The Greatest

Muhammad Ali died yesterday at the age of 74. The Parkinson’s-stricken, self-proclaimed “greatest” succumbed to the only opponent ever to have the last word against him. People remember him for his boxing but he would be appalled by the “small minds” who think of him that way. For he is much more than a boxer in the ring; he was just as much a fighter outside of it.


Perhaps the best demonstration of this came in a series of four interviews Ali did with the pre-eminent British television interviewer of the time – Sir Michael Parkinson. A dichotomy, to be sure: a cultured white British journalist and a black American sports star determined to show himself to be superior in every respect.

He approached interviews the same way he approached his opponents in the ring – a single-minded determination to win, to be “pretty” about it, and to make sure everyone knew it. Indeed, the master-stroke of his brand is that he truly was the brand. When he was in the ring, it was right hooks and jabs and dancing feet; when he was in the hot seat it was quick wit, soaring rhetoric, belittling put-downs, and magnetic charisma.

MP: I’m not going to argue with you.

MA: You’re not as dumb as you look.

For Parky, he was the most “remarkable man he ever met…I interviewed him four times. I lost on every occasion.”

As Parkinson reminded us, “he had a view of his place in the world and he had an ability to laugh at himself on occasions. And on other occasions he could be quite brutal.”

I’m not just a boxer – I can talk about all week on millions of subjects – and you do not have enough wisdom for calling me on television – you do not have enough – you’re too small mentally to tackle me on anything I represent. You and this little TV show is nothing to Muhammad Ali.

We have been doing a series on mental toughness and there is none better than the great one. Here is how he described his use of mind games:

MP: I think you win many fights outside of the ring as well as inside the ring. You psych people out, don’t you?

MA: Well you don’t really psych people out; you make them fight harder. And that’s the thing. It makes them fight too hard. It makes them anxious. Like I told George [Foreman], I’m backing up in the ropes and I want you to take your best shots and I just stood there: “Come on, show me something. Show me something kid. You’re not doing nothing. You’re just a girl. C’mon sucker. Show me something sucker. You ain’t got nothing.”

I made him so angry, he got so tired that he was just falling on the ropes. And I said, “son, this is the wrong place to get tired.”

So he was not only a great champion physically, but mentally as gifted as they come. It is fitting that we give him the last word. In a later interview with Parkinson, the TV host questioned his ability to continue to fight and advocated that he preserve his health instead so that he would not get hurt.

You’re making 60, 70 pounds a week, never been out of the country, not known in his own neighborhood saying, “Ali, don’t do it.”

But I’m at such a high level. I’m not like you. I don’t think like you.

[They say it] because they have fear and they are worried. It looks dangerous to them. It’s not dangerous to me…just another day.

(Image credit: The Sun)

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