A tribute to ‘The Greatest’

Boxing referee Eddie Marshall owns a vast collection of Ali paraphernalia.

Western Cape boxing referee Eddie Marshall, 62, joined millions around the world in celebrating and mourning the life and death of the three-time world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.

The man who called himself “The Greatest”, died last Friday from complications arising from a respiritory illness. He had also been living with Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.

Besides their love for the sport, Marshall and his hero share a birth date as both were born on January 17 – Ali in 1942 and Marshall in 1955.

The two met briefly when Ali visited the country in 1993.

Marshall, the eldest of four brothers, had 297 amateur fights under his belt, before packing away his gloves and switching to refereeing.

A lifelong fan, Marshall, who grew up in Athlone, says he’s been following Ali’s exploits in and out of the ring from a very young age.

However, due to South Africa’s international isolation and the former government’s reluctance to introduce television to South African audiences, Ali’s big fights were never broadcasted locally.

Instead, Marshall and other fans had their ears glued to the wireless as they tuned in to radio commentary in the early hours of the morning.

A quick glance at various social media sites reveal that since news of his death broke, many users – some of them boxing fans – changed their Whatsapp or Facebook status to reflect a powerful quote made famous by Ali, 74, or an iconic picture taken during any one of his great fights.

One such pearl of wisdom floating around and attributed to the great man, speaks volumes about his outlook on life and those inspired by it: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”

Marshall though, does not have to resort to random quotes, he’s got books filled with the stuff made famous by the Louisville Lip – as Ali was sometimes called in reference to his place of birth and sharp wit.

And, says Marshall, he does not need clever words when his whole boxing philosophy is based on Ali’s belief in himself, even when the chips were down.

“Of course I latched on to some of the things he said and did, especially his level of self-belief,” said Marshall.

“Even before he became a champion, he believed that he could become one. He stayed true to his motto that, if you can dream it, you can achieve it. I’ve always tried to make that part of my life,” said Marshall, who has been officiating at boxing events – locally and abroad – for 40 years.

For Marshall, actions speak louder than words and if there’s anyone who could walk the walk and talk the talk, it was Ali.

“It wasn’t just his words, it was his deeds that impressed me. He always delivered,” said Marshall.

Over the years he has collected a vast amount of Ali paraphernalia, including numerous videos, books, pictures and posters.

An oversized Ali v Frasier poster looms large in the passage leading towards Marshall’s study at the back of his house, in Mitchell’s Plain.

Among his treasured items, a stack of collectable cards featuring famous boxers, given to him by one Ernie Terrell, at a boxing conference in Los Angeles.

Terrell, who insisted on calling Muhammad Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay, has the distinct honour of being taught a boxing and life lesson when Ali famously taunted him with the words “What’s my name?”