I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

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Is Muhammad Ali the greatest sportsperson of all time? There’s new fuel for that classic pub debate at the O2 in London, where the exhibition I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 runs until 31 August 2016.

The exhibition conveys the life story and career of the man who many do indeed rate as the top sportsman of all time, ahead of Michael Jordan, Pele and even Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor. Of course he would have to be rated above those sports stars – and everyone else too – to be rated as the very best of all time.

Such discussions on sporting greatness are, inevitably, laden with subjectivity and opinion. Ali, though, was undoubtedly box office – a star who floated above mere sport. His words on race relations and the Vietnam War stung the consciences of many during the 1960s and subsequently.

Sign for the I am am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2.
Sign for the I am am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2.

Muhammad Ali – a multi-faceted man

Boxing, say some, is brutal. Its inevitable violence repulses some in our society. Perhaps the raw honesty of two highly trained individuals going toe-to-toe, face-to-face is a ring is too much for them?

Pugilists are stereotyped as inarticulate, unthinking thugs. But Ali was different. Classy. Articulate. Witty. A gentleman. Popular. Charismatic. All of those words could be applied to Mohammad Ali. Video footage screened in this exhibition – some of it previously unshown – shows Ali boxing and also in interviews. He comes across as multi-faceted. He was a champion out of the ring as well as inside the ropes.

Thank you, Joe Martin

As a boy in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay got into boxing because his bicycle was stolen. Outraged, young Cassius mouthed off that he was going to ‘whup’ whoever stole his cycle. A police officer asked if he knew how to fight. Back then Cassius could not. “You better learn how to box first,” suggested the officer, Joe Martin. The rest is history.

The exhibition tells the story of Cassius Clay’s work ethic and evolution into an Olympian at Rome in 1960 and the heavyweight champion of the world. It conveys the racial tensions prevalent in 1960s America and how Clay converted to Islam, taking the name Muhammad Ali.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

More than 100 artefacts

More than 100 artefacts are displayed in I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2, including the boxing glove that split during Ali’s fight with Henry Cooper, at Wembley Arena in 1963. Golden gloves, signed by Ali and presented to Elvis Presley in 1973, are also on display.

The exhibition is co-curated by Davis Miller whose book, Approaching Ali, was published by W.W. Norton to coincide with the launch of the exhibition.

“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,” said Miller.

The words of Angelo Dundee

As Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee famously pointed out, the revocation of the boxer’s licence, due to his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, robbed Ali of his prime years as a fighter. How would we have perceived him if that hadn’t been the case? That’s another factor to throw, like a lightning uppercut, into discussions about the greatest sportsman of all time.

A bronze statue of Muhammad Ali, with both arms raised above his head, stands in the exhibition’s central vestibule. You can almost hear him uttering that famous phrase. I am the greatest. Here’s looking at you, champ.

Admission prices to the exhibition

Tickets to view I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 cost £18.00 for adults, plus a £2.75 booking fee. Entry for people with concessions, meanwhile, is priced at £15.00 with a £2.50 booking fee on top. Admission for children is priced at £9.00 with a £1.50 booking fee. Family tickets cost £36.00 plus a £4.48 booking fee.

As electronic transactions are binary – they either happen or they don’t – the variations in the booking fees smack of charging an additional amount by stealth. If a booking fee has to be charged at all, why is it not simply built into the ticket price?

Would simply saying an adult ticket costs £20.75 and admission for a child costs £10.50 discourage some people from visiting the exhibition?

The name of Muhammad Ali is, without doubt, still box office. For all our whining about booking fees, it’s worth taking a peek.

Boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali.
Boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali.

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