Audley Harrison: Muhammad Ali Is Nelson Mandela And Mother Teresa's Equal

Boxing icon Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74.
Muhammad Ali at the New Victoria Theatre, London. Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison has paid tribute to the boxing icon who has died aged 74. Tim Graham/Evening Standard/Getty

Muhammad Ali impacted the world as significantly as Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, believes former Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison.

Ali, who died aged 74 on June 3 in Phoenix, Arizona, from septic shock after a three-decade battle with Parkinson's disease, was heavyweight champion of the world on three separate occasions. Perhaps more significantly, he became a pillar of the anti-war movement when he refused to join the draft to Vietnam and was stripped of his title.

When I go through troubling moments in my own life I look at great people like Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, people who have been through far worse than me," Harrison tells Newsweek.

"He stood up for what he believed in. And it made him an amazing ambassador for life. There are only one or two people who come around like that. Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela. Only a few who touch us the way Muhammad Ali touched us. He touched me deep in my soul."

Harrison, the Olympic champion from Sydney in 2000 who has gone on to become a spokesperson for mental health issues following the end of his professional boxing career, says Ali's enormous character filtered into his own personality when he began his boxing journey.

"The first time I ever walked into a gym, I had the vision of Ali in my mind," Harrison says. "I had that swagger and confidence from him.

"He became such an icon for me because of what he did in the ring. And his fights were incredible. He could light up a room. Charm a room. Whoever he met, he was able to win them over, all the way through his career. Even when they tried to stop him talking he still had that glint in his eye. Muhammad Ali transcended sport, life even."

Harrison was christened 'Mohammed Audley' by the British press following his Olympic triumph for his ability to move in the ring, punch with power and talk loquaciously outside it, although he never quite fulfilled others' lofty expectations of him as a professional, retiring in 2014 after one unsuccessful shot at the world title, in 2010 against fellow Briton David Haye.

Two years after his gold medal, however, he met his idol at his 60th birthday party in London, describing the experience as a "boyhood dream."

"He wasn't using a lot of words at that time," Harrison says of Ali. "But he still had that glint in his eye that never went. He used to talk to you with his smile. I was just in awe. It was such a privilege."

Ali's funeral will be held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday.