Review: Ali At The O2 Is Good But Not The Greatest

I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, the O2 ★★★☆☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 32 months ago
Review: Ali At The O2 Is Good But Not The Greatest I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, the O2 3

"Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

You could listen to Muhammad Ali all day, as much as you could watch him box. The man widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight of all time also relished the roles of poet, beatboxer, comedian and political activist: the O2's latest blockbuster is certainly not just for boxing fans.

Co-curated by Ali's long-time pal Davis Miller, I Am The Greatest is peppered with delightful personal touches; an early vignette tells of a 12 year old Cassius Clay's despair at having his new bike stolen. When he went to report it at the local police station, Clay vowed to the police that he'd 'whup' whoever had nicked it.   

Cassius Clay's participation medals for the 1960 Rome Olympics

Another story of Miller's that sticks in the mind is that of a conscripted Ali refusing point blank to serve in the Vietnam war — a decision that cost him the respect of millions of Americans and threw his career off course for a good three and a half years. It makes you wonder if someone like Floyd Mayweather would have stuck to such principles.

Whether or not the bike theft was the catalyst for Clay's incredible career, he was quickly catapulted into the limelight — and by the time he scooped gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (his participation medals are on show — he tossed the gold into the Ohio River after a waiter told him they 'didn't serve niggers') it was clear this kid was something else.

The show has gone to great lengths to get hold of some fascinating objects. Ali disciples will foam at the mouth at the 'split glove' from his bout with Henry Cooper in 1963, and his sweat-stained headgear that he gifted to Sly Stallone.

As you'd hope, the route is paved with many of the boxer's finest quotes, including lashings of 24 carat trash talk like: "Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him."

The ring Ali gave to his cornerman Drew 'Bundi' Brown in 1978

Unfortunately I Am The Greatest's curation leaves something to be desired — many of the objects are unlabelled and not mentioned in the audio guide (though perhaps this will be rectified before tomorrow's opening). It's frustrating when you're gawping at a stunning photo but have no context.

Beware the facsimiles too: objects such as Ali's championship belts and a cloak dripping with bling given to him by Elvis Presley, are impressive until you realise they're not the real McCoy.  

And, as the exhibition enters its final bout, things get a bit dazed and confused. A huge round room cluttered with videos of fights, various gloves, cloaks and Sports Illustrated magazines sees chronology flung out the window. It's all rather overwhelming and you end up staggering about as if you've just done a couple of rounds with the man himself.

The show lacks an ending, too. You might think that's apt, as the great man's story is not finished. But for those not overly familiar with Ali's life, it'd be good to learn how his career wound down, and what he did next.

Headgear that Ali signed and gifted to Sylvester Stallone

For such a heavyweight entry fee — over 20 smackers — you'd hope for something a little more cohesive, more definitive. Still, this is the best Ali show London is likely to get for a while.

Maybe this is a case of pulling out your wallet and rolling with the punches.

I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali is on at the O2, North Greenwich, SE10 0DX from 4 March-31 August. Tickets £18+£2.75 booking (adults); £15+£2.50 booking (concessions); £9+£1.50 booking (children). Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

On Monday 7 March the show's co-creator David Miller is at the Wanstead Tap talking about his new book, Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts. Tickets £5

Last Updated 03 March 2016