The thought of organising an exhibition dedicated to the life of three-time boxing heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali seems like a daunting task considering the influence of the man transcended sport into popular culture, politics and religion over half a century.
Ali’s death on June 3 coincided with an ongoing exhibition in his honour in London. In fact, there was a sustained campaign in the UK for him to be honoured with a knighthood during the exhibition, fittingly titled “I am the Greatest” that opened in March and runs till August 31 at the O2 Arena in London.
The choice of London is not a coincidence. This is where Ali won one of his earliest professional bouts against Henry Cooper in 1963 and in 1966 and he was a frequent visitor to the British capital during the course of his career in and out of the ring.
The centrepiece of this exhibition naturally centres on the boxing career of Ali, from his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome to his legendary bouts with fighters like Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
The curators use a wide scope of artefacts, from archival films, stunning photography and personal memorabilia including the boxing glove that split in the fourth round of his 1963 fight with Britain’s Cooper and school report cards from his childhood in Kentucky.
The audio guide through the exhibition is a series of vivid anecdotes narrated by two people who had a close association with Ali: Scottish boxing journalist Hugh Mcllvanney who covered Ali from 1963 and Davis Miller, an American writer whose friendship with Ali endured from 1975 to his death and is the co-curator of the London exhibition.
The main gallery is designed like a boxing arena with an outstanding life size bronze sculpture of Ali unsurprisingly called “The Greatest” by British artist Andrew Edwards who has also made statues of 1960s pop music icons the Beatles.
But, this is also a ringside seat to some momentous events in political and cultural history that are inexorably tied to the life and times of Ali.
These include his controversial decision in 1966 to reject the US Army draft to fight in the Vietnam War and the subsequent ban against him by the boxing authorities, his conversion to Islam, dropping his “slave name” Cassius Clay and of course, the brave and dignified four decade long battle with the debilitating Parkinson’s disease.
Somehow, Ali always came back from adversity. He returned to the ring in 1970 after that suspension and eventually reclaimed the heavyweight championship when many people had written him off as a spent force.
His stance on the war earned him the recognition of civil rights leader Martin Luther King: ‘‘whatever you think of Muhammad Ali’s religion, you have to admire his courage as a conscientious objector,” Dr. King says, in video footage at the exhibition.
Miller narrates the fascinating a conversation he and Ali had in the period leading up to the Gulf War in 1990. “Two big armies getting ready to fight on the border between Iraq and Kuwait,” Ali says. They want me to go over, hold my arms and say, ‘I’m Muhammad Ali, go home, don’t fight.’ Do you think I should do it?”
Months later, Ali travelled to Iraq and successfully negotiated the release of American hostages held by Saddam Hussein.
Ali made friends with presidents, royalty, statesmen, religious leaders and film and music stars. He described Elvis Presley as a “close and personal friend” and “the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you would want to know.”
People’s Choice” a spectacular robe that was presented to Ali by the King of Rock and Roll in 1973 is another highlight of the exhibition.
A cheque for $14,125 (Sh1.4 million) paid out to the designer for this jewel-embroidered robe is displayed alongside it.
A section of the exhibition showcases Muhammad Ali’s film career with a poster of the 1979 film “The Greatest” and the accompanying soundtrack to the film recorded by guitarist George Benson.
Other eye-catching artefacts include oil on canvas paintings by the artist Jace David Mctier whose five pieces include an impression of the famous Ali — ‘‘Foreman fight in Kinshasa.’’
There are several memorabilia from the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle’’ including the original poster promoting the fight that ended up in one of the biggest upsets in sporting history as 32-year-old Ali reclaimed the world title from Foreman.
Ali may have been the Greatest but he relied on key support staff to bring out the best in him and this exhibition also offers glimpses into the roles played by members of his entourage.
His long-time trainer Angelo Dundee “allowed Ali to be Ali, to be the force of nature that he was” and his ringside cheerleader Drew Bundini Brown was actually the one who coined the famous phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”