Muhammad Ali, I Barely Knew Ye

My first traipse into sports and the world surrounding it was USA ’94, I was up for all the teams and enjoyed the noise and colour on the television. I was only about four years of age at the time so those concepts were coming into play in a big, big way.

I remember when Ireland were knocked out because after the match finished I asked my brother who are you supporting now that Ireland have been eliminated. He told me that

“You can’t support anyone else when your country is gone. That’s not how it works.”

Or at least words to that effect. Nowadays, he is by no means a blind supporter of nationalism to the extent he would support against all odds, but back then in the heady mid ’90s, being Irish was as much of a thing as it is today. I know, it existed before folks.

So when the Olympics rocked up in ’96 I was becoming aware of the ideas and concepts of competitive sports and competition and being the best at any given thing you could be. TEAM IRELAND COME ON.

There were two hopes, one  was Michelle Smith. I wasn’t a big backer of her. NO, I DIDN’T know about the scandal that would develop thereafter. It was because I was shit scared of water and swimming. Well done, Michelle. Not my cup of tea, but fair play t’ya.

Those Pantene ads were shocking.

The other was Sonia O’Sullivan, the other Great White Hope for Ireland; I could run just like her and I’d run everywhere and be wrecked. I remember watching the opening ceremony, a sedate affair compared to the eye-slicing spectacle it is now. I was waiting to see could I see her wave just so I could wave back.

I wasn’t the brightest.

I don’t remember if she appeared. All I remember is Muhammad Ali carrying the Olympic flame and lighting the One Torch To Rule Them All. Who was he? My father explained he was Muhammad Ali, the World’s Greatest. I held no concept of what that meant. I continued on looking at the shapes and colours.

Three years later, as I tinkered on a boxing game I came across a fighter, needless to say who it was. My father from the end of the room, following the television out of the annoyance of the noise, called out the name Cassius Clay.

I asked him what was that all about and I was let in for a world of explanation. Not only was the world map gotten out – we had one forever on our kitchen wall – but the Vietnam war was half explained to me, as too was the Civil Rights Movement, as was the concept of there being another religion than Christianity in Islam – it would take another three years before I knew what a Protestant was – and of utmost importance was the story of Cassius Clay, converting to Islam, changing his name, and his rise and fall and rise to be the greatest of all time. A door was opened, nay a wall was smashed and a new world of thought and thinking and processing came into realistation and I could not get enough of it. I would rent videos that simply had the champ’s face on the cover of just to learn more; I would learn little as these were documentaries and 10-year-old Paul had no time for that. But I watched his fights when they would come up, how large a man he was and how quick he moved and as I got older I watched more and read more and got into the detail that he held and discovered how he was – just about – human. He was not invincible forever, the latter days of his career a blot on his copybook  but more so just a sad period in the life of an excellent professional boxer.

Seeing him in Ireland in the last few recent years was upsetting as his battle with Parkinson’s was a very hard one to witness, especially in that of an athlete, let alone his former reputation. Still, he served as an inspiration for nearly everyone, he was near universally loved. Be you a cocky son of a gun or someone trying to make a name for yourself, whether you fought for equality or peace or for a competitive belt, hey, he was there.

I apologise. I am honestly sad and can only get so much sense before I ramble into rameis. So I’ll leave it here, so.

Sonia O’Sullivan failed to qualify for 1500m race in Atlanta ’96 and failed to place in the final of the 5000m, failing to finish due to stomach pains. Her father greeted the media, who were looking for words to pacify the despairing public at home beside the Aga and all the rest of it. Why? How? Now? The nation was shocked and disappointed and everything under the sun. How could this have happened, to one of the favourites? To our favourite?

He said quietly, nearly explained that

“Lads, nobody died tonight.”

Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali died. Last night be it, but still. The sense of loss I feel is more present than I thought it would be. He left a legacy behind that people can only stand in the shadow of. What a shadow it is.

What a shadow it is.