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Muhammad Ali, the King of Kings, bows out


Nobody, not even my own mother’s death shook me as that of the sporting world’s biggest icon – Mohammed Ali. While I was waiting for my wife to take her to the dentist at 5:30 pm, I opened the television for a while and saw a line at the CNN-IBN channel, “See a programme on the life and times of Muhammad Ali Clay at 7:00 pm”. I was glad that at least our Indian channel did consider highlighting Ali and it might be his birthday, as I could never believe that a jolly, cheery and charming man like him could die and that the programme was actually a tribute for him. However, at 7:00 pm when I came back and my son pointed out at the headline that Ali died at 74, my heart sank, eyes welled up with tears and throat choked. I wanted to weep and I did in a remote corner. I loved Muhammad Ali.

My words fail me to write this tribute for the boxer and the humanist – Muhammad Ali Clay - with whose fights I had grown up in my childhood and in whose success, my mother was more interested than me! I remember, how in 1971, she got saddened reading the news that Ali lost to the huge, butchering Joe Frazier. She was very upset. People die and we are sad but Ali’s demise is something that is unbearable.

Because of Ali, boxing was my favourite sport in my school days, seeing him win one bout after another I wished to take up gloves like him though our school did not have this facility. Moreover, I was a skinny little chap. My mother used to follow each fight of his religiously through the news on the radio as television was not in vogue and we had our first black and white “Televista” TV only in 1972. She followed the news also “The Statesman”, and  “Al-Jamiat”, the newspapers we read those days.

George Foreman, who lost his world title to Ali in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa in 1974, had tweeted this, “Muhammad Ali, Frazier and George, were one guy. A part of me slipped away. The Greatest Piece!” Foreman added, “To put him as a boxer is an injustice. He was the greatest human I have ever met.”

At a time when there was no social media, Ali became the talk of the world, in fact, the king of kings! He became a symbol of liberation and rights for the blacks. He was rebellious for a cause.

Muhammad Ali’s ferocious skill inside the ring made him a champion, his gentility and humaneness outside made him people’s hero and above all, his courage in life made him a legend.

Like David taking on Goliath, Ali fought against the biggest and the strongest and managed to come out as the winner. He gave away his wealth to the poor. He had the good looks of a movie star, the words of a poet which left his fans and critics spellbound.

Muhammad Ali stood for his principles. He had become the champion of the world but gave it all up by standing for what he believed in. Refusing to abandon his Muslim faith, and refusing to fight in Vietnam, cost him the best years of his life, career and nearly stripped him of his freedom. Nevertheless, Muhammad Ali survived it all only to fight his way to the top all over again. Of the 61 fights, he won 56 including 37 by knock outs.

 Ali was the most thrilling and tactical of the best heavyweights ever, carrying into the ring a physically lyrical, unorthodox boxing style that fused speed, agility and power more seamlessly than that of any fighter before or after him.

But he was more than the sum of his athletic gifts. An agile mind, a buoyant personality, a brash self-confidence and an evolving set of personal convictions fostered a magnetism that the ring alone could not contain. He entertained as much with his mouth as with his fists, narrating his life with a patter of inventive doggerel.

 Loved or hated, he was never ignored and undoubtedly, remained for 50 years one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. Ali was once a polarizing figure in the US. At a time of racial segregation in the 1960s he joined the black sect, The Nation of Islam, which rejected the inclusive approach of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. It is to the credit of Ali that today, there’s hardly any discrimination among the sports stars on the basis of colour or religion.

In later life Ali became something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus. He was respected for having sacrificed more than three years of his boxing prime and untold millions of dollars for his antiwar principles after being banished from the ring. He was extolled for his un-self-conscious gallantry in the face of incurable illness, and he was beloved for his accommodating sweetness in public.

 As a bubbly teenage gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he parroted America’s Cold War line, lecturing a Soviet reporter about the superiority of the United States. But he soon became a critic of his country and a government target in 1966 with his declaration, “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” Ali said to the New York Times reporter, “They never called me a nigger. They never lynched my brother. They never raped my mother or sister. Why should I go and shoot hungry poor Vietnamese?”

 Ali was a man who was cast to feel free and called a spade a spade. If there was a supertitle to Ali’s operatic life, it was this: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be; I’m free to be who I want.” He made that statement the morning after he won his first heavyweight title. It informed every aspect of his life, including the way he boxed.

 Ali’s critics have called him loudmouth for his pugnacity. Some also referred to him as loose canon as well as a loose tongue. Nevertheless, he did cause a lot of discomfiture to the whites demeaning and demonizing the blacks.

 It was Ali who brought boxing into the arena of women. His dance in the ring like a butterfly, his prettiness, his talent and dexterity attracted women to the sport as a game of skill, not death.

 Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in the Philippines on 1 October 1975, coming out on top in the “Thrilla in Manila” when Frazier failed to emerge for the 15th and final round.  Six defences of his title followed before Ali lost on points to Leon Spinks in February 1978, although he regained the world title by the end of the year, avenging his defeat at the hands of the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion.

Ali’s career ended with one-sided defeats by Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, many thinking he should have retired long before.

Soon after retiring, rumours began to circulate about the state of Ali’s health. His speech had become slurred, he shuffled and he was often drowsy. Parkinson’s Syndrome was eventually diagnosed but Ali continued to make public appearances, receiving warm welcome wherever he went. He was asked to get operated for it but he refused as he wasn’t assured of a 100 per cent cure though the doctors assured him a 90 per cent.

President George W Bush even “returned” him the gold medal he had thrown in the Ohio river as the protest of the whites against the coloured at a very touching ceremony where he hugged and kissed Ali.

He lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Games in London.

Ali is dead but he will always thrive and throb in the hearts of all those who are true lovers of sports and human rights.

Muhammad Ali born January 17, 1942 at Louisville, Kentucky, died June 3, 2016 at Scottsdale, Arizona.

The author is a Delhi-based commentator on social and cultural issues. He may be contacted at  firozbakhtahmed08@gmail.com

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2016 on page no. 13

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