When I was a kid growing up in the middle of nowhere in Australia there was a local run-of-the-mill department store chain called Norman Ross.
In the early 1970s, someone at the company had the audacity to write to the most famous man in the world at the time and offer him a very small amount of money to feature in their ad for their annual sale.
The recipient was so charmed by the letter and the modesty of the offer that he agreed and flew across to do the ad.
He scripted the short black and white commercial in his trademark verse and filmed it as a piece to camera against a plain background. I saw it so many times I learned it by heart:
“My senses of prediction
Are second to none.
Fifteen fights I’ve been right
Just to name some.
And I’m here to tell you about the greatest sale ever
At old Norman Ross.
Here’s prices I predict
Are gonna tumble and fall
On everything they’re selling
Yes on them all.
But only this month
This sweet month of May
‘Cause old Norman Ross
Is the greatest of all.”
He was, of course, Muhammad Ali.
This was at the height of his fame and his powers, when, for him, the world was a gold-embossed playground. The thrilla in Manilla. The Rumble in the Jungle. Norman Ross couldn’t have been further from this world. Chintzy lounge suites. Kitsch paintings of sunsets. Fondue trolleys. Teak veneer cocktail cabinets.
Ali was an audacious fighter with a human eye and a human touch. He brought delicacy to the brutality of his craft, dancing as he despatched his opponents, floating and stinging. I think he found his strength in his constant connection with his vulnerability, which is, I guess, what caught his eye and his heart in the humility of a letter from a small provincial furniture business half a world away in rural Australia.
RIP Muhammad Ali. Poet and pugilist. You were The Greatest.