Truly A Legend, Truly The Greatest

For someone so obsessed by cricket and football, you’d think my very first sporting memories would involve Ewood Park or Old Trafford or Alexandra Meadows, Blackburn.

I have vague recollection of sitting on the front of my dad’s bicycle riding from the little village of Feniscowles where we lived to Ewood but just what were the dates, opposition or results I’d have to ask him.

I can vaguely remember being more fascinated with the crowd than the football.

I have hazy footage in the fading memory bank of my dad playing for his works teams on the local park. Again, Id’ve been more keen to go on the swings and slides adjacent.

I know for a fact I never saw a “proper” live club cricket match till age nine in 1968.

But the first time I really felt a frisson of excitement, anticipation, elation about a sporting event must have been much earlier than that.
Again I can’t summon back any details of the actual occasion but what I can recall is the excitement which occasionally pervaded in our two-up two-down early 60’s council house because Cassius Clay was fighting tonight.

There were frenzied discussions and elaborate preparations as alarm clocks and transistor radios were placed around my parents’ bed and there was a vague sense in the night that all wasn’t as calm and still in the Wilkinson household as it might have been on a regular night.

Muffled voices, lights on, whoops of delight…all to do with heavyweight boxing before you ask!

it’s impossible to convey to people brought up with the Premier League, Sky, Pay-Per-View and 24-hour sports news saturation how completely unique each major sporting occasion was back then.

Clay, or later Ali, would fight in his homeland or elsewhere in our early hours and occasionally the radio would carry commentary or updates.

You might see grainy black-and-white highlights that night or later in the week.

But what Jim senior and Vera’s devotion to hearing the drama unfold as it happened told me was that here was a very, very special sportsman indeed.

Dad loves his sport but my mum’s interest has always been minor and peripheral unless someone irresistibly brilliant and charismatic stepped into the spotlight. George Best could get her to turn an eye to the football.

The fact that an American black man fighting thousands of miles away could capture the imagination of a non-sporty housewife in Lancashire sufficiently to have her tuning in a wireless under the covers in the early hours was my first lesson that some individuals bestride the planet with a far more colossal and affecting gait than the rest of us.

Growing up, I learned a little about the world through Clay/Ali’s path.

His conversion to Islam, the Vietnam War, race relations in the 60’s and 70’s, his sheer dominance of his sphere, his falls from grace, his thrilling reclamation of titles – by Zaire and Manilla I was a teenager.

His utter mastery of the media, light years ahead of his time, always hilarious but always laced with serious messages whether reciting a poem about what he was going to do to Smokin’ Joe or George Foreman or jousting with Parky in television interviews which set a never-equalled high watermark in slack-jawed Saturday night watching.

He was truly as near to a God of his domain as it was posible to get.

At one point he was said to be the most recognised man on the planet and the likes of Best, Beatles, Elvis and Kings and Presidents could only ever have been second on any bill to him.

Now when anyone is referred to as a “true legend” or “greatest in the world” I always think of Ali and do they come close to his status as a sportsman or human being?

Very few come within a country mile.

So as the guy celebrates his 70th birthday, grotesquely silenced and immobile through a few fights too many when it was time to quit, I thank my lucky stars to have grown from that bewildered 6-or-7 year old, whose folks were as enraptured by his sheer panache as had he been a local boy fighting at King Georges Hall, into adulthood more or less concurrently with his ascencion into the stratosphere

And I hope inside that cruelly enfeebled body remains a mind as sharp, waspish and cussed as ever, knowing even now that he truly was The Greatest there ever was.

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