I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

“Living legend” is too easily applied when describing sportspeople. Muhammad Ali is one of the few individuals on this planet who really do warrant such an epithet. The exhibition I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 – on the life and career of the three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world – ran until 31 August 2016 at, as the name suggests, the O2 in Greenwich, London.

Even before you enter the exhibition proper you’ll see colour images of magazine covers featuring the charismatic boxer who’s known as the ‘Louisville Lip’. As you ride the escalator up to the second floor you’ll see monochrome photographs of the boxer on London’s streets. As Cassius Clay, he visited the British capital in 1963 to fight Henry Cooper at Wembley Arena.

Henry Cooper versus Cassius Clay

The famous split glove from their ‘63 match is displayed inside. Changing the torn glove is reputed to have given the American time to recover and go on to win the bout. Cooper’s hefty shot prompted Clay to remark, “Henry hit me so hard that my ancestors in Africa felt it.”

He looked vulnerable in the moments immediately after Cooper’s punch. That happened rarely during the long boxing career of the man who started his career as Cassius Clay and ended it as Muhammad Ali. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali the following year, 1964.

Float like a butterfly around the exhibition at the O2.
Float like a butterfly around the exhibition at the O2.

Inspiration for the film Rocky

More than 100 artefacts are on display in I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2. The items include belts, signed gowns, plus headgear dedicated to Sylvester Stallone.

Today, many people associate Stallone primarily with the Rocky series of boxing films. Rocky, the first of the films, propelled him to global stardom. Reputedly, Stallone was inspired to write the script of the Academy Award-winning boxing film after seeing Chuck Wepner’s 15-round fight against Ali at Richfield Coliseum in March 1975.

The audio guide adds significant value to this exhibition, whose circular, central room features a bronze statue of Ali with arms stretching upwards; the expression of a victor. The recordings recount episodes from the boxer’s life.

Headguard signed by Muhammad Ali to Sylvester Stallone.
Headguard signed by Muhammad Ali to Sylvester Stallone.

The helpful police officer

As a boy in Louisville, Kentucky, young Cassius suffered the misfortune of having his bicycle stolen. Upset and brimming with anger, he told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he was going to ‘whup’ the person who took it. On learning the lad in front of him didn’t know how to fight, Martin made a suggestion: “You better learn how to box first.”

The exhibition tells of Clay’s participation and gold medal-winning performance at the Rome Olympics of 1960 and conveys aspects of the racial tensions simmering in 1960s America. Segregation was still enforced between blacks and whites in the southern states of the USA.

Some people came to see Ali as a champion of the civil rights struggle, able to make use of his standing as heavyweight champion of the world to get across a message that would have been ignored had he not excelled at sport. He did so in a way that reached beyond the racial divide.

The words of Muhammad Ali on display in the exhibition.
The words of Muhammad Ali on display in the exhibition.

Scenes from Ali’s fights

The exhibition’s first room holds a cinema screen and a boxing ring. Red and white benches are ranged around the ring. A short film with highlights from Ali’s career is screened. Stop your spine from tingling at the grace and power of the boxer, if you can.

Footage shown later in the exhibition conveys Ali’s boxing talent plus the wit, charisma and eloquence he displayed during interviews.

Posters and photos from Ali’s fights are displayed. There’s also original artwork depicting Angelo Dundee, the trainer who was in Ali’s corner for all but two of his professional fights.

Davis Miller is a co-curator of this insightful exhibition. Miller’s book, Approaching Ali, was published by W.W. Norton to coincide with the launch of I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2. £:

Ticketing to this exhibition

Adult admission to I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 is priced at £18.00 plus a booking fee of £2.75, in other words, £20.75. Is that a knock-out blow that will keep some boxing and Muhammad Ali fans away from this exhibition?

Child tickets cost £9.00 plus a £1.50 booking fee. The sliding scale of the booking fee (£2.50 on top of concessions admission costing £15) raises questions about the widespread application of such fees to gain entry to British events and exhibitions.

Booking fees are widely accepted but aren’t we on a slippery slope if we accept them as justifiable to cover transaction costs? What if shops used a similar argument in order to justify additional charges for using a card or even for paying in cash? After all, for most businesses cash also results in bank charges when it’s paid into a bank. Shouldn’t people be charged only for their tickets, nothing more?

Some will argue the heavyweight fee to enter an exhibition about the life of a man who has been named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year more times than any other boxer is justifiable.

Anyone departing I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 should simply be focusing on the life of a man whose personality and achievements – both inside and outside of the boxing ring – mean he’s one of the few people on this planet who truly transcend sport, nationality, religion and race.    

More information

The nearest London Underground station to the O2 is North Greenwich.

Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.

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Boxing poster at I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2
Boxing poster at I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

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