Ali and the Bard…

ShakespeareThe other day we trotted off with the other greys, the tinted, the bald and the in-betweens to see the film Shakespeare Live, marking his death 400 years ago.

Like some of the Bard’s plays it grabbed us from the start with Leonard Bernstein’s opening to West Side Story and its compelling choreography, to the close with Prokofiev’s menacing Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet…

Between those treats, we admired exquisite ballet, heard Much Ado About Some things in stories of his life and times; watched actors like Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen re-enact – and sometimes toy irreverently with Shakespeare’s work.

But if there was one theme running through this salute to Shakespeare, it was to  his iconic status in countries as diverse as Albania, South Africa and Japan (the film featured clips from the Zulu and Japanese versions of Macbeth). At two hours and 40 minutes it was a knockout and so, a bit stiff here and there, we  returned to our homes – and heard a winter’s tale – that our modern global icon, Muhammad Ali, had died.

Shakespeare’s reputation lives on in everyday language and through his unbelievable output of plays and poetry. Ali’s rise as a superstar preceded the   digital age where fame is more ephemeral than ever before. Yet Ali transcended that, and in our minds remained that lithe, dancing athlete of the ring.

AliA whole generation of boomers grew up with him and for those who loved boxing,  his artistry was both magical and brave. Outside the ring – and cornered by a howling public and Press over his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967 – he personified the youth of the Sixties:  rebellious, defiant and   determined to be himself, not a creature of the Establishment.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” he once said, adding that they had never called him a nigger. He had however, bought himself a three-year-long fight with the boxing authorities, one which was only resolved in his favour by the Supreme Court  in 1970.

TV interviews sometimes show him in reflective mood, saying that he knew he  was both loved and hated – but known everywhere in a world of satellites and modern communications. It was it seemed, his way of saying that perhaps that he wasn’t all that special, though others thought differently.

‘… he had a radiant presence that seemed more in keeping with an international religious leader than that of a retired athlete’  wrote Matt Schudel and Bart Barnes in the Washington Post. ‘More than any other figure of his age, Mr Ali was recognised and honoured as a citizen of the world’.

The Post reported what Ali  had mentioned to Esquire writer Bob Greene in 1983 as they flew into Washington National Airport one night. He said: “Look at all those lights in all these houses. Do you know I could walk up to any one of these houses and knock on the door and they would know me? It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and feel every person knows me.”

Ali’s artful dodging in the ring was accompanied by some memorable lines outside it. Among them: ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ and ‘I’m so mean I make medicine sick!’ He also advised us to ‘live every day as if it’s your last – because someday you’re gonna be right.’

And then, like the rhymes he used to predict the knockout of his opponents, his  last round came too soon for a world which had grown to cherish him.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.