When he quit rugby league to become a professional boxer, Anthony Mundine donned his leather jacket, sucked on a Chupa Chup and fielded questions. Throughout the press conference, he clutched a faded hardback, Muhammad Ali's book The Greatest. He was glowing. Like a young Ali, no one quite knew what to make of him.
For Mundine, Ali was always the blueprint. The PR stunts; the self-aggrandising; the hands-low, head-high fighting technique; even the move to Islam - they were all from the champ's manual. He even sought to emulate his crusade. In Inside Sport magazine, Robert Drane called Ali ''Anthony's invisible friend, poorly channelled'' . . . ''As an imitator of his hero,'' Drane wrote, ''he's little more than a cultural skeuomorph''.
Ali never pretended to be perfect. In matters marital and fiscal, he was frequently all at sea. His humour was often scripted. When the talk turned to race, he could be every bit as clumsy, contradictory and odious as Mundine.
Illustration: Simon Letch
But his deft touch, rhythm and unpredictability - the hallmarks of his success inside the ring - were also the makings of him outside it. Most of all, he had a certain irony. He would say things like, ''If someone told you some nigger boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, would become famous as Jesus Christ you'd tell them, 'You crazy'. But I did it.'' And then he would start laughing and reel off a poem. He revelled in the absurd theatre of it all.
Whereas Mundine's glower betrays a certain anger and distrust, Ali's radiated warmth. His pupils danced. ''You ain't as dumb as you look,'' he'd say to Soviet general secretaries, sports broadcasters and second graders. Momentarily mortified, they'd quickly see that glint. And they were won over forever.
Deep down, Mundine knew he could never match that wit or that colossal talent. But he could have a similar impact on his people. As a child, his father would regularly drive him through some of the most squalid areas of Sydney. He would point out the drunks throwing up on the streets, the drug deals, the hookers, the lurkers and the destitute. Live a clean, honourable life, his father told him. And make a difference.
Indeed, when it came to Aboriginal empowerment, Mundine initially loomed as the right man at the right time. This super-confident young athlete was addressing issues that most would not touch. In an age where most sportspeople parrot lines with all the spontaneity of a police media spokesperson, Mundine always spoke his mind.
But no one could ever work out what he was trying to say. ''My people'' always figured prominently in his sentences. The problem was, he was always picking fights with them. They were not Aboriginal enough. They did not stand up for their brothers. They were just puppets for the system.
Whereas the likes of Cathy Freeman and Adam Goodes were genuine role models, Mundine seemed forever intent on dividing, squabbling and speaking sideways.
Mundine's mouth has always been his undoing. Tact, timing and eloquence have never been his strong suits. On issues relating to the Australian flag, national anthem and racism, he was a potentially important voice. But he always made a right royal hash of it. Pressed further, he would backtrack, divert, and deflect. ''They're all Uncle Toms, baby,'' he would say, looking away. And he would revert to trash-talking his opponent.
Brash and bravado have never necessarily been deal-breakers for Australian sporting fans. When a miked up Shane Warne pre-empts bowling a batsman around his legs, we laugh. And when they stuff up, we are a pretty forgiving lot. Whether it's jockeys betting on their own mounts, Brownlow medallists wading across a river to avoid arrest or leg-spinners reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey on Twitter, we cut them a lot of slack. A dose of humility, contrition and self-deprecation usually do the trick.
With Mundine however, the irony was never there. In many ways, Daniel Geale represents the greatest irony of all: this quietly spoken, physically unremarkable and earnest young punching machine. In Mundine's world of black and white, where everyone is either with you or against you, Geale must be particularly perplexing. The narrative before Wednesday's fight - punctuated by the occasional apology and handshake - included doubts over Geale's record in the ring, his Aboriginality and his right to fall in love with a white woman.
The unanimous points decision is surely the full-stop on a strange, sometimes brilliant, often farcical and entirely unprecedented career. The Man, who wanted to be the Australian Ali, never came close to emulating him. Whether he is unfulfilled, underrated, misunderstood or all three, there is only one man to blame.
Jonathan Horn is a freelance sports writer.