Take Nelson Mandela’s statesmanship, Brian Clough’s mouth, Oscar Wilde’s wit and Cary Grant’s charm. Add them to the greatest boxer that ever lived and you have some idea of Muhammad Ali’s legend.
Ali wasn’t just the greatest sportsperson of the last century, he was one of the leading figures of the post-war world.
His story isn’t just about the history he made in the ring, but the obstacles he had to overcome along the way.
Ali was born in the South in 1942 when racism was still rife.
He discovered success did not necessarily make people colour blind and tells a story of how he threw his Olympic gold medal, won at the 1960 Games in Rome, into the Ohio River when he was denied entry into a whites-only restaurant.
He had to overcome huge prejudice in his professional career and Americans initially had no time for this brash, trash-talking young fighter.
Despite beating Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion in 1964, aged just 22, he was castigated when he revealed he had converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay Junior – what he called his slave name – to Muhammad Ali.
The hate directed towards Ali reached a high in 1967 when he refused to answer the draft to serve in the US Army in Vietnam because, as he put it: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
He became a hero for the civil rights and anti-war movements and the establishment reacted by stripping him of his world title and banning him from boxing.
He was robbed of three years of his career and he took the system on and won in 1971 when the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for failing to answer the draft.
He was allowed to resume boxing in 1970 and the following year he lost to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in the Fight of the Century.
He came back, avenging that defeat to Frazier and his second pro loss to Ken Norton, to set up the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974.
Against all the odds, Ali stopped Foreman in the eighth to become world champion for a second time in one of sport’s greatest moments.
His second reign as king lasted four years and he beat Frazier again in their third fight – the epic Thrilla in Manila – before losing to Leon Spinks in a split decision in 1978.
Even then, Ali’s remarkable story wasn’t over and he beat Spinks in the rematch seven months later, aged 36, to become the first fighter to win the world heavyweight title three times.
In 1979 he retired, only to return in the early 80s and suffer loses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, but by then his legend was secure.
His long battle with Parkinson’s Disease began soon after bragging before his first fight with Liston that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, he is now a quivering wreck of a man.
He couldn’t speak when the great and the good descended on his Kentucky home to celebrate his 70th birthday, which falls tomorrow, but he didn’t have to.
Not even this horrible debilitating condition can destroy what he did.
Happy Birthday Muhammad. You will always be the Greatest.