With Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor trash talking each other in preparation for their 26 August bout, it’s worth reflecting on the world’s greatest trash talker — Muhammad Ali.

There was a time when fighters weren’t expected to bad-mouth their opponents and instead did their talking in the ring. If one man can be credited for inventing the not-so-subtle art of pre-match fight hype, it’s the heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

As cunning as Ali was in evading the blows of his opponents, he was equally so in coining great lines to rattle them. When he took on the seemingly invincible George Foreman in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), the fight was billed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

Foreman was bigger and stronger than Ali, and Ali new he would have to evade his punches to win the fight, something few pundits gave him any hope of achieving. Before the fight he announced: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but know he won’t.”

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Lines like this boosted Ali’s renown and he became famous as much for his pre-fight poetry as for his skills in the ring. Before that same fight, in which he upset the odds by knocking Foreman out in Round 8, he also riffed: “I’ve wrestled with alligators, I’ve tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightening and throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad, just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

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When Ali fought the great Floyd Patterson, he boasted: “I’ll beat him so bad he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.” Ali mastered the art of self-promotion. When he shouted out, “I’m the greatest,” most people agreed with him. Even if he wasn’t always the greatest in the ring (he did after all lose five fights in his career), his sheer charisma and larger-than-life personality made him the greatest sporting figure of all time.

While Ali had enormous self-belief, he was not selfish. He sacrificed much in his dedication to justice. He was banned from boxing for three years for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. He was outspoken in his criticism of racism and his support of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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In 1971, before fighting Joe Frazier, he said: “I represent the truth. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All your black militants … all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they want me to be the victor.”

One wonders if McGregor and Mayweather, or any other fighter for that matter, have it in them to frame a contest in terms of broader social issues. This was the genius of Ali, to be the thinking man’s sporting hero. Maybe it was something to do with the era. In the 70s there was the whiff of idealism in the air. We’ve all become a little jaded by the crushing professionalism of sport.

Wouldn’t it be nice if McGregor or Mayweather were fighting not for a $100-million, but for a cause they passionately believed in?

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