A special significance of Mohammed Ali who died aged 74 on June 3 2016 is his reinterpretation of the question: Why Sport Matters. He boxed his way to fame. Boxing is brutal. It appeals to tribal instincts. It belongs to the category of invasion sport that involves the intrusion into an opponents territory to score winning points or deliver a knockout blow.
During his illustrious boxing career he also became a modern revolutionary thinker who did something that changed the world. Amid a brutish and tribal arena he made boxing attractive. He added civil and aesthetic appeal that extended far beyond the constrictive competitive ring.
The first combat invasion sport that captured public attention worldwide is the most brutal and hazardous – boxing. It did so by also cottoning onto civility and aesthetic appeal. The sight of two boxers facing one other goes back a long way. But there were no written regulations until the first publication in 1867 of the Marquees of Queensberry Rules.
In Britain during the beginning of the 19th century boxing events were relegated to the back lanes and illegal gambling houses because their gruesome carnage had to be hidden from the view of an emerging, modern world. To survive and progress beyond, boxing had to re-invent itself and it did. The Queensbury Rules combined an invasion sport category with a newly formed adjudication category sport. Thus, boxing morphed into a combined category.
It was Mohammad Ali (former Cassius Clay Jr b.1948) who said it all. At his pre-weigh in before claiming his first heavyweight World Title against Sonny Williams in 1964, like a circus ring master, he announced; he’d float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He could dance and he did. He taunted his opponent with magic, saying; You can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
Instead of the necessity to demolish an opponent with a knock out blow or a referee calling a halt because a boxer was mauled beyond recovery, it became possible to win a boxing event according to a judging panel awarding points. The Queensbury Rules and subsequent changes allowed for the presence of three judges at ringside to score the bout and assign points to a boxer’s number of legitimate connecting punches, defence, knockdowns, and other, more subjective and creative measures.
While nearly 100 years apart, Germany philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche’s fictional character, Zarathustra asked the question, God is dead. What sacred atonements shall we have to invent (1882); Mohammed Ali had the answer when he said after defeating Sonny Liston for the first time 25 February 1964:
I am the greatest! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God everyday. I know the real God. I shook up the world.
Inside the ring, despite the odds, after two more world title wins there are few who would disagree; Ali is the greatest boxer of all. Tough, he fought fairly (civility) combining power with imaginative zeal (aesthetic appeal). As a heavyweight, he boxed with the speed and footwork of a lightweight boxer.
Outside the ring Ali did what Nietzsche and other revolutionary thinkers had done beforehand; he challenged the home ground advantages of a supreme King and Christian deity, and succeeded. As a general rule, especially in times of war, any American sport hero is meant to show unquestionable patriotism.
Ali is a Black American who vehemently opposed the Vietnam War. He refused to serve in the American Army. He said, No Vietcong ever called me a nigger. From 1967 to 1970 he was stripped of his world tile and legally convicted for refusing to enlist. Eventually, the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which meant Ali was able to avoid jail.
In 1975 he converted from Christianity to Islam and again explained so with delightful footwork by saying: Allah is the Greatest. I’m just the greatest boxer.
Of Allah he said; I’d like for them to say he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern, and then, he mix willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well, then he spreads it over his span of a lifetime, and he served it to each and every deserving person he met.
After Mohammad Ali captured world attention inside and outside the ring, it became more accepted that restricting freedom of religion and speech, and racial injustice could no longer be tolerated in sport or elsewhere. The fact that he could succeed and have such and influence stems from the Queensbury Rules of 1867 when boxing changed; combining the adjudication and invasion categories.
When Ali boxed he understood the value of receiving regulated adjudication points as an alternative to pummeling an opponent into oblivion. After his match with Jimmy Ellis was stopped by the referee in the twelfth round (July 1971) Ali said: Ain’t no reason for me to kill nobody in the ring, unless they deserve it.
Not everyone is a bull.
Even so, it was Mohammed Ali, and before him and the Queensbury Rules that eventually have led to the current level of participation in sport by all genders, ages, rich and poor, and across all religions, which will inevitably increase in the future.
While the tribal instinctive invasion sports that thrive on brutal tackling can attract large audiences, it is the specific invasion codes that temper on-field carnage, such as The Beautiful Game of soccer, basketball, and netball that are proliferating at a far greater rate of participation and popularity.