Muhammad Ali – indeed the greatest

by Frederic Friedel
6/4/2016 – "I used to tell people that in my youth I had three great sporting heroes: Muhammad Ali, Bobby Fischer and Franz Beckenbauer. Nobody else came close to them. A Dutch colleague had the same heroes, with Cruyff replacing Beckenbauer. Fischer died in January 2008, at the age of 64, Cruyff a few months ago at the age of 69, and now Dirk Jan and I both mourn the greatest boxer of all time." Eulogy by Frederic Friedel.

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Muhammad Ali dies

I used to tell people that in my youth I had three great sporting heroes: Muhammad Ali, Bobby Fischer and Franz Beckenbauer. Nobody else came close to them. Fischer, of course, was the American chess legend, a man who took down the Soviet chess hegemony all by himself; and Beckenbauer was the most sublime football player Germany has ever produced.

Some years ago I heard a Dutch colleague, a journalist who is a rival and sometimes critic of mine, talking to friends. “In my youth I had three great sporting heroes,” said Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, editor of New in Chess, “Muhammad Ali, Bobby Fischer and Johann Cruyff.” Cruyff was Holland’s soccer equivalent of Beckenbauer.

Bobby Fischer, who had been hunted by US authorities and gone through harrowing incarceration in a Japanese prison, ended up with asylum in Iceland, where he spent his final years as a recluse, dying of untreated kidney problems in January 2008, at the age of 64. We all mourned his passing. A few months ago (in March 2016, at the age of 69) Cruyff passed away, succumbing to lung cancer, at the age of 69. DJ mourned his passing. Now (June 3, 2016) Muhammad Ali has died, after a thirty-year battle with Parkinson’s. He was 74. Dirk Jan and I both mourn him. I have Franz Beckenbauer left, who is hale and healthy at the age of 70.

Muhammad Ali’s death did not come as a surprise – take a look at the length of this wonderfully written obituary that appeared in the New York Times just hours after the news broke. They probably had it ready since 2013, when Ali’s brother Rahman announced that he was ailing and could be dead in days. But he hung on for another three years – good for him.

I myself took up boxing in my college days, mainly due to my hero-worship of Muhammad Ali. I watched all his fights, which in the beginning were only shown as trailers to blockbuster movies, and I tried desperately to emulate his style. I was skinny and underweight, but could come nowhere close to the speed and agility of the heavyweight boxer. I floated like a beetle and stung like a gnat [??]. He was pure magic.

Today, after I learned about his death, I went to YouTube and looked at my history for the last two weeks. There are six videos I had watched of Ali, not because I had a premonition of anything, but because it is what I do periodically: watch the greatest boxer ever in his prime, just for pleasure. Let me share a few with you.

This is not brutal boxing, it's ballet. Nobody came close anything like it before Ali, and nobody has since his time.

This one shows you vividly how Ali was simply out of this world—you just couldn’t catch the man.

I could list hundreds of great videos of Ali practising his sublime art, and you could spend dozens of hours compulsively watching them. But instead I am advising you to get hold of one of the best boxing documentaries of all time, When We Were Kings, made by Vikram Jayanti, who accompanied Ali on his “Rumble in The Jungle” against George Foreman.

Vikram, who is a dear friend – I helped him with his documentary Game Over on Kasparov vs Deep Blue, used Norman Mailer (and others) to highlight Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” and his repeated use of the right-hand lead that so infuriated Foreman. Amazon has the movie, starting at $0.01 for a used DVD. If you can’t be bothered, here at least is a short trailer:

Wait a minute – apparently you can see the entire film (low quality) in six parts here

And here is the full documentary Vikram made on Kasparov vs Deep Blue. Have a good weekend!

Source: Frederic Friedel on

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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burrill burrill 6/8/2016 05:59
Vikram Jyanti is certainly a good filmmaker but to say he "made" WHEN WE WERE KINGS is misleading, at best.
He is listed as one of three co-producers, below the two producers, and below the man who did make the film (and won, along with producer David Sonenberg, an Oscar for it): Director, Leon Gast.

But thanks for the great Ali clips on this page.
bruxomau bruxomau 6/6/2016 10:29
Pelé. Nobody else.
onufri onufri 6/6/2016 07:52
NiceChappie NiceChappie 6/6/2016 07:34
RIP Viktor Korchnoi.
This year just gets worse.
onufri onufri 6/6/2016 06:53
Sorry yesenadam, yes I know, 'Muhammad', not 'Muhammed', there was no intention behind that. For me he was Cassius Clay most of the time, his new name Muhammad Ali wasn't used so often in the Sixties.


Could "his contribution to black self-respect, civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War etc" be as "enormous" as it was, if he wouldn't have been the greatest?
yesenadam yesenadam 6/6/2016 03:37
Always sad to see humans get enthusiastic about people beating each others' heads in :-( Yeah, I was brainwashed to think there was something glorious about it when I was a kid, too.

Anyway. You could do the guy the respect of spelling his name properly. (Muhammad) His contribution to black self-respect, civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War etc was enormous.
onufri onufri 6/6/2016 05:33
As a young boy I had to walk (or run!) about 1000 meters to see Muhammed Ali's great fights very early in the morning CET. His Match against Frazier has still a preferred place in my memory like L:h2?! in the Fischer-Spassky Match 1972 or the 3. Goal of England against Germany (with the young Beckenbauer) at Wembley in 1966.
jaroslavsysel jaroslavsysel 6/5/2016 11:57
And the best trash talker of all time...Nakamura's teacher?
NiceChappie NiceChappie 6/5/2016 03:53
Spare us the infantilism.
geraldsky geraldsky 6/5/2016 02:04
All the greatest in the world were dead.. and all will die. It means nobody is the greatest but only God.
horius horius 6/5/2016 01:30
"Cruyff was Holland’s soccer equivalent of Beckenbauer."

Noone knows Beckenbauer outside of Germany, he's like an amateur compared to Cruyff lol
NiceChappie NiceChappie 6/4/2016 10:34
I suppose the only distinction I'd make between Ali and any other "great sporting heroes" is that he transcended sport altogether - through his charisma, intelligence, wit, courage and yes physical beauty.
And his appeal was universal, cutting across all racial, religious, ethnic, national and socio-economic boundaries.
Steven E DuCharm Steven E DuCharm 6/4/2016 10:17
I float like a pawn island and sting like an ignored knight.
Maturner Maturner 6/4/2016 09:12
Chess is really quite like boxing and other martial arts.
firestorm firestorm 6/4/2016 08:59
The story goes that after Deep Blue won, IBM stock went up 15%, and Deep Blue was mothballed, of course. The intercuts of "The Turk" in the documentary make very clear the view of Deep Blue's play.

Ali's greatest achievement, ironically, was not boxing, but not boxing, in my humble achievement. The States were engaged in an insane war abroad that saw them drafting their citizens to fight- average age 19. Pause for a moment and consider that- AVERAGE AGE 19- that means, a fair proportion were even younger. So, imagine your kids being taken by the state, trained to kill people, and sent abroad to do this and risk a horrific death. Ali stood against this, and paid immensely for doing so. Of course, he would want to be remembered as a superb technician, entertainer, and pugilist, but it should not be forgotten that he stood against conscription.
illuzhin illuzhin 6/4/2016 08:08
Ali with Smith is pretty good.
Bertman Bertman 6/4/2016 08:02
If Ali had been a chess player, his games would have had opponents sacrificing pieces on g7 and h7 only to discover he had castled queenside.
Surfer ll Surfer ll 6/4/2016 07:57
Beckenbauer, Cruyff?? .. a bunch of people here dont know a shit about football (Pele, Maradona, Messi are hundred times better than those 2)

Ali??... Manny Pacquiao was way better

MJFitch MJFitch 6/4/2016 07:35
What he said and what he did towards Joe Frazier was and always will be despicable. I pray Frazier gets the last laugh!!!
Polo Mateo, cassius clay aka ali didn't walk away at his peak, he got his butt beat by larry holmes and before that to nobody leon spinks...I don't know where you're getting your info from, but it's not close to accurate???
I wish people would remember his "REAL LIFE" history???... Stop the revisionism & romanticizing of his life. It's all out there to research & witness. and what a witness it will be...
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 6/4/2016 07:07
Ali, Fischer and Björn Borg!
Polo Mateo Polo Mateo 6/4/2016 06:20
My three sport heroes were also Ali, Cruyff, and Fischer. Fischer's braggadocio always reminded me of Ali's "I am the Greatest". They were are all idiosyncratic, geniuses who walked away from their sports at their peak.
algorithmy algorithmy 6/4/2016 05:33
I hate Boxing. It's a violent sport, when I'm elected president I will cancel it.
Andrea Mori Andrea Mori 6/4/2016 10:52
RJF died at 64 (he was born in 1943), not 67