought boxing into an art. And I'm still convinced that if not unjustly banned by the boxing authorities,he would have remained undefeated and most probrably retired long before he eventually did.
    I was 8yrs old when he first fought Cooper and idolised the bloke.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ben when I first read your opening paragraph, I was thinking 'um where are you going with this!' So, when I re-read you paragraph it twigged that the modern tennis player wouldn't be thinking about Laver or a Borg, even though they had a major impact on the sport, but players like McEnroe, Becker, Agassi, Sampras, Nadal and Federer.

    Now when you mention the name Ali, you associate a person who has gone to hell and back. He is an enigma of the Boxing World. A three time heavyweight champion of the World and who has fought the best. Now, battling parkinson's disease, he still has that air of invincibility where ever he goes.

    The other great thing about Muhammed Ali is that he is a gentleman and hasn't allowed the success to get to his head, because he knows he is the greatest that ever was and will ever be.

  • Comment number 4.

    The most recognised face on the planet that is admired both inside and outside boxing.

    A true great in the ring and just as great for standing up for his values and willing to pay the price for doing so.

    He is a the type of man who lives up to the word 'Legend'.

  • Comment number 5.

    I drove down Muhammed Ali Boulevard, Louisville Kentucky in 1990.
    I consider it an honour.

  • Comment number 6.


    Sometimes age has an advantage. like you [ok slightly older] I remember it oh so well.

    Those old black and white pictures on the BBC, we didn't need coloured TV's when he was on the box, he simply illuminated the art of heavyweight boxing to a level, I'd never seen before or since.

    For years I've always felt sad for many of the fighter's he fought and I don't mean the Frazier, Foreman types because they were top fighters at a time when the heavyweight division was overflowing with talent. Many of what would be thought of as the lesser lights of that time would have been good champions, at any other time in the last 40 years.

    He reigned in a truly golden age, for heavyweight boxing.

  • Comment number 7.

    Scotsman in Jakarta, I am 57 yrs old this year, I remember [like yesterday] as a 7 year old, that my boxing fan Dad would get me up in the middle of night to watch this "big mouth" get beat........of course Ali was the business, even my dad who could not stand Ali's big mouth antics was soon won over, we would love to watch this guy fighting, watching a 16" Black and White telly in the middle of the night, magic, for me there has never been another heavyweight to touch him, not even close.

  • Comment number 8.

    First fight on old Black and White was Ali, my Dad said come and watch this great Boxer and entertainer, and indeed he was,
    Cleveland Williams Fight was Ali at probably at his best, his footwork, speed movement.
    God Bless Ali, and Happy 70th!

  • Comment number 9.

    What I admire more than his exploits in the ring was who the man was outside the ring.
    The strength of his convictions in the face of insumountable odds. To stand toe to toe with not just the best fighters but the establishment, during a time when you stood out just for the colour of your skin and then to challenge the status quo with class and guile.
    Ali always maintained he was not well educated but have a look at some of his interviews with not sports writers but all journalist, then have a look at the recent interview with Floyd 'Money'Mayweather and Kenny Bayliss.
    Not even in the same class.

  • Comment number 10.

    The perfect role model in my opinion, oozed class and the complete pro. The first world wide sports icon and probably still the yard stick on which others should be gauged.

  • Comment number 11.


    I had over 120 fights as pro and amateur(inspired me in these). 49 now, so remember Ali's fights, not just with other great fighters but also the less named ones such as Ken Norton and Ernie Shavers.
    Watcing him on telly last night, it was evident that he is as passionate about the way he lives his life regardless of boxing and is an inspiration to all, no matter what their vocation is.
    My fiance is a new fan of his, and questioned me about why he did not move of the ropes against Foreman, I said because he had such great timing and reactions he didn't need to - also winning the war of wills staying there - but also made me realise that not many fighters(if any) could punch with the accuracy and generate the power the way Ali did while leaning back on the ropes.
    Not sure we could ever truly convey what he did to Sonny Liston(twice), akin to Tyson Fury taking Mike Tyson to bits in Tysons prime (except Ali's feat was much greater)

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    I boxed as a kid and I just thought i was him.... I'd dance in circles and flick out left jabs... I just adored Muhammad Ali!!!

  • Comment number 14.

    The BBC thought police are in their usual way, trying to remove all dissent that conflicts with their world view.

