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  Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 13:58 GMT
Happy Birthday, Champ
Muhammad Ali speaks to a group of English journalists in 1966
Ali's personality intrigued journalists from the start
By BBC Sport Online's Sanjeev Shetty

Perhaps it is his sense of immortality that makes Muhammad Ali seem younger than his 60 years of age.

He may have fought professionally for 21 years, won the world heavyweight title three times and paid a heavy physical price for his labours, but Ali does not seem that old.

Perhaps it is because the enduring memories of this impossibly unique sportsman come from his prime.

Fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman and the American government built and then enhanced the Ali legend.

I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest

Muhammad Ali

And just when it seems that his legacy is finally fading, up pops a new book or a film which gets people talking about the ex-champion.

It may be just a coincidence that February sees the release of the film 'Ali' in Britain, with superstar Will Smith in the lead role.

In recent years, the Ali legend has grown to such an extent that it has become equally popular to slate the former champion.

Boxing historians will always debate whether showman Ali could have beaten athletic artisans from other eras such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano.

But certain articles have appeared in recent publications questioning Ali's social worth, as well as some of the psychology inside the ring.

Most notably, a journalist named Mark Kram has written an entire book on Ali's fight with Joe Frazier in 1975, with the Greatest hardly receiving a ringing endorsement.

There are others who believe that his current state of health damages the legacy of his career, while others feel he was too easily manipulated by the Nation of Islam.

Others point to his womanising as a fatal flaw, while others believe some of his earlier views on segregation in America amounted to racism.

But it still remains an unequivocal point of view that Ali was the most charismatic sportsman of all-time and retains a place in the hearts of millions.

I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world

Muhammad Ali

Not just those who were privileged to see his deeds, but also those who learned about his legend while growing up, can see how special he was.

Maybe it was the way he danced, the way he talked or the way he made the unbelievable seem possible.

He was also lucky to be involved with such an illustrious group of characters - Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and the rest would have made formidable champions in any era.

Rightly or wrongly, Ali will be remembered as the boxer who took his trade around the world, fighting in Africa, Asia and Europe, showing the world that a man could be a fighter and more.

Even when he had lost most of his skills, he was able to beat young upstarts like Leon Spinks to regain his world title for the third time.

And he fought everyone, embodying an era where fighters fought rather than spend their time avoiding each other.

His current physical condition owes much to the wars that he fought during the 1970s, but in some ways, his response to Parkinson's syndrome has made him a bigger hero.

He has never moaned or cried or asked the world to feel sympathy for him.

Ali still appears at major events, like the 1996 Olympics and even as far back as 1991, he put his life on the line by going to Saddam Hussein and asking him to release American prisoners.

His name at any event guarantees massive interest, and pressure on the great man to deliver.

But he rarely disappoints, as amply demonstrated at a Parkinson's Disease fund-raiser in Houston some years ago.

Ali was not feeling at his best, smiling occasionally and allowing his daughter to speak to the gathering.

On his exit, he was shielded from the fans by a security wall.

It was then that he noticed a wheelchair-bound elderly lady, who he approached and gently kissed on the head.

Just the kind of human gesture that makes Ali special - something that distinguishes him from sportsmen of any era.

BBC Sport Online reviews the life and career of Muhammad Ali at 60

Ali's birthday landmark

Special features

The great fights

PHOTO GALLERY

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Links to more Ali at 60 stories are at the foot of the page.


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