Last week, the world celebrated the 70th birthday of one of the greatest icons of our time. It was a welcome reprieve for the fans of Mohammed Ali to see him in celebratory mode after the recent reports he was loosing his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. It was reported that after fighting a two-decade battle with the crippling disease, the Parkinson’s is progressing and Ali’s condition has worsened considerably leading to his hospitalization. At the peak of his career Mohammed Ali delighted audiences with his charisma, excess skill and humour but Parkinson’s has rendered him virtually powerless and robbed this most verbose and loquacious of men his physical co-ordination and speech. However no matter how bad his illness gets, his dignity never fails to shine through.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He began to box at the age of 12 after an incident in which his bike was stolen. Hurt by the theft, he vowed to "whup" whoever stole his bike. A local police man cautioned him and advised him to “learn how to box" before carrying out his threat. Within weeks he trained, boxed and won fights. He had 108 successful amateur bouts before his 18th birthday and in 1960 Cassius Clay won the Olympic gold medal in Rome . Due to the segregation of blacks in Southern America during that time, Cassius was refused service at a local restaurant despite his Olympic achievement. This fuelled his ambition to succeed and reach out to minorities. The ultimate glory came when, against the odds, he defeated Sony Liston to emerge heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. While training for that title bout, he announced to the world that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that his name was Cassius X, latter to be changed to Muhammad Ali. The response to this news was negative but it never stopped him from wavering, sticking to his beliefs or even joking about it. Whenever he was asked about his attachment to Islam, Ali joked that he was going to have four wives: one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub oil on his muscles and one named Peaches. In 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating, Ali was called up for induction into the armed services. He refused induction on the grounds of religious beliefs. Typically in a joking manner he said “I done wrestled with an alligator; I done tussled with a whale; Clean out my cell and take my tail to jail; 'Cause better to be in jail fed than to be in Vietnam dead” and latter he declared "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”. The national anger over the last comment combined with Ali’s refusal to go into the armed services caused the authorities to cancel his boxing licenses. He was convicted, stripped of his championship title, his passport confiscated and he faced a 5-year prison term. Eventually after 2 ½ years, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and restored his license. This action elevated him into a champion even more than before because he was the first national figure to speak out against the war in Vietnam .
Among the highlights of his career lays the ‘rumble in the jungle’; a fight between him and a fearsome champion George Foreman in Kinshasa , Zaire . Before the match, in his usual boastful manner, Ali predicted “To prove I’m great he will fall in eight”. And true to his word in the 8th round Foreman was knocked out of the match. To his credit, Ali became the first man to win the world heavyweight title three times. He revolutionized boxing by pioneering a style that went against many of the game's consecrated traditions. By the end of his career, Ali had fought an impressive 61 bouts with 56 wins (37 by knockout) and 5 defeats (1 knockout). Shortly after his retirement he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and has been battling it ever since.
Before Muhammed Ali started boxing the sport was largely controlled by the mob but he came along and defended it as a sport. He gave this most uncompromising of sports beauty, grace, style, magnetism, humour, class, sheer excitement and he fought with emotion and heart. In his usual stubborn way he refused to adhere to the conventional way of boxing and told the establishment "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want". In the ring Ali used a method that flouted boxing logic; for one he had arm reach and used it so that he didn’t have to get close enough for his opponent to hit him. Additionally his powerful legs allowed him to dance, shuffle and float in the ring. The ‘Ali shuffle’, a foot manoeuvre invented by him allowed him to elevate himself and sometimes deliver a blow while dancing. At the time when his career bloomed, boxers never talked to the media but Ali disregarded this by boasting and predicting matches in a very public, bragging and poetic manner. In a rhyme