    So here goes again, just some simple facts for those who wish to laud Muhammed Ali:

    1/He belonged to an organisation (Nation of Islam) which believed that white people were devils, created by an evil black scientist.
    2/ He called Joe Frazier an 'Uncle Tom' and 'The White Man's Champion'
    3/He stated that black men and women who go with white people should be killed (you can see this on a Michael Parkison interview).
    4/He spat on Ernie Terrel during their fight and he rubbed Terrel's face on the ropes, trying to injure his eyes.

  • Comment number 15.

    Didn't Ali also 'cheat' with a torn glove to gain more recovery time during fight against Cooper ?

  • Comment number 16.


    elijah muhammad seen his potential to speak to the masses and so brainwashed him. and at the time of racism in america it's easy to see why ali fell for it although now he knows it was wrong.

    nothing you say will alter his impact on the world and the character he was.

    honestly who in any sport has made more of an impact?

    i think we all know the answer.

    you wanna lose yo money then bet on sunny.

  • Comment number 17.

    people say he took too many blows which caused his illness.

    i think he was on that show too many times.

    i couldn't resist.

  • Comment number 18.

    number 14 dipper is bang on.

    BBC are changing history.

    The guy hated white people.

    Nation of islam is as evil as the kkk, if calaghe had joined an equivalent he would be banned from boxing.

    Plus ali would have got killed by vitali. Ali got battered by a midget henry cooper and robbed nortion 3 times.

    He also never had to face the eastern europeans and cubans whom dominated heavyweight boxing in the amateur ranks, yet were banned at professional level.

  • Comment number 19.

    Ben I have to pick you up on your opening text. To say that Laver, or lets say Nicklaus in Golf or Stewart in F1 would not influence todays kids where Ali would is a redundant point. Tennis has evolved massively in the 50 years since Laver played, by your own admission using a "hunk of laminated wood". It is a completely different sport and I doubt Laver would be competitive against any of the worlds top 50 these days. Boxing however is the same sport it always has been, gloves on, fight. So it easier to remain a legend and as influential in a sport that never changes rather than a sport that is continuously evolving due to technology improvements. I'm not demeaning anything Ali has done and he is the Greatest of all time but I felt you made a poor point.

  • Comment number 20.

    Quote Ali "I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark."

    Who is Vitali by the way? LOL.

  • Comment number 21.

    #18 - I don''t agree that Ali would have been killed by Vitali. Remember that Ali gave Foreman a lesson, and George was just as physically imposing at VK. Vitali is dominant now because there is no-one who can live with his sheer size and strength, however his speed and skill are relatively limited IMO. Styles make fights and I think ali would have tied Vitali in knots. BTW I think a peak Tyson would have given Ali much more trouble.

    Also, he lost to Norton once and beat him twice. All 3 fights were very close

  • Comment number 22.

    21.At 18:50 18th Jan 2012, The Boike-Meister General wrote:
    #18 - I don''t agree that Ali would have been killed by Vitali.
    You are correct, enjoy.

  • Comment number 23.

    I have always been a fan of the style, class and pure showmanship of Ali. A legend, an icon. I do agree with 21 though, Tyson at his peak would have simply destroyed Ali. No contest.

  • Comment number 24.

    Not that I'm anywhere near old enough to remember Ali, but I do think Dipper is entirely right to question all of this "conssumate proffessional" rubbish. Imagine calling him that whilst he was still fighting?! He was a slightly obnoxious, cocky sometimes downright rude man who in his quotes about Foreman and Joe Frazier surely lost any chance to qualify as possessing 'sportsmanship' or be seen as a 'gentleman'. His Nation of Islam days don't help either.

    But, wow, was he good.

  • Comment number 25.

    #14 Ali lived in America at a time when black people where being hung simply for being black. They were denied the same rights as the white man.
    So when you mention his Nation of Islam days please bare this in mind.

  • Comment number 26.


    I think you need to do a little more research into the Nation of Islam's history and Ali's affiliation with them. Put bluntly, they brainwashed him. By the time he saw the truth he didn't want to speak out against them because it would have meant his life (look at Malcolm X). He chose to bide his time instead and broke off from that messed up organisation once they disbanded for reasons that would take far too long to explain here.

    Those things you mention he said weren't right, but they were said at a time when he was being influenced by a relatively powerful cultural and political figure. He has repented since then and I can forgive him for that. We're all allowed to make some mistakes in life; nobody can be perfect.

    Regarding what he called Frazier: Ali himself has since apologised to Joe and admitted that it was all for publicity, not a personal attack at Joe. Same as what many of the top boxers do today; it's all business and it doesn't hurt if it goes to your opponents head.

  • Comment number 27.

