The life and times of Muhammad Ali depict a tranche of history made up of uplifting as well as sordid events. The battles fought have changed things for the better
‘All I did was to stand up and fight’
– Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali passed away in Phoenix, Arizona last week on 3 June at the age of 74 after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Throughout his life, he stood up and fought for what he believed in. He was thus much more than a legendary boxing icon. His unstinted battles out of the ring for social and political causes transcended boxing. Although Ali was the first three-time world heavyweight boxing champion winning the title in 1964,1974 and 1978, his fame as one of the most respected sports celebrities of all time also stemmed from his legacy as an inspiring leader, social activist, humanitarian and philanthropist. He transformed the lives of people. Tributes have poured in from personalities across the world as well as people from all walks of life. His legend will perdure.
His funeral is to take place on 10 June in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky. In a ceremony which he himself planned years ago and wanted to be inclusive and open to people of all faiths, former President Bill Clinton will be among those who will deliver a eulogy for Ali. Among his pallbearers will be the actor Will Smith who played him in the biopic ‘Ali’ and former heavy weight champion Lennox Lewis.
Louisville is where it all started. We must imagine the context. We are in the 1960s. Yet, it was an era when African Americans living in the southern states of the United States were still subjected to an abject system of racial apartheid and continued to be treated as second-class citizens who were systematically denied their basic civil rights. There was little scope for social or economic advancement.
Ali was born Cassius Clay. At 18, he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. In October 1960, he became a professional boxer. In February 1964, displaying his incredible boxing talent through his swift footwork and an amazing combination of speed, mobility and power, he won the heavyweight Championship against the mighty Sonny Liston, although he was a 7-1 underdog, by technical knockout in the 7th round, for the first time. He was 22. It was one of the biggest upset in boxing history. From the ring, he shouted to the world in defiance that ‘I am the greatest. I shook up the world…’
His brash personality, cocky confidence, provocative antics, jibes phrased in rhyme to belittle his opponents and charismatic persona set him apart. He stormed into boxing at a time when the sports was not at its best. He helped transform it and put it on the world stage, drawing record breaking indoor crowds and followed and watched by millions. He thus created an iconic brand around his unique and unorthodox pugilistic style and tactics described in his own inimitable words as:
‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’
After his historic victory, he announced that he had converted to Islam and was a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and had changed his ‘slave’ name Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. In a potent way, he, like many African Americans of the time, wanted to sever the shackles and shun the ignominies of the past. He thus defied the established order and declared himself free to define his career and what he wanted to be on his own terms. In 1975, he left NOI for the more mainstream Sunni Islam.
He was quick to understand the power of TV as a potent media form. He used it very smartly with his glib talk. He was regularly invited in numerous chat shows in both the US and abroad on which he depicted the civil rights situation with wry humour and questioned the racial injustice in the US. At a time when few were brave enough to raise their voice, he had the courage to fight for civil rights.
In 1967, after being heavyweight champion for three years, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War on religious grounds and the principle of pacifism. His statement ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’ echoed the anti war stance of a generation. It outraged the Establishment. He was pilloried by politicians and the media.
The escalation of the US involvement in the Vietnam War against the backdrop of mounting casualties also raised fundamental questions about might against right and heightened the anti-war clamour among the young. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing champion title and banned from the sport he loved at the height of his career for more than three years. He was also sentenced to five years in prison but a protracted appeals process prevented him from serving time. As a result, he did not fight from 1967 to 1970 from ages 25-29. His conviction was quashed in 1971.
During that period, he was invited by colleges across the US and spoke against the Vietnam War and for racial justice. He stood up and protested when others dared not. His sense of moral purpose made him into one of the most admired personalities of his time. Ali was fighting for his convictions. He paid a heavy price for it.
Allowed to box again as from 1970, he won the heavyweight champion title again against George Foreman, considered to be one of the hardest punchers in boxing history in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 and again for the third time in 1978 against Leon Spinks after losing it to the latter earlier in the year. He was then 37.
Champion of the people
Together with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles, Ali epitomized the 1960s. In their own unique way, each of them influenced the youth of that time and helped mould their outlook on the future.
After being champion in 1964, the loquacious Muhammad Ali realized that as a champion, he had the power and opportunity to influence people’s mindset and bring about change for a better order. He therefore spoke forcefully and candidly against injustice and racial inequality. After retirement from boxing in 1981, he devoted his life to charitable work as well as humanitarian and philanthropic activities, despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Muhammad Ali was appointed United Nations messenger of Peace in 1998. He thus travelled across continents to deliver food and medical supplies to the poor and war affected communities.
After 9/11, the legendary fighter who was a man of peace and was extremely religious spoke out against the terrorist attacks stating: ‘That really hurt me, because Islam is peace and is not violent. The few that do these things make the religion as a whole look bad.’
Despite fighting with Parkinson’s disease for more than three decades, he has inspired millions of people. Above all, his legacy as an inspiring icon and venerable human being will remain ever potent transcending all barriers.
His indomitable spirit and stature are best epitomized by the image of Ali shakily holding the torch to light the Olympic flame marking the official opening of the Games in Atlanta in 1996 in front of an estimated three billion people watching the event live on TV in the world.
The life and times of Muhammad Ali depict a tranche of history made up of uplifting as well as sordid events. The battles fought have changed things for the better. In a fitting tribute, the first African American elected President of the United States, Barack Obama, aptly stated: ‘Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it.’
* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016