In a modern world where so many sportsmen play it safe for a sake of their own public image and the privileges that come with their status, Muhammad Ali’s story is still as compelling today as it’s ever been. A black man born in 1940s Jim Crow America, the odds were never on his side. Yet, the 3-times heavyweights world champion and Olympic medalist is arguably the greatest sportsman of all time.
Confident, charismatic, loud and defiant, he never ticked the right boxes to be a successful African American. Yet through his talent, perseverance, hard work and sheer willpower he made America – indeed the world along with her – fall in love with him. Crucially, he made us love him on his terms, in what is surely the greatest illustration of the old American dream myth.
The I Am the Greatest exhibition at the O2 traces Ali’s journey from little Cassius Clay who grew up in Kentucky to the legend most of us know from the inspiration posters, funny quotes and YouTube videos. It is a great shrine to the life on an exceptional person, which dwells into his sporting achievement as well as off-ring antics which made him a timeless icon.
Topics covered include his unpopular stand against the Vietnam war and refusal to be drafted, his controversial involvement with Malcolm X during the Civil Rights movement years and the often overlooked but nonetheless staggering charitable and political activist work he undertook throughout and after his career.
The exhibition is presented in chronological order, starting from Ali’s childhood. The main circular room focuses on his boxing career and most notorious fights in depth – Cooper, Liston, Foreman, etc. It is both spectacular and a little overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start, and I’m pretty sure I missed stuff out!
All in all, over 100 exhibits feature from magazine covers to the legendary ripped gloves he wore during his 1963 fight with Henry Cooper, robes and much more. While several of the artifacts are replicas – something I’ve never been a fan of as someone who values objects for their historical significance – the exhibition is put together with great care and love.
One really comes out of the expo feeling they’ve had a personal encounter with Ali, and got to know the man behind the pop culture icon, beginning the the little kid crying about his stolen bike to the ultimate modern-day champion. As it is co-curated by Ali’s long-time friend Davis Miller, it is no surprise the exhibition is peppered with such a personal touch.
Muhammad Ali is one of my favourite sportsmen, and I really don’t care much for boxing. I often wonder, when I see greedy celebs kick off ‘movements for social change’ which later turn out to be Tidal: what would happen if the most popular in society took stands for worthy causes? Ali used his position to fight for the rights of the oppressed, no matter the implications for his personal legacy. Ironically, that’s what makes his glory timeless.
I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali is at the O2, North Greenwich from 4th March to 31st August.Tickets are £18 (adults); £15 (concessions); £9 (children).