He gave everything.
Watching Muhammad Ali shuffle onto the stage, aided by two loving helpers, it was hard to think anything else. This man gave everything.
Last night, Ali was in London with his wife Lonnie for a summit run by Beyond Sport, an organisation which supports the use of sport to promote positive social change. Though Beyond Sport have worked with no shortage of sporting icons -Michael Johnson, the quadruple Olympic champion, is a close associate of theirs – Ali’s appearance was something else altogether. If anyone embodies what it means to push oneself beyond sport’s boundaries to make the world somehow better, then it is the legendary American boxer.
Watching him enter that auditorium, I was reminded of a moment from a film that I’d seen recently: from Gladiator, where a world-weary Russell Crowe takes to the Coliseum’s sands, to greet his adoring hordes. Like Maximus, Crowe’s character in that film, Ali knows too well the odd loneliness of being an outcast among those who would place you on the most glorious of pedestals. It was ironic that Ali, who in many hearts best represents the ideals of the Olympics, once rejected the spoils of the Games in the most visceral way. Having won a gold medal in 1960, he ended up tossing it into the Ohio River, disgusted that he could be accepted by the world as a sporting champion but rejected by his own country as a man.
Joining Ali on stage that evening, to help him give the Generation Ali award to Matiullah Haidar, a young person judged to have lived the most inspiring of lives, was David Beckham. There can be few times when the footballer can have been visibly in awe of someone else: then again, there are few people like Ali, to whom the wholly natural response each time that they enter a room is a prolonged and raucous standing ovation.
It has been quite a summer for superhero movies, with The Dark Knight Rises emerging, in many eyes, as the pick of the bunch. It was fitting, then, to see Ali step forward, a man who has been living a superhero movie since he was born in 1942. In honour of those battles that he has won on behalf of untold millions, it seems only right that every moment of his life should feel like a victory lap. And so that’s why, when he walked into that packed and rapturous hall, we rose, roared, and clapped till our palms were sore.