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Muhammad Ali is one of the most iconic figures in popular culture who also stood up for his beliefs at great cost Getty Images

How did a semi-literate black high school drop-out become the most recognisable face on earth?

WT24 Desk

Muhammad Ali was one of the giant figures of the 20th century whose name will forever be revered by future generations,.

Because they would have read about him in their history books. He will stand alongside the great statesmen and men of letters and science who graced that tempestuous hundred years.

News of his death will have plunged billions of people of every race, colour and creed from Afghanistan to Zanzibar in mourning.  Make no mistake a shining light has been extinguished all over the world.

And to say we will never see his like again is not a cliché when it refers to Ali – it is a truism. I have always dreaded the day when it came to write his obituary. Not only because he would be gone but I’ve always been fearful that I couldn’t adequately do justice to his memory.

How do you begin to tell the story of a semi-literate black high school drop out from Louisville, Kentucky, who became the most recognisable face on earth? It should be the work of fiction.

He was looked upon as a hero by presidents, kings and princes and worshipped by the peasants. Someone who transcended the sport of boxing to become an icon to the down-trodden multitudes on this planet.

Having travelled the world with Ali for 10 years from 1971-81 I found it impossible not to become emotionally involved with the man.  It didn’t matter if I was with him in Munich or Manila, Kinshasha or Kuala Lumpur every working hour was overflowing with a mixture of fun and fantasy.

Being beside the greatest world heavyweight champion of all time was an exhilarating, glorious, riotous roller-coaster ride. Along with my fellow travellers I was either howling with laughter or gaping open-mouthed at his genius.

Throughout his 21-year career he represented everything that was magnificent and magical. His amazing exploits whether it was in or out of the ring meant he was loved and cherished – as much for his humanity as his charisma.

Beautiful to look at and hilarious to listen to from the moment he beat the alleged monster Sonny Liston to win the crown for the first time he became one of the most controversial characters ever spawned by sport.

That was the moment when he announced he had changed his name from Clay to Ali and had joined the Black Muslim sect. But there was still a child like quality about him and there was the same mesmerising smile and mischievous twinkle in his eye.

But it was away from the arena that made him the personality he was.

Ali was utterly fearless whether he was inside the ropes or taking on American racists, or the US government over his refusal to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam war or absorbing fearsome punches from Smokin Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Earnie Shavers.

Wherever he went on every continent the good, the bad and the ugly flocked to sit at Ali’s feet. He was generous to a fault and he lavished money on the under-privileged and spent fortunes making sure his friends were part of his massive travelling entourage.

There were so many remarkable interviews I had with him but the one that was the most moving and poignant came by chance 27 years ago in Las Vegas.  Ali turned up unexpectedly and it had just become public knowledge and he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Even back then he had begun to slur his words but he told me “I have no regrets. I have an obligation to keep myself healthy but the final decision is my makers.  ”I have tried to live a good life and do the right thing. But I am not scared to die because I’ve made my peace.

”God gave me Parkinson’s to show me I am just a man like everyone else. ”To show me I’ve got frailties like everyone else. Because that is all I am – a man.”

Sadly that was the last serious conversation I had with him. And like many others it broke my heart to watch his physical decline.  And the realisation that the most articulate sportsman ever had been rendered speechless.

But Ali was capable of having me on the verge of tears many times. The first lump in the throat was when against all the odds he knocked out Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle to reclaim his championship.

Then there was that ghastly night in Vegas when reluctantly Larry Holmes beat-up a shadow of the real Ali.  And I shall never forget when Ali, his hands shaking like branches in a gale, lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games. That night the lump was the size of a golf ball.

It too immense courage to stand there in his condition knowing the eyes of the world were upon you and undertake such a task. But then Ali had the bravery of a pride of lions and perhaps that is his greatest legacy.

When I close my eyes and think of Clay I see a young fighter with the balance and grace of a ballet dancer, a cat’s reflexes and a conjurers sleight of hand. This allied to a chess master’s tactical brain and Barnum’s flair for showmanship.

And to all those who weren’t born when Ali was strutting his stuff he really could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

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