Mr Muhammad Ali
Whether he was sparring verbally or in the ring, the greatest boxer of all time was “Very MR PORTER”
Mr Muhammad Ali in Piccadilly, London, less than 36 hours before his world heavyweight title against Mr Henry Cooper, May 1966 Muhammad Ali Enterprises, LLC. Photo The Times/ News Syndication
There’s some indelible footage of Mr Muhammad Ali, shot in Kinshasa in 1974, when the city was playing host to the Rumble in the Jungle, the legendary heavyweight title fight between Mr Ali, the challenger, and Mr George Foreman, then the fearsome champion. Mr Ali is seen twirling before the camera, dressed in a simple but striking double-denim shirt and jeans ensemble, feinting uppercuts and right hooks, his eyes shining as he delivers one of his proto-raps: “I wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail… Only last week, I hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
In those few moments, you see all the qualities that made Mr Ali one of the most celebrated sporting and cultural figures of his, or any other, time: a balletic grace that bamboozled and enraged his opponents; a consummate sense of style and theatre; and, above all, an emphatic assertion that this is someone determined to be his own man. In his time, Ali outraged everyone “from white racists to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People,” wrote Mr David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, in King of the World, his biography of Mr Ali. “He declared himself free of every mould and expectation.” Mr Ali himself put it more ringingly: “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man – I had to show that to the world.” His irrepressibility, his integrity and his sheer chutzpah all make Mr Ali an easy choice to be part of our fall/ winter advertising campaign that is built around our catchphrase, Very MR PORTER…
Mr Ali at home in Louisville, 1963 Steve Schapiro/ Corbis
Float like a butterfly
A photograph taken of Mr Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1963 – back when he was still known as Cassius Clay – encapsulates his personal style to a tee. He’s sitting on a sofa, bare-chested, fists balled, biceps raised, his mouth arrested mid-spiel, a pair of smart grey trousers setting off his formidable physique. While his contemporaries – Messrs Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Foreman – favoured the full pimp-style leather greatcoat raiment of boxing royalty, Mr Clay went for clean, simple, timeless designs. He wore hound’s-tooth jackets, knitted polo shirts, pale sweatshirts, white polo necks, plain, fitted tuxedos; and, on his trips to London, Savile Row suits from a tailor named Mr Harry Helman, who had outfitted the likes of Prince Philip and Mr Terence Stamp.
“He said to me ‘I’m a gentleman now, I have to look like one,’” said the Life magazine photographer Mr Gordon Parks, whose own dapper style Mr Ali sought to emulate. “He always presented himself in this smart, clean way, both to distance himself from the heritage of boxing, which had been pretty sleazy up to then, with its links to organised crime, and also because he saw himself as an aspirational figure to young, disenfranchised black kids. He wanted to present himself as the opposite of a thug, and his well-cut suits and the attention to detail in his dress was a crucial element in that image.” His ebullient patter and sober appearance formed a killer one-two punch. While fight purists were infuriated by Mr Ali’s skittering moves, many others answered his frequent entreaty – “I’m too pretty” – in a glowing affirmative; Ms Toni Morrison opined that “his grace was almost appalling”.
Mr Ali, Louisville, Kentucky, 1963 James Drake/ The LIFE Images Collection/ Getty Images
...Sting like a bee
“Ali always delighted in sidestepping people’s expectations,” said the writer and editor Mr George Plimpton. Mr Ali certainly polarised opinion when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, at the urging of his friend and mentor Mr Malcolm X. At the time, Mr Ali said he liked the Nation’s “sense of self, their upright military bearing, and their pride”. His own look, always dignified, now took on aspects of the Nation’s rectitude. “Out of the ring, he always liked to be buttoned-up,” said Mr Ali’s long-time trainer Mr Angelo Dundee. “He learnt a lot from Malcolm, who was preaching pride and strength, and who dressed in these solid but stylish suits and gleaming white shirts and skinny ties to sort of enhance his message.” The Nation’s credo of probity influenced Mr Ali in matters of bearing as well as presentation; his ex-wives and daughters have told of his many (frequently lost) battles to get them to dress more “becomingly”.
Mr Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he famously proclaimed in 1966) resulted in a five-year prison sentence (although he ultimately served no jail time), a $10,000 fine, and – most crucially for him – a ban from boxing that lasted more than three years. “He responded to adversity with the same stoicism he showed in every other area of his life,” wrote Mr Norman Mailer, another of the heavyweight writers drawn to the fight game in Mr Ali’s era. “He kind of arrived on the scene fully formed. The other guys – Liston, Foreman, Frazier – they were all playing characters to some extent. Ali always knew exactly who he was, and he never deviated from that.”
By the time Mr Ali retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record, he was already carrying the neurological damage that would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease three years later. His courage and fortitude in the face of the condition – carrying the torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and escorting the Olympic flag at London 2012, clad in spotless white on each occasion, shaking but defiant – have cemented his iconic status. Mr Remnick says he’s a symbol: “of faith, conviction, defiance, beauty, skill, racial pride, wit, and love.” And also of the kind of classic, timeless look that, like his rope-a-dope style, always prized art and elegance above brute force.
Mr Ali before his fight against Mr Floyd Patterson at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1965 Neil Leifer/ Sports Illustrated/ Getty Images