Ali: Still the greatest ever
The man himself told us as long ago as February 1964: "I am the greatest!" Forty-eight years later, as Muhammad Ali celebrates his 70th birthday, is his place atop the pantheon of sporting heroes still secure?
Numbers alone can only take us so far. There is no logic in comparing Ali's 56 professional wins to Pele's two World Cup triumphs and 1280 career goals, Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, Martina Navratilova's 59 Grand Slam titles, Michael Jordan's six NBA championships or Usain Bolt's 9.58 and 19.19 seconds for the 100 and 200m. You may as well attempt to assess the relative musical abilities of John Lennon and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Ali's incendiary adventures in the ring, from his Olympic gold of 1960 and debut pro fight against Tunney Hunsaker all the way through to that final defeat by Trevor Berbick 21 years later, were built not so much on raw win-loss stats as how those were conjured up: snatching the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston at odds of 7-1; ending the rematch with a right hand so fast, or 'phantom', even television could barely see it; baring his talent and soul in three of the greatest fights in history; winning back the world title three times against both physical and sporting reason.
All great sportsmen must have defining moments on their elevation above us toiling mortals. Just as Ali had the 'Fight of the Century', 'Rumble in the Jungle' and 'Thrilla in Manila', so Tiger Woods had his astonishing debut Masters win of 1997 or US Open triumph on one leg in 2008, Jordan the NBA finals of 1997 and his scarcely believable 'flu game', Pele the opening goal in the 1970 World Cup final as the stand-out icon in football's most iconic team.
Others have also made unscriptable comebacks. Armstrong's resurrection from cancer ward to king of the Champs-Elysees made life-long disciples of many. Jordan did it twice, winning a second 'three-peat' with the Bulls after his strange sabbatical with baseball's Birmingham Barons, raging against the dying of the light with the Washington Wizards after an even longer break.
Ali drove his sport to new heights and new corners of the world. So have other stellar names. Jordan took the NBA and branded trainers to the masses. Woods changed not just the physical shape of golfers but the profile of the entire game. Fanny Blankers-Koen showed a patriarchal world that women's sport counted. Bolt has pulled athletics back from the abyss with his demolition of records and exhibitions on the blocks.
Ali beat Henry Cooper for a second time at Highbury in 1966. Photo: Getty
In matters of style, too, Ali is not unique. His speed, his reflexes and guile set him apart from his peers, but so did Roger Federer's bull-whip forehand and sublime court coverage, or Jack Nicklaus's driving distance and accuracy with his irons. Ali might have had his shuffle, but Jordan had his air.
Many would even question his status as greatest boxer of them all, awarding Sugar Ray Robinson or even Joe Louis the title on points.
To be sport's greatest, however, must perversely be about more than sporting achievement. For running or jumping or scoring or fighting to matter to us, we have to be touched by the human soul behind the biomechanics. And this is where Ali truly moves into a realm of his own.
There were showmen before, and there have been copycats since. But no-one else will ever display the combination of charisma, wit and pure joie de vivre that Ali did at his peak.
The early braggadocio might have been borrowed from wrestler 'Gorgeous' George Wagner, but Ali redefined how a sportsman could behave. At the distance of almost 50 years his best quotes still tickle and provoke, that infamous US Army IQ test result of 78 rendered laughable by the endless one-liners and inventive rhymes.
He gave phrases to popular parlance - 'float like a butterfly', 'rope-a-dope' - and aphorisms by the hundred. So mean he made medicine sick, so strong he threw thunder in jail, Ali entertained from daybreak to dusk, and frequently kept on going all night long.
Jordan could be a showman. His press release to announce his first comeback read simply "I'm back". Bolt's archer is the iconic pose of this young century. But can you remember a single quote from Tiger, or inspirational line from Federer?
With his deeds and decisions outside the ring, Ali's impact transcended sport's gaudy jamboree.
It wasn't always as neat as time might make it appear. His famous comment on being drafted ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong") was such a throwaway line that Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times, interviewing him outside his house, initially missed it.
Yet his stance hardened, and his opposition to the Vietnam War would both sum up the mood of an alternative generation and provide a figurehead for those fighting only for change.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform," he famously asked, "and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"
Billie Jean King's on-court brilliance and bravery off it won similar battles for feminism and, later, gay rights. She is one of the very few sports stars before or since Ali who have also been prepared to speak out against the political orthodoxy. Today's big names would be prevented by their agents even if they wanted to.
This was not rebellion packaged to sell clothing, iconoclasm for the sake of posturing. It cost Ali three and half years just as he was approaching his peak. Woods went into self-imposed exile after a string of lurid revelations about his private life and subsequent loss of sponsors. Ali did it for his political and religious beliefs.
Because we're all so well versed with Ali's story, it's easy to forget how seismic an impact his stances made on the world around him.
"The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the red-light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate." That was the view of top sportswriter Jimmy Cannon when Ali joined the Nation of Islam and swapped Cassius for Muhammad.
Ali was knocked to the canvas by rival Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Photo: Getty
Ali had his faults. His three failed marriages were the result of serial infidelities. His taunting of Joe Frazier belittled a great fighter, and his more extreme statements about racial segregation are impossible for most of his millions of fans to condone.
"Put a hand on a Muslim sister, and you are to die," he told an interviewer from Playboy. "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman."
"And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks - or white men, for that matter?' asked the reporter. "Then she dies," said Ali. "Kill her, too."
Why have these flaws, far from wrecking him in the public eye, left Ali "a benign venerated figure", as his biographer Thomas Hauser puts it?
There is the adrenaline and adoration generated by his greatest wins, like the impossible defeat of George Foreman in Kinshasa, and the emotions stirred by watching a man in the grip of Parkinson's syndrome stand tall to light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta.
Other greats have touched us deeply - Jordan, raw from the death of his dad, weeping on the locker-room floor on Father's Day 1996; Tiger in tears on the 18th green at Hoylake after losing his own father; Armstrong coming back from the dead to live strong. Ali seems to have gone deeper.
Other names have also topped polls to find the greatest athlete of all time. An ESPN survey rated Jordan the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, while the Associated Press's corresponding list had Ali third, behind both Babe Ruth and Jordan. Both Sports Illustrated and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century saw it differently. Ali received more votes from BBC viewers than the other four contenders combined.
There's another way of looking at it. If you could sit down with any sports star in history, who would you choose?
Across the globe, Ali remains revered like no other. "I shook up the world!" he yelled after beating Liston in 1964. It was both accurate and prophetic.
Lots of sporting legends have films made of their lives. Ali was so big that even the story of a guy he beat, Chuck Wepner, could inspire an Oscar-winning movie and five sequels.
When Cannon said Ali was "part of the Beatle movement" he meant it as a disparaging comment. Unwittingly he had nailed another truth. There could never be another to touch Ali, partly because the circumstances that allowed him to flourish - an explosion of popular culture, television taking its heroes into every home, the rise of post-colonial black power - can never again be repeated.
"I'm the king of the world!" Ali had declared in that same victory speech in 1964. "I can't be beat!
Half a century on, he's still right.