THE sad news came today — the Greatest is no more but will always be with us. Given his worsening health due to Parkinson’s disease, his passing was expected, yet it came as a shock and roused feeling of deep sadness as if someone very close and known to us for a lifetime had gone. Such was the magic and impact of the man that each one of us felt that we owned a part of him and believed that he gladly owned each of us as his own.
I remember as a young 12-year-old boy, looking wide-eyed at the front page of Dawn dated, I think, February 25th 1964, where in big bold letters sprawled the news that Cassius Clay had knocked out the then heavyweight champion of the world, “Big Bear’, Sonny Liston. Remember that those were the days where one relied on the newspaper or radio to get the “breaking news”, generally twelve hours old. A few hours after winning, Muhammad Ali announced that he had converted to Islam and joined the Nation of Islam to become a Black Muslim. That day these two different stories, just 4 hours apart, about the same man dominated the headlines that February day. The world awoke, with a lot of surprise and some deep resentment (at least in United States) to the arrival of the “Greatest”. In those few hours Muhammad Ali had set the path that was to define his career — as a boxer, a super sportsman, a civil rights activist and a humanist.
From that day in 1964 right up to 1981 when he fought his last fight, Muhammad Ali filled the news almost on a daily basis with his astounding feats inside and outside the ring. He became larger than life with his intelligence, charisma and his common touch. Among his 61 professional fights, he slayed many a giant and fought more big names in boxing than any other champion.
After defeating Liston twice, his loss to Joe Frazier and subsequent two victories against him, Muhammad Ali went on to the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (Congo) in 1974. There he faced the fearsome reigning heavyweight champion, George Foreman, who was the overwhelming favorite to win the fight. With his innovative “Rope a Dope” tactics, he surprised the pundits and decimated George Foreman. But being Muhammad Ali, he then became a fast friend of Foreman.
Muhammad Ali never shied away from taking on fights regardless of the odds against him. He single handedly revived and ignited the dying sports of boxing with the injection of his unique style of boxing, the publicity and hype, and brought glamor and glitz to heavyweight boxing championship. That boxing owes him a debt of gratitude is an understatement and I am sure that other living greats like Foreman, Tyson, Lewis, Leonard, Mayweather and others can readily testify to that.
His gift of the gab set him apart. It was in your face, coupled with wit and wisdom. He was the king of the sound bite, before the term became fashionable. His most famous quote “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” was said before his first fight with Liston. About his rematch with Joe Frazier in the Philippines, “it will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.” Before George Foreman fight in 1974, “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark.”
America was not ready for what hit them - a black man defying convention and challenging long held racist attitudes of white America. And beating them at it. When he took his famous stand against the Vietnam war and protested his induction in the Army on the grounds of being a “conscientious objector”, he famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
He lost three and a half years in his prime but stood by his principles that his stock rose among many, even his detractors. He fought in the courts, against the US establishment and others who could not stand a black man outsmarting them on all fronts. He lost financially, lost over three years of his physical prime and yet came back to win the heavyweight championship twice, once against George Foreman and once against Leon Spinks.
For his great accomplishments inside and outside the ring, he became universally popular around the world. While the disease seriously afflicted his movement and appearance, wherever he would appear in his later life, he could still electrify the crowd. He was indeed the greatest and will remain so forever regardless of where he is now.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2016