    I'm not old enough to have appreciated the man in his prime, but i recall probably some of his last fights I think in the early 80's, when he clearly was doing himself more harm than good, why he chose to fight on when bigger fights lay ahead, surely this must be a case of if only........

    I remember being absolutely captivated by the biopic " when we were kings" years ago and it took me to read a few of the books surrounding the great man, at it reveals an amazing career.

    But for me it takes a brave man to step in the boxing ring, but it can make a legend to get back into a boxing ring after a defeat and win back the titles that were rightfully his.

  • Comment number 28.

    #4. The Queen is the most recognised person on the planet. I've got all her fights on DVD!!!

  • Comment number 29.

    A lot of the anti-Ali comments are about, firstly, his womainising, secondly, his supposed anti-white racism.

    Firstly, the most revolting facet of modern society is our lip-smacking prurience at the sexual exploits of 'celebs'. Regrettably, I'm not athletic, young or fantastically wealthy so beautiful young women don't tend to throw themselves at me. I suspect this is also true of most of the posters on here. Were they to do so, I don't know if I'd be true to Mrs E. I do know that I'm not in a position to judge Ali, Tiger or anyone else.
    Secondly, everyone who knew Ali knew he wasn't a racist. One of his best friends was an Irish fellow who, in later years, wrote a biography about his years with the champ. In the late 70s when a home for poor Jews was closing down in New York Ali turned up with a large cheque to keep it open.
    His closest advisers were, er, Angelo Dundee & Ferdie Pachecho.
    Ali was a man of strong political opinions but he wasn't a politician or an ethical philosopher, he was a boxer. He said what was on his mind & probably didn't think much about the consequences. If David Cameron was interviewed straight after taking part in a 15 round fight, or even a hard sparring session, I suspect he'd also stray off-message.
    Looked at as a whole, reading his "The Greatest" autobiography, we'd see Ali as a man who took a violently forceful stance against a hideous form of racism. NOT as a racist himself.

  • Comment number 30.


    I think in this regard you're slightly over-emphasising the "Muhammad Ali" effect. Boxing is like cricket & utterly unlike football, tennis, athletics, golf etc.
    Boxing people absolutely revere their heritage & go on about it incessantly.
    Listen to B-Hop or Mayweather & they will name-check Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Sandy Saddler, Joe Louis, so often you'd think they went to school with them, not that they are ghosts only ever seen in sepia photographs & flickering black & white films.
    Look at the 606 boards & they're still arguing if James J Jefferies would've beaten the Klitchko Bros.
    To footballers, by contrast, everything before the premiership is worthless old history.

  • Comment number 31.

    I forgot to add, Happy Birthday Champ.

    You took your fight to the furthest extreme possible & got horribly maimed as a result. Despite being the clearest living example of what boxing can do to someone, you've retained your dignity.
    I love you.

  • Comment number 32.

    Re mss 21, 23

    I'm sure you're wrong, but it might not be an issue, depending on the draw. Because if Tyson got drawn against Sonny Liston that would be that !
    Tyson don't beat a sober Liston anyway, anyshape, anyhow.

  • Comment number 33.

    @29.1eriugenus: I don't know if my comment was in the "Anti- Ali" comments that you mentioned but if so I absolutely do not consider it to be anything of the sort. I am by no means "Anti- Ali", from everything I have seen of him was he was simply incredible and phenominally 'special', I just don't think it's fair to say he was a man of sportsmanship and a gentleman.

    It seems people are trying to polarise opinion of him where he is either perfect in every way or you must absolutely hate him. Not being angelic by no means detracts from his brilliance, but trying to paint him as such simply seems incredibly disingenuous.

  • Comment number 34.

    In my view there were a number things about Ali, that were, if not unique, then special.

    Firstly, he was very mobile and quick on his feet for a heavyweight, unlike the likes of Liston, Foreman and even Frazier who were more punchers.
    He was also a great entertainer in the ring, with the shuffle and antics such as in the Foster fight when he pretended to wobble at the knnes before finishing Bob off.
    He did the 'trash talking' thing very well. I'm not sure if he was the first to hype his fights like this, but because his career co-inciding with the widespread introduction of TV, he reached many more people. Many fighters since, like Naz, Eubank, Haye have tried to use similar hype but none of them even come close.
    He may have professed to be not well educated, but he was extremely articulate and a real entertainer when interviewed. If you can find the Parkinson interview you will see what I mean - he put Parky right back in his place. Also there was 'An Audience with ..', which showed how entertaining he was outside the ring.
    One the best clips I saw if him was before (I think) the Liston fight (might have been Frazier) when he asked the interviewer if he'd seen Liston, and when he replied 'Yes', Ali said 'Ain't he ugly?', rendering the interviewer speechless.

  • Comment number 35.

    Years ago I heard a saying that the measure of ones will can make an impossibility into possibility. Ali proved that, time and time again. One example, going 12 rounds with a broken jaw against Ken Norton to lose a split verdict. The greatest example of this was his triumph over George Foreman. When Ali returned to the ring after more than three and a half years of suspension he was not the man that performed with the likes of Sonny Liston, and Cleveland Williams to name a couple. He came back to the ring having left his prime those three and a half years behind him. Here he was taking on the likes of Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton, and the awesome George Foreman the three of the fighters in the prime of their careers. Yes I have always rated Ali the greatest fighter of alltime.

  • Comment number 36.

    Here is the interview I spoke of, at about 04:45 -

    The guy was unbelievably charismatic

  • Comment number 37.

    Haters like Dipper1972 need to keep up with the facts before spewing ignorance. Muhammad Ali left the cult of Nation of Islam and later embraced orthodox Sunni Islam in 1975.

  • Comment number 38.

    @19 I believe the point of comparisons is to put them on an equal playing field. Who's to say if Laver and Borg had grown up in a time of graphite racquets they would not have still been great. Stewart, Fangio in modern open wheel cars. I think their talent would have adapted accordingly. However in boxing it's man v man and a pair of gloves. I think it's one of the few sports where genuine comparisons can be made. The only variable being the quality of opponents. I don't think it's possible to penalise him in this category.

  • Comment number 39.

    I disagree about it being easy to compare different boxing eras. Tactics, diets and 'supplements' and the sheer wealth of those at the top mean that boxing and boxers from different eras were different. For one thing some of the greats many mention used to fight every few weeks, often whilst holding down jobs. There was also the mob influence and the fact that many fighters earned a pittance whilst promoters kept the proceeds. Ali himself fought 12 times in around a year when he reclaimed the title. The Klitschko brothers generally fight twice a year each.

    Ali was probably the most influential boxer, due to his fame. He fought like a 1950s Middleweight but had the physique of a 1970s/80s Heavyweight. So many watched him box gracefully and copied his style rather than slugging it out like Liston for example.

    As for who would win between boxers from different eras - there is nothing but opinion to decide. For me, Ali was too smart and mentally strong for Tyson (who struggled against top level opponents who weren't intimidated by him - not a popular opinion but it's mine), was too quick and slick for Vitali (who needed months to recover after Lewis opened a terrible cut on him - Ali used this tactic previously and surely would against VK) and breathed too much to be troubled by Audley Harrison (then again being better than a wet paper bag would also qualify Ali for the win there). Ali vs Louis would have been intriguing, although back in Joe's day tactics weren't as advanced. I also think Ali would have beaten Marciano but as nobody else did it's a great unknown.

  • Comment number 40.

    Still amazed to see that people think Mike Tyson would have beaten Ali. Let’s not forget the person who first defeated Mike Tyson was a boxer and mover (Buster Douglas). Prior to that, the nearest fighter to Ali's style that Tyson fought was a washed up drug rehabilitating Pinklon Thomas - who gave Tyson a boxing lesson for 6 rounds.
    Not anti-Tyson in any way but doubt if he could have lived with Frazier, Foreman or Norton (perhaps not even Shavers), he was fortunate enough to be around when good heavyweights were sparse.
    Let’s not forget Evander Holyfield moving up a weight, taking Mike to the classroom and destroying him.
    Ali was never out powered, rarely outpunched or outwitted and most of all had an iron jaw which Mike Tyson didn't have.
    ps and would not have been frightened by Tyson as most of Tyson's opponents were(in fact Tyson would have been frightened of Ali, as he was when Evander Holyfield when singing in the corner with such belief)

    Come on Ben ,
    Ali versus Tyson blog , let’s put this to rest :-)

  • Comment number 41.

    Amir Kahn is dragging his name through the mud with all his complaining about his loss to Patterson. I like Kahn and have been a big fan for years but he is starting to sound like David Haye with all his excuses. He lost that fight fair and square, I didnt think for a second he had won it once the bell went.

    Please Amir move on and dont get the reputation as a complainer like Hopkins or Haye....everyone knows the truth...stop whinning and get back training and take some fights more your level. Forget about Mayweather or Pacman...he wouldnt last 30 seconds.


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