Muhammad Ali was a genuine titan of the 20th century

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There are few people of whom it can genuinely be said they were a global titan of the 20th century.

Muhammad Ali was one. This is not to romanticise him – he was a complex, at times seemingly even troubled, man but then the most interesting of the great sportsmen are typically so.

But he was a champion in a gladiatorial sport in the post war era when sport became more popular than it had been.

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To get a sense of the rise of sport, you do not need to go far back in time. The News Letters of the late 1730s, after its launch, have almost no sport coverage, apart from horse racing, and even 150 years after that the sports coverage was almost non existent. Sport surfaces in a significant way in 1890s newspapers and appears regularly in the early 1900s, before being knocked back by the horror of the Great War.

But after the end of the Second World War, around the time George Best was born (1946), sport began its relentless rise to the stage now where it is at the heart of any newspaper.

Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, became world heavyweight champion in 1964, more than 50 years ago. He picked up a key sporting title in the emerging age of TV and mass media and household name celebrity. This is why he is someone we feel we have known for so long, and why in some respects it is surprising he was only aged 74 when he died on Friday.

A convert to Islam, he was at points in his life a political radical and he said some vicious things about his country, the United States. But he was born not much more than 75 years after the abolition of slavery and at a time when equality for African Americans seemed a distant prospect.

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Latterly Ali’s public appearances were dominated by his Parkinson’s disease, and the physical toll it took on him.

Almost anyone who took even a fleeting interest in Ali’s life and career will have sensed the truth of the conclusion that Sir Michael Parkinson reached: “He had faults, of course he had faults ... but he was just a remarkable human being.”