The tall, 6’3” man, 210 pounds when young, was charm personified, an amazing athlete and a man who could bash in someone’s head with a nifty jab. The three-time world heavyweight champion floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. The greatest boxer, who also was the greatest sportsman of all time.
An unorthodox boxer
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., though perhaps not the best heavyweight ever, brought into the ring a unique unorthodox boxing style, which was a fusion of speed, agility and power, for the first time. More than the sum of his athletic gifts, he had an agile mind, a buoyant personality, a self-confidence which was brash, and personal convictions that fostered a magnetism that the ring alone could not contain. His mouth and fists, both entertained the world.
David Remnick in his King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero describes him as ‘a fighter; a draft resister, an acolyte, a preacher, a separatist, an integrationist, a comedian, a dancer, an actor, a figure of immense courage…arguably the most famous person on the planet’.
Ali began boxing at age 12 after his new bicycle was stolen, and vowed to policeman Joe Martin that he would ’whup’ the person who took it. Martin began training the young lad, just 89 lbs., at his boxing gym, the beginning of a six year amateur career that ended with the light heavyweight Olympic golden medal in 1960. He beat Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, before he converted. He then refused to be inducted in the army to fight in Vietnam.
When the 22-year-old dropped what he called his ‘slave name’ and became a Muslim and called himself ‘Muhammad Ali’, it was with a purpose. Along the way, Ali modified his belief systems, he kept plucking and choosing his understanding of Islam, including leaning towards Sufi ideals. As a self-proclaimed Muslim, boxer and conscientious objector to war, he always thought he was right. Note his famous quote: “I’m the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was”.
Interestingly, for 50 years after boxing great Cassius Clay adopted the Muslim faith and changed his name in 1964, his home-town Louisville’s daily newspaper, The Courier-Journal, refused to call him Muhammad Ali, after which it belatedly apologised.
The most famous anti-war pacifist the U.S ever produced, was hailed for his strong indictment of racism, imperialism and war, and of course, a glorious assertion of individual rights, and thus transcended him from celebrated athlete to great public figure.
He was convicted for draft evasion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing, and facing a possible prison sentence, he fought Frazier for the first time in 1971, dubbed the ‘Fight of the century’. After his lengthy layoff he was not the same fighter, even though he won the heavyweight champions twice more, and fought another decade. He defeated a brooding Foreman to become champion again at age 32. Ali went on to lose to Leon Spinks, but came back to win it a third time in 1978. Then he retired, only to come back for a fourth time against Larry Holmes in 1980.
He was an anti-war activist who lost his title and three years of his prime for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Ali once calculated he had taken 29,000 punches to the head and made $57 million in his pro career. Of his 61 fights, he lost just five, but his most dogged battle was with Parkinson’s, the disease that slowed down his dancing feet and his silver tongue, but not his spirit.
As he put it regarding his battle with Parkinson’s, “He (God) gave me Parkinson’s syndrome to show me I’m just a man like everyone else. To show me I’ve got human frailties like everyday else does. That’s all I am: a man”.
Ali has however been criticised too, for shying away from taking any kind of position he earlier had on contentious issues, thereby not living up to his own heroic standards. But the moot point is, should we not allow a hero to have a choice not to be heroic all the time?
In 1998, the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan named Ali the U.N. messenger of Peace. To Ali, “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up”, but he confessed that ‘my toughest fight was with my first wife’.
Asked how he should be remembered, he had opined it best, “As a man who never sold out his people; but if that’s too much, then just a good boxer. I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was.”