I'm actually not a big boxing fan, and I'm certainly not interested in discussing who actually was the greatest, whether Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Ali or the fearsome and misguided Mike Tyson, or indeed whoever else boxing aficionados might put forward.
I'm fascinated by Ali and not just for his exceptional sporting talent, but also for the power of his mind, the strength of his convictions, his infectious charisma, his fast witted humour - the sheer dominating size of his personality.
Being British myself and somewhat subject to various stereotypes of our nation, namely understatement and reserve, it is quite something to be presented with a man who believes in himself so completely and with such unashamed hubris as to shout "I'm the greatest! I shook up the world!" in front of millions of viewers after felling the great Sonny Liston. Not only does he believe it, but he makes you believe it too.
Ali has plenty if amusing quotes - many of them directed at challengers, such as:
If you even dream of beating me you'd better wake up and apologise!... or ...
It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am.However, he also has many insightful quotes on training, and indeed on life. This is one such gem:
It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes conviction, things begin to happen.
My interpretation is that you need to believe you are capable of what you set out to do, before you achieve it. In fact you need to BE that person, and then the achievement will follow. In my life, that would mean not only believing I can qualify, but also acting like someone who already has, in other words doing what is necessary day to day to be that person. In effect you need to become a qualifier many months before you actually cross the line and make the fact reality.
When We Were Kings (watch it!), or for those of you who want to dig deeper, Norman Mailer's gripping book The Fight.
Don King went to Ali and offered him $5 million to fight George Foreman, and then he went to Foreman and offered the same for him to fight Ali. These sums of money were way beyond the sums being paid boxers in 1974 and each fighter's fee would be the equivalent of about $20m today. Then King had an issue: where to find $10 million. To cut the story short, eventually he did find it in the coffers of President Mobutu's Zaire, a country who could ill afford the price tag, but nevertheless the date was set for an epic showdown in Kinshasa.
Foreman was a fearsome opponent - world champion and a huge man towering over Ali, a fighter of not inconsiderable size himself. Foreman had a brutal punch with such power that it could inflict serious physical damage. He was in his prime and many experts thought that not only will Ali lose the fight, he is in serious danger of losing his life.
What Ali did on that night defied all expectation and all common sense. He did not dance like a butterfly or sting like a bee, as was his signature style. He goaded Foreman into a rage and then let the man pound his body with punch after punch after punch. He lay back on the ropes and took a brutal pummeling. People watched on in dismay - this was the total annihilation they had forecast, they hoped Ali would give in before he was too badly hurt.
And yet after 5 rounds of the oppressive heat and humidity, the enraged onslaught Ali had incited Foreman to had exhausted the unbeatable world champion. This is what Ali had planned and what he was waiting for - he came off the ropes and unleashed a furious volley of punches at the stunned Foreman. 3 rounds later the giant was on the canvas and the fight over. Ali had outwitted his opponent and indeed everybody watching the match.
Ali was not just a great fighter but also an intelligent fighter, at times a strategic genius. I sometimes think of the ironman like Foreman - a huge seemingly insurmountable challenge, but with intelligence, patience and strength in the final stages the giant can be subdued.
I've touched on Ali's massive self confidence - this man believed with utter conviction that he was the Greatest, that he would win. A great deal of this belief came from his faith in the prophet Elijah Mohammed and himself as a vessel of his God. I am not a religious person myself, but I can imagine the mental strength that a deep belief in God being in your corner can provide. No matter how bad things look, no matter how bleak, you believe in your inner self that all will come good so long as you keep pushing with your heart and soul.
That's power and what is likely to make the difference when the going gets tough. What I wonder is how can I harness that power without having faith myself? I think the answer comes in training the mind and perhaps I'll explore that further in a future post.