The world mourned Muhammad Ali’s passing in June 2016 more passionately and universally than Nelson Mandela’s in 2013. Ali was not a statesman; he did not lead his people to freedom. A barely literate pugilist, Ali, however, represented freedom to black America, and oppressed people everywhere. Ali embraced the world, and the world embraced him back, making him its most recognisable icon. Originally a polarising figure, Ali eventually conquered the whole world, including white America. To appreciate the true measure of the man, Ali’s excellence inside and outside the ring has to be comprehended.
The speed of his hands and feet set Ali apart. In a sport dominated by punchers, Ali was an exquisite and unconventional boxer. He would jerk his head back to avoid punches, and in later years lean and crouch against the ropes to lessen the impact of incoming punches (rope-a-dope) – both frowned upon by boxing purists. In a skirmish between a boxer and a puncher, the boxer usually wins. Ali was 5-1 against three of the most ferocious punchers in history: Sonny Liston (2-0), Joe Frazier (2-1) and George Foreman (1-0). Had they not run into Ali, the mirage, all three would have been all-time greats.
Celebrities gravitated towards him. When the Beatles showed up at then Cassius Clay’s training camp in Miami in February 1964, he mock-boxed with, and teased them: “You are not as dumb as you look.” John Lennon shot back: “But, you are!”
Although Clay had predicted “the eclipse of the Sonny” by the 8th round in their first championship fight in Miami Beach in February 1964, pundits ridiculed his bravado. But, Liston had never met anyone as lightning fast as the human Hercules, Clay. Swinging and missing wildly, Liston injured his shoulders and failed to answer the bell for round 7, making Clay the new champion.
Sensational as the upset was, Cassius Clay converting to Islam and taking the name Muhammad Ali after the fight really shook America. America had enjoyed the antics of “The Clown Prince of Boxing;” but, now he had become an adversary. Except for Jewish boxing commentator Howard Cosell, no white called him Muhammad Ali for the longest time. They kept calling him Cassius Clay, infuriating Ali.
The rematch in Lewiston, Maine in May, 1965 will forever be remembered for the most iconic photograph in sport’s history, taken by Sports Illustrated’s Neil Leifer – Ali towering over a sprawling Liston, and screaming: “Get up and fight, sucker!” After the opening bell, Liston had rushed like a bull towards the matador Ali, only to be hit flush on his chin by Ali’s “phantom punch” and be knocked out cold.
A barely literate pugilist, Ali, however, represented freedom to black America, and oppressed people everywhere. Ali embraced the world, and the world embraced him back, making him its most recognisable icon
Ali’s Islamic faith and opposition to the Vietnam War made him a prime target for the establishment. After Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the army in April 1967, he was sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000, pending appeal. He was stripped of his Heavyweight Champion title and banned from boxing in all 50 states. Among white sports commentators, only Howard Cosell spoke out against this illegal overreach.
The world then took up the cause of the persecuted champion. Elvis Presley, who watched all Ali fights through satellite hook-up at his “Graceland” residence in Memphis, Tennessee, presented Ali with a robe with the inscription, “People’s Champion” – a designation the world embraced. Ali earned his livelihood at that time by lecturing on college campuses, where draft-averse middle class white kids flocked to hear him. With public opinion turning against the Vietnam War, Ali was allowed to box again in October 1970. The Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction, 8-0, in 1971, with Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing himself.
Ali in his second incarnation was sluggish – a consequence of the 3.5 years’ lay off. After two unimpressive fights against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, Ali challenged the reigning Champion Joe Frazier. Dubbed “Fight of the Century,” the contest in March 1971 at the Madison Square Garden pitted two undefeated Champions. Each earned a record $2.5million.
In a gruelling 15-round contest, Frazier knocked Ali down once and clearly won. Post-fight, both ended up in the hospital. Ali became a champion for the second time by rope-a-doping George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali’s third fight against Frazier, “The Thrilla in Manila” (1975) is considered one of the greatest in history. Ali described the brawl as “closest thing to death.” Ali won the title for the third time by defeating Leon Spinks in a rematch in September 1978. The cumulative impact of the head blows contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed in 1983.
Ali had feet of clay. He was promiscuous, “bountiful in his pelvic generosity” towards women. He fathered children out of wedlock. He articulated his bedroom philosophy in a doggerel: “Only the nose knows//Where the nose goes/When the door close!” Ali personally insulted his opponents by calling them names: “Ugly Bear” (Liston); “Gorilla” and “Uncle Tom” (Frazier); “Mummy” (Foreman). Frazier never forgave him. It was not Frazier’s fault that white America supported him against Ali in 1971. That is why “Uncle Tom” hurt. Frazier criticised the selection of Ali to light the 1996 Atlanta Olympic flame, and very cruelly “hoped” that Ali would fall into the cauldron!
Ali starred in his biopic “The Greatest” (1977), based on his 1975 biography. He also starred in cartoons and in the mini-series, “Freedom Road” (1979). When Hollywood presented him a star on its Walk of Fame, Muhammad Ali insisted that his be on a wall, so that people did not walk over the name of Islam’s prophet. In 1975 Ali was the graduation speaker at Harvard, and visited the White House at President Gerald Ford’s invitation. A hit song, “Black Superman” sung by white artist Johnny Wakelin hit the pop charts in 1975 with lyrics: “Sing, Muhammad, Muhammad Ali/ He floats like a butterfly, and stings like a bee.” Ali had a lifelong love affair with Bangladesh. When a deadly cyclone hit Bangladesh in November 1970, Ali contributed generously towards relief efforts. As state guests,
Ali and wife Veronica immensely enjoyed their five-day visit to Bangladesh in 1978.
Ali was uncomfortable with the Nation of Islam’s separatist ideology, and embraced Sunni Islam in 1975. One of Ali’s lasting regrets was abandoning his mentor Malcolm X after the Nation of Islam expelled (and later assassinated) him. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, and the Louisville policeman-boxing coach, Joe Martin, who launched him towards superstardom, were white.
Parkinson’s disease only enhanced Ali’s stature. He refused to become a recluse, and hide from the world a shrivelled version of himself. The courage with which he faced Parkinson’s for the last 32 years of his life won him a legion of non-sports fans.
African Americans and the rest of the world were always on Ali’s side. Gradually white America began admiring a man who put everything on the line, and lost a great deal – his title, 3.5 years of boxing at his prime, and millions of dollars in prize money – for his principles. Eventually white America came around, and joined the rest of the world as it stood up and saluted the Greatest. Sports Illustrated named Ali “The Sportsman of the Century” in 1999.
Mark Antony’s tribute to Brutus aptly sums up Muhammad Ali: “His life was gentle, and the elements/So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up/And say to all the world ‘This was a man.”
BIO: Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar