Boxing fan or not, there’s no denying the might of Muhammad Ali.
Legend may be a term bandied around all too often, but it’s a noun that fits this fighter like a boxing glove.
If proof were needed of this man’s charisma, which shone far beyond the ring, it’s been encapsulated at the I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2 exhibition, which is running in London until the end of August.
I visited the exhibition ahead of the 74-year-old’s death last week which sparked an outpouring of tributes to his remarkable life. And this display gives you an even greater insight into his rise from humble beginnings in Louisville, Kentucky, to global fame as the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
But it wasn’t just the sporting field in which Ali dominated, he captured imaginations as a public figure who polarised and inspired.
His oratory skills were as lightning fast as his feet and as you enter this large-scale exhibition you’re struck by the booming sound of his Deep South lilt in footage of him goading media and fellow fighters with his inimitable sound bites, a form of intimidation which helped him get in his opponent’s head ahead of a bout.
“Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick,” snarls Ali in an interview before the historic Rumble in the Jungle that took place in 1974 in Zaire against George Foreman.
His trash talk weaves together more than 100 artefacts at the exhibition which includes unseen footage, fight tickets and programmes, documents, photographs and rare personal memorabilia.
It features a red Schwinn bike which sparked 12-year-old Cassius Clay’s journey to the ring. One night in 1954 his beloved Christmas present was stolen from him and he pledged to “whip” the thief if he ever found him.
It stands alongside the door frame from the living room of his childhood home at 3302 Grand, West End Louisville, which he touched each time he left the house.
As the years go on, the memorabilia becomes more grandiose: the famous ‘Split Glove’ and the ‘Seconds Out’ clock from the fight between Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper at Wembley Arena in 1963; the signed Ali ‘ring worn’ boots from the 1976 Muhammad Ali v Jimmy Young fight in Maryland along with the signed Ali training boots from before the fight; the signed full length white cotton robe with ‘Muhammad Ali’ embroidered on the back that he wore before the 1981 fight against Trevor Berbick in Nassau.
It’s a treasure trove of gold. From his medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics to the gold boxing gloves he signed and gave to Elvis Presley, this is a glittering celebration of a man who earned his own chapter in history, one which shines all the more brightly after his death.
But Ali was far more than just a boxer and the exhibition also reveals the stories behind his refusal to join the American military fighting in the Vietnam war and subsequent struggle to be accepted back into the boxing world.
The exhibition also covers Ali’s religious conversion and his incredible interactions with some of the world’s most powerful and influential leaders including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and even Saddam Hussein and Leonid Brezhnev during the height of the Cold War.
Davis Miller, co-curator of the exhibition and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of the new book, Approaching Ali, says: “Nothing like this exhibition has been done before. The goal is for each and every visitor to come away feeling that they have spent serious time in the company of - and sharing stories with - this singular and extraordinary man.
“I have had the privilege and the good fortune to get to know Ali quite well over the last 30 years, and have tried to share those personal experiences, providing what I hope is an uncommonly multi-faceted understanding of Ali.”
•We have five pairs of tickets to give away to I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2. To win a pair email your name and contact details to Katy.Wheeler@jpress.co.uk. Closing date: June 16.
•Read about the day Muhammad Ali came to South Shields http://www.sunderlandecho.com/news/the-day-muhammad-ali-came-to-south-shields-1-7947523