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For Lyari boxers, mourning 'brother' Mohammad Ali is deeply personal

The great boxer was adored by Lyari residents for everything he was.
Updated 10 Jun, 2016 12:53am

The legacy of Mohammad Ali endures and resonates across the planet on two levels simultaneously: as a boxer, and as a social and political personality.

In Pakistan too, Ali is a legend for these reasons — and perhaps nowhere more so in the country than in Lyari, a locality in Karachi known just as well for its passion for sports as it is for crime rates and gang violence.

Here, in an open courtyard, boxing lovers and fans of Ali have gathered for a Quran khwani (recitation). In his honour, the Lyari Labour Welfare Centre Boxing Club (LLWCBC) has announced a three-day mourning and has asked boxers not to come for practice during this period.

Those who love boxing, love Ali. But those who practice the sport and have actually met its greatest practitioner in person – as a few among the gathered had when he came to these parts – the passing away of Ali is deeply personal. The sadness at his death is just as great as their genuine appreciation for Ali as a sportsman and as a human being.

"The void that his death has left us with, it is hard to fill. Boxing has suffered a great loss. We are all sad and distraught," says Asghar Baloch, general secretary of Sindh Boxing Association (SBA).

Today, Lyari has more than a dozen boxing clubs. The oldest is the Lyari Labour Welfare Centre Boxing Club (LLWCBC) . It was established seven years before the creation of Pakistan in 1940, but whose founder, the legendary 'Baba-i-Boxing' [Father of Boxing] Mohammad Sattoo, had already laid the foundations for boxing culture in Lyari by giving organised shape to the sport all the way back in 1918.

Graffiti at club's entrance marks its year of establishment as well as its founder. – Photo by Kamran Nafees
Graffiti at club's entrance marks its year of establishment as well as its founder. – Photo by Kamran Nafees

Ali himself came to Pakistan in 1989 as special guest for the 4th Asian Games in Islamabad. The main members of the LLWCBC met Ali at the event, who was so impressed by their dedication to boxing that he visited Lyari and the Club during the same tour.

The Club, which has been a launching pad for many of Pakistan’s biggest names in boxing, therefore is a logical space for these boxers to come together to recite the Holy Quran for their deceased hero.

Ali the boxer

"Mohammad Ali’s boxing techniques are a guideline for learning and teaching for us," Asghar continues, talking about Ali's relevance as a boxer.

As a keen observer of the sport, Asghar comments that Ali is someone who introduced art into boxing. And that art form was footwork, which he believes "is the foundation of every sport." In other words, Ali introduced athleticism into boxing.

"This art will remain part of boxing as long as boxing exists," he says, remarking that it is Ali’s boxing style that Lyari’s boxers try to emulate and make their own.

Female boxers in Lyari equally admire Ali. – Photo by Kamran Nafees
Female boxers in Lyari equally admire Ali. – Photo by Kamran Nafees

Abdul Rauf Qureshi, another boxer who has based his style on Ali's, agrees. "Ali used to play on footwork," he says. Abdul Rauf became Pakistan’s Junior Champion in boxing in 1967, National Champion in 1970, and finished 3rd in Asian Championship a year later.

After watching Ali’s famous fight against Sonny Liston in 1964, Abdul Rauf ordered boxing shoes from Germany so that he too could learn to move his feet the same way. As a coach, he teaches his students the same.

Also read: First-ever women’s boxing camp in full swing

"The flexibility and agility he brought into boxing took the sport to a whole new level," adds Malang Baloch, who represented Pakistan at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and came through the ranks at the LLWCBC. Malang comments specifically on Ali’s revolutionary contribution to boxing. "Boxing used to be based on knockouts," he says, echoing Asghar Baloch, "but Mohammad Ali added technical aspects when he came in." Malang too maintains that Ali's style has had a great influence on boxers in Lyari.

Now aged above 60, Malang also remembers the time he met Ali at the Asian Games in Islamabad, and again when the hero came to Lyari. "He asked us where we were from and we told him we were from Lyari. We invited him here and he accepted. He really took to Lyari’s boxers; he said their technique was similar to boxers in America. He went from street to street in Lyari and we were all by his side – it was a big celebration."

Malang and Abdul Rauf have fond memories of their meeting with Ali. – Photo by Kamran Nafees
Malang and Abdul Rauf have fond memories of their meeting with Ali. – Photo by Kamran Nafees

Abdul Rauf is equally animated as he recalls the time he met Ali. He says Ali expressed his support and solidarity for the people of Lyari. "It was unfortunate that he got sick; otherwise he would have done a lot for us," laments the former Pakistan champion. "He promised he would send trainers to Lyari."

Ali the social phenomena

Mohammad Ali’s legacy is due in no small part to his larger than life character. He is no less important as a social figure as he is as a boxing genius.

Ali, as Asghar Baloch states, is not just the name of a person, but also of "an idea, a thought, and a movement". It is evident that this fact is not lost on the people of Lyari, many of whom share Ali’s African heritage and belong to a class that finds itself perpetually on the sidelines of society.

"You are thinking whether race is the issue," remarks Asghar, whose facial features would not make a foreigner out of him in a place like Harlem in New York, "because we are also black and Mohammad Ali was also black."

"Yes, race," he states. He further emphasises that racial identity plays a part, and shares an anecdote: When the West Indian cricket team toured Pakistan in the 1980s, the players, including the great Vivian Richards, used to come to Lyari daily.

"They were amazed that how come our people are also here!" Asghar laughs.

Apart from the racial factor, class background is just as salient a point. LLWCBC's founder Sattoo was a worker at the port in Karachi. Lyari’s boxers, as most of its residents, are also working class. They consider Ali an inspiration since he too belonged to the marginalised sections of society, but rose to great prominence despite all hurdles.

Read next: ‘Our’ Muhammad Ali — Why Pakistanis saw him as one of their own

But other than the dreamy heights of fame, Ali’s relevance, and importance of sports in general, becomes more important in the daily routines of these boxers. Boxing is also a lifestyle and in an area where drug use is a problem, "sports promotes a healthy way of life," says Asghar Baloch.

"If you want to be like Ali, you don’t go into drugs." Abdul Rauf repeats the same thoughts. "Health is the most important thing," he says, "even more than education — and we are trying to create a healthy environment here."

Mohammad Ali’s conversion to Islam also had a transformative effect on the people of Lyari just as it did on people the world over. His new faith added another dimension to the love Lyari already had for him.

"He now had many more people who prayed for him," says Abdul Rauf. "It was a great honour for us that he was Muslim... he was already a great boxer. Once he came into our religion, he also became our brother."

Ali at the 4th Asian Games in Islamabad, with Pakistani trainer Mohammad Allah Baloch in centre and President of International Boxing Association Anwar Chaudhry on the left. – Photo by Kamran Nafees
Ali at the 4th Asian Games in Islamabad, with Pakistani trainer Mohammad Allah Baloch in centre and President of International Boxing Association Anwar Chaudhry on the left. – Photo by Kamran Nafees

Video filming: Kamran Nafees and Aamir Baig | Editing: Kamran Nafees