Muhammad ‘The Greatest’ Ali (1942-2016)
Boxing great Muhammad Ali who has just died aged 74 was the hand that fitted the gloves – unique, supremely gifted and arrestingly good looking. Long before he announced himself to the world with his victory over Sonny Liston as a 22-year-old challenger in 1964, declaring himself The Greatest at the heavyweight world title fight, or even his first professional fight in October 1960 against Tunney Hunsaker, the ‘Loiusville Lip’ (famous for having plenty to say) had a focus: to be the superstar in his own galaxy. To capture the essence of Muhammad Ali in a short space then is to do injustice to his life and times. That essence is and would ever remain a reference point in boxing and global sport history.
As he finally departs today, following his 61 fights with a shining record 56 wins, five losses and 37 knock outs, he has definitely left the mark as the first to win the heavies three times. The last great fight off the squared ropes he lost, medically, to an affliction (Parkinson’s) that has been with him for decades. A biographer once described Ali as a victim of a sport that destroys its heroes. How apt!
Like any other mortal, he had his own weaknesses. Of course, he was not perfect. President Barack Obama said this much in a tribute. “For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with words and full of contradictions as his faith evolved,” Obama observed. Ali had ended up not having a settled life even with four wives in tow at different points of his life. However, this imperfection or complication in marital life could not diminish his stature one bit. He remains even in death the greatest, “the king of the world.”
Since his passing into immortality a week ago, the world has seen an unprecedented outpouring of tributes to its best known citizen. It could not have been otherwise for a man whose success transcends barriers. Ali was an inspiring figure, always on top of his game and was globally acknowledged.
Obama literally summed up Muhammad Ali’s life when he said that “he was not just as skilled a poet on the mike as he was a fighter in the ring but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us.” He was the fighter who shook up the world and made it better. In recognition of his greatness, he collected a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President George W. Bush at the White House in 2005.
The mouth was as quick as his hands; his wit almost as fast as his fists too. He was a master of rhymes, of philosophy – too many to recall but which were all inspirational to humanity. The Thriller in Manilla with one of his tough opponents Joe Frazier he recalled as an experience nearest to death. “We went in as young men but both of us came out as old men,” Ali quipped.
Master of his trade, he was very adept at waging psychological warfare against opponents. Against the deadly George Foreman, he said he would “let Foreman swing until he could swing no more in Zaire’’ and Zaire was where he delivered a historical performance in the ring with a new strategy of “rope-a-dope”. In spite of ego of the self, he showed respect to hard opponents and they paid him back in kind. Upon his death, some of these opponents (some he derided even in the course of fights as men without hard punches) paid him deserving, glowing tributes.
His trainer of 50 years, Angelo Dundee saw the human side of Ali much. “In his heart he was always a happy human being…he’s a good guy. Everybody would remember Ali. Forever. I have gone to places, little places, and they knew me because of Muhammad. It’s a nice feeling. But it’s a heartbreaker too when you know a guy from when he was a boy and you see him with Parkinson’s and he could hardly walk.”
Dundee also described how Muhammad Ali would buy total strangers breakfast and lunch because he loved people. “His whole life was a party. He used to say he was living his movie.” How else could greatness be defined in a man who made the welfare of other human beings a priority?
Obviously, he was the most impressive being to climb the roped scaffold during his time. Even iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela gave him his due when Ali visited the statesman before his death. Such was his stature as a global brand that heads of government were eager to welcome him.
His ring opponents would not be left out in commendations. George Foreman whom he knocked out in the Rumble in the Jungle fight of 1974 in Zaire said of him: “Ali is a universal treasure.” Former British boxing icon Lennox Lewis who would have the honour of being Ali’s pallbearer today sees Ali as “Boxing’s greatest ever ambassador.”
As an anti-establishment showman, he transcended borders and barriers, race and religion to become an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage, one whose fiery commentary was lauded by anti-war activists and black nationalists. He was reviled to be revered. Born in Loiusville Kentucky in the U.S. on January 17, 1942, he grew up as Casius Marcellus Clay, having been so named by his father who was a sign painter but as a man of principle and upon his religious conviction, he ended up as Muhammad Ali. He was jailed for his belief (until his conviction was overturned in 1971 by the U.S. Supreme Court.) He won’t be cowed into submission by stripping him of a title because as he said, “my conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother.”
He was proud to be Black. Ali died a black man every youth wants to be. He was a man who used his talent to box his way to fame and stardom, showed that education is good, but everything was not about the book, at least for some. Talent made him great, in fact the greatest pugilist that has so far passed through this world.
Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, showed up as the brightest light on the sporting planet. That shooting star now extinguished, the world will miss Muhammad Ali the king, The Greatest, and his radiance.