Anyone who lived through the 1970s could not have remained immune to the phenomenon that was Muhammad Ali, even if — like me — they had missed him at the peak of his athletic powers.
Coming back to boxing after being stripped of his world heavyweight title and having his boxing license revoked in 1967 by US boxing authorities for three and a half years — because of his refusal to participate in America’s war in Vietnam — he was a larger than life figure.
Not only was he a spectacular athlete rising from the ashes of forced exile, he was a moral giant, unafraid to put his principles before fame and money. But as a kid, I didn’t know all this.
For me, it was the pure excitement he inspired in everyone around me, particularly my father.
I still vividly recall being woken up by him early in the morning so my brother and I could watch PTV’s live transmission with him of Ali’s famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali would win that hugely hyped fight to regain his heavyweight crown.
We would repeat that early morning ritual many times later, whenever Ali’s fights were shown in Pakistan, which — if I am not mistaken — was always.
Live transmissions of sporting events were rare events then and being allowed, nay encouraged, to wake up in the middle of the night to view them, were the pinnacle of excitement as a kid.
At some point, I was presented with a 45rpm record of Ali’s iconic pep song ‘Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee’ and it became one of my most prized possessions. I used to listen to it over and over:
Later on, as I grew older, I came to despise the very spectacle of boxing, which more and more reminded me of Roman gladiatorial contests, poor people damaging and sometimes, killing each other for the sport of others and the monetary benefit of rich promoters.
The long-term medical consequences of concussive blows to the head that boxing perhaps causes were only tragically manifest in Ali’s own later development of Parkinson’s disease.
Perhaps this growing up coincided with Ali’s decline as well, perhaps it was independent of it.
But I more or less lost interest in watching boxing after Ali was beaten by a young and unlikeable Leon Spinks. Ali would go on and win his title back one more time from Spinks but he was already not the same athlete any more.
When he lost his last title fight with Larry Holmes in 1980, it was too painful to watch.
But I never stopped loving Ali.
As I learned more about the struggles of his early years (my father bought me a biography) and his conscientious objection to America’s murderous war in Vietnam and his activism against racism at home, my respect only deepened.
As many people have pointed out, he was a poor black kid from Kentucky who bootstrapped himself up to the heights of fame and money and then gave it all up for his principles.
Not only this, he was willing to accept the derision of his hyper-patriotic countryfolk and undergo a jail sentence for his values.
One would be hard-pressed to find any other such example of moral fearlessness in the sporting or entertainment world, where athletes and entertainers cave under far softer pressures, usually just the threat of withdrawal of sponsorship dollars.
I have often pondered over what it was that inspired such a following of an American boxer so far away in a country like Pakistan — certainly no other pugilist before or since Ali has inspired the same sort of adulation.
Pakistanis often still do not know the names of most American athletes and boxing is still a fringe sport in this country. Was it the fact that he had converted to Islam and Pakistanis came to see him as one of their own?
It’s probably true that Ali being a Muslim played a big part in why Pakistanis embraced him as ‘ours.’
Recall that these were also heady days of the 1st Islamic Summit Conference, which had taken place in Lahore in early 1974, with grand calls for Muslim unity.
But to reduce the phenomenon of Ali to his religious conversion would be simplistic.
It doesn’t explain, for example, his massive adoration around the world, even among non-Muslims. Mike Tyson, another world-renowned boxer, would also convert to Islam many years later but he never commanded the love of ordinary Pakistanis the way Ali did.
No, Ali was much more than just a convert.
In his persona Ali projected a complicated mix of emotions for his fans around the world — underdog fighting against the odds, moral strength, grace under pressure, likeable wit, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, sacrificing for what one believes in and, yes, the beauty of pure athleticism.
Some of these qualities were even inferred from his sportsmanship. I recall discussing as a young boy how Ali never went for body-blows, unlike his rivals, his only jabs were to the head.
This was taken, in our naïve hero-worship, as another sign of how Ali played ‘clean’, never sullying himself with ‘low’ things like punches to the gut or the abdomen.
But boxing was never the real reason for Ali’s greatness. The fact of the matter is Ali transcended sport and spectacle.
This is why even 30-odd years after his retirement he remained an icon, even to those (in the majority, it should be pointed out) who never lived through the 1970s and were born long after he entered the ring for the last time. He was what we all aspire to be as human beings.
Rest in peace, Champ. You truly were the greatest.