It seems Rahman Ali fell for some bad press rope-a-dope. He was quoted this week saying his brother Muhammad, 71, was near death, a prisoner in his home and a victim of elder abuse by his third wife, Lonnie. But in response, the Ali camp posted a fresh picture of the boxing legend and blamed "less than reputable publications" for making up the story. Rahman Ali appeared to confirm that too.
It's not the first time there have been claims about Ali being used or abused. In the early 1960s, it was suggested he had been led astray by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, then at the height of his career there were stories that he was being milked dry by a 55-strong entourage of hangers-on. Then and now, it all came down to money and power, and it appeared this week these could have been opening salvos over a fight for what remains of Ali's estate.
"The Greatest" was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984 and has gone from being one of the most regularly seen and heard people on the planet to a man who makes cameo appearances at the Olympic Games. Ali's impact on sport, civil rights and cultural and international relations has been profound, but how much he was guided by others is debatable.
What's not debatable is that a meeting between 19-year-old Cassius Clay and wrestler Gorgeous George shaped the boxer's career. Ali was so impressed with the showman that he began to mimic his vanity and pomp. He also had the gift of the gab and, by the time he had converted to Islam, he was already known as the Louisville Lip. No sports star had imposed his personality in such a way before. White America disliked him, the British loved him, even when he knocked out their great white hope, Henry Cooper.
Ali's stand against the Vietnam War ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong") and his subsequent punishment was a watershed moment. It is unthinkable that a world sporting body would today strip a man of its title for refusing to enlist.
History will largely overlook Ali's flaws - he was unfaithful, he had a mean streak which occasionally showed in the ring, and he misjudged the consequences of his actions, notably in the way he alienated his friend, the late Joe Frazier.
A desire to keep in character probably made him conservative, at times, with the truth, in particular on the fate of his 1960 Rome Olympic Games gold medal.
He was an incredible athlete who could sing, dance and act on any stage.
After retiring, he helped free hostages, including 15 held by Saddam Hussein in 1990, carried out charity work around the world and broke a self-imposed silence to make an emotional statement post 9/11 about what being Muslim was about.
That Ali was in the news this week was appropriate. As sport tackles another doping scandal, it's worth noting he also represented, possibly, the last generation of pure boxers before drugs turned them into super-humans, if not sub-human.
The Ali shuffle is not what it used to be and his autobiographic film The Greatest is in The Warehouse bargain bin. But the Ali legend, Liston to Foreman, Louisville to Kinshasa and Vietnam to Iraq will endure any amount of illness and time.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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