“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
It’s hard to overstate the profundity of these words. Particularly when they are the words of a man who lived the life that Muhammed Ali did. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Kentucky in 1942, Ali’s life was one characterised almost entirely by unimpeachable triumphs over adversity. The child of a billboard painter and household domestic, his childhood was a simple and happy one, shared with his sister and four brothers. He discovered boxing young and began training to compete at 12 years of age, racking up a series of amateur victories throughout his teens. It was apparently a Louisville police officer who put him on to the sport, upon discovering the young Cassius kicking a wall and cursing another boy who’d stolen his bike. Declaring to the officer that he’d give the boy a good “whupping” when he caught up with him, the policeman suggested to Ali that he ought to learn to box first. The idea evidently stuck.
"He combined an extraordinary humility and deep religious sensitivity with a controversial sense of bravura."
The achievements of his boxing career are of course the stuff of legend, and almost too numerous to bear repeating here; three times World Heavyweight Champion (the first at the tender age of 22 no less), in the two years before this, he amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. In addition to his three hard-won World Heavyweight Titles, he can lay claim to beating just about every notable Boxer of the past sixty years; he felled major rival Joe Frazier three times and bested George Foreman during the iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ by knockout in the 8th round, retaining his titles in the process. In 1999 he was awarded Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and Sports Personality of The Century the BBC. Small wonder then that he should be nicknamed simply as ‘The Greatest’ in recognition of his many quite phenomenal achievements inside the ring.
He was also of course known as ‘The People’s Champion’, and it is arguably his life surrounding these professional triumphs that reflects the strongest elements of his personality. He combined an extraordinary humility and deep religious sensitivity with a controversial sense of bravura and unashamed amour propre. He popularised the notion of ‘talking tough’ in sport, and verbally intimidating his opponents became a powerful psychological weapon for Ali. Before taking-on the utterly terrifying Sonny Liston for his first attempt at the World Heavyweight title, Ali dubbed him the “big ugly bear” and caused no small amount of stir in proclaiming “after I beat him I’m gonna donate him to the zoo”. Let’s bear in mind here that Liston was not only a phenomenal physical specimen, but he was also a dominating personality with a shadowy past and ties to organised crime – not a man to be taken lightly.