The triumph in the story

Dr Peter Olusoga reviews 'I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2'.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Muhammad Ali went on to become one of the most recognisable figures in the history of sport. Named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century in 1999, there is no doubt that Ali is a sporting icon for the ages. In 1964, at just 22 years old, Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at the time) became Heavyweight Champion of the World. Three years later, having joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name, Ali refused to be drafted into the US military to fight in Vietnam. He was charged with draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title and passport, and was denied a boxing license in every US State. For almost four years, during what would have been the peak of his athletic career, he was denied the opportunity to compete, yet Ali went on to become the only man in history to win the Heavyweight title three times.

Muhammad Ali is much more than just a sporting icon; he is a cultural icon. 'I Am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2' captures Ali’s journey of triumph, loss, notoriety, and redemption, through a collection of videos, photographs, and memorabilia, all tied together by an audio tour, with commentary provided largely by Davis Miller, Ali's close friend and biographer.

Before visitors even see the entrance to the exhibition area, they can expect to hear commentary from Ali's most famous bouts as they walk around the 02. Once inside, the first room of the exhibition shows us the familiar Ali, training, sparring, and enjoying his playful, poetic relationship with the press. A corridor of beautiful, wall-sized, black and white photographs of Ali follows, giving an insight into the hard work, the motivation, and the commitment required to be as successful an athlete as he was. It's genuinely inspiring.

We're then taken back to Ali's childhood in what I assume is going to be the start of a chronologically presented showcase of Ali's career. We get to read and hear about Ali's neighbourhood, family, and upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky, all in the context of the almost inconceivable politics of the time. We also learn how Ali became involved with boxing, and I would urge visitors to spend some time here, getting to see a little of the development of the character we think we know; the unshakable confidence, the self-presentation as "the greatest" developing long before any real boxing success.

We're then taken through Ali's incredible rise through the amateur ranks, leading up his gold medal winning performance in the 1960 Olympics, his inevitable decision to turn professional, and the beginnings of his relationship with trainer Angelo Dundee. The relationship between athlete and coach is of vital importance in elite sport, and while the impact of Dundee on Ali is alluded to more than once in the commentary, I was left wanting to know a little more about this aspect of Ali's career.

Visitors then enter an impressive rotunda, filled with rolling video clips of Ali's most memorable fights, and it's interesting for the non-boxing experts to hear about Ali's inimitable style while watching his most iconic performances. It's here though, that the chronological presentation falls down somewhat. The audio tour, directs us immediately away from this section, into an area where we learn more about Ali's conversion to Islam, his draft evasion charge, and the loss of his title (which we don't know that he's won yet, because that's on the other side of the exhibition). Again, I would actually have liked to have seen more about this period in Ali's career, his transition from sporting personality to civil rights activist, to cultural icon during a turbulent time in American history. While 'I am the Greatest' certainly captures the significant moments of this period, the impact of the section is somewhat diminished by that fact that we haven't yet learned just how much Ali had to lose by the decisions he made.

Back to the central area of the exhibition though, we're guided through a history of Ali's fights, with a useful timeline for those confused by the somewhat distracting layout. The collection of memorabilia here, and indeed throughout the exhibition, isn't what I would describe as 'the greatest'. There are signed gloves, and replica belts, medals, and robes, and it's well put together, but for me, the tale being told is more important, more captivating, than the artefacts on display.

The triumph of this exhibition is in the story. The collection of Ali's greatest fights, the audio commentary that adds some personal insight, the photographs adorning the walls, all in one place, are what makes this exhibition worthwhile. We're only given a brief look at Ali's later life and his battle with Parkinson's disease, but photographs of him with the Dali Lama, Malcom X, and Bill Clinton, amongst others, as well as more personal stories from Davis Miller, show clearly how Ali has cemented his place in history.

Finally, sitting in a mock-up boxing ring, we're treated to a video montage of Ali's career, which beautifully brings into perspective everything we’ve seen throughout the exhibition. It's a strangely emotional experience as we end, in stark contrast to the opening segment, with a man subdued by Parkinson's disease, quiet, reflective, but still Muhammad Ali… still 'The Greatest'.

- 'I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2' runs until 31 August at the O2 Arena, London.

- Reviewed by Dr Peter Olusoga, Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.

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