A plank of wood is an unexpected start to “I Am The Greatest,” the much-hyped Muhammad Ali exhibition at London’s O2 Arena. It’s the door header from 3302 Grand Avenue in Louisville, Ali’s childhood home and the label suggests that a teenage Ali would surely have reached up and touched it on coming home from school. It’s a relic for boxing’s true believers. Some venerate splinters of wood supposedly from the cross, so boxing fans queue to ogle at a plank that Ali might have touched. Despite the label’s confidence, perhaps Ali just wasn’t the door header touching type.
The March 1, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated looks like a superhero comic. In front of a psychedelic flash of colours stand Joe Frazier and Ali. Frazier, crouched over, stares up at Ali with a look that’s part defiant, part weary. Ali stands tall, calmly looking down. Photos manage to capture their power but this painting makes them look superhuman. I don’t believe you could paint the same cover today. It’s a question of stature; this pair towered over the public consciousness, while today’s fighters scramble for attention. Or perhaps those who saw this in 1971 just saw a painting of two boxers and it’s the passage of 45 years that’s seen the figures grow into titans.
Promoter Jack Solomon’s instructions for the weigh-in for the 1963 fight between Ali and Henry Cooper fit on a single sheet of type-written A4. There’s a fan’s enthusiasm in his announcement that he has “been fortunate in securing the London Palladium stage for the weigh-in for this great occasion!” Then there’s the courtesy of his request that journalists bring along their press passes: “I would ask for your very kind cooperation in this matter.”
There is a contract for an Ali fight that was supposed to take place in Australia in 1976 but never happened. The rider requests “one hundred tickets at ringside, two hundred second rate tickets,” “fifty first class airline tickets” and “first class hotel and accommodations including meals and lodging for fifty people.” Finally it requests that “three limousines will be furnished with chauffeurs at the fight site for the duration of final training.” I like to think that this final request was the one that pushed it too far.
In the central room of the exhibition, highlights of Ali’s greatest fights are playing on a multitude of screens. You can walk around the perimeter and follow the story of Ali’s career in chronological order. Or you can stand beside the statue of Ali in the middle of the room and just let the cacophony of excited shouts roll over you. You hear a life happening all at once and as you discern those familiar quotes, you marvel at how much drama it was possible to fit into a single life.
The intensity of “The Fight of the Century” is etched in the well-worn marks on the gloves that Ali wore that night. The normality of their appearance is somehow jarring; it doesn’t seem right that the great fighters in epoch-defining fights use such ordinary gloves. I’ve always loved the story of how a rip in Ali’s glove got him out of trouble after Henry Cooper hit him with the shot so hard that his “ancestors in Africa felt it.” It is now thought that Angelo Dundee did not make the rip (though he may have slightly increased it) and that replacing the glove may have slightly delayed the start of the next round but did not buy Ali anywhere near the five minutes of recovery time that is often mentioned. The real controversy, forgotten amidst the focus on the famous rip, is Dundee’s use of smelling salts which was in clear contravention of the regulations.
And yet when I see the glove I have no interest in those painstaking attempts to establish the truth of that night. I want to believe that I’m looking at the glove that saved Ali, I want to believe that I’m looking at a turning point in boxing history. Because I, like all the others staring in awe at every piece of memorabilia, have come to revel in the legend and not worry about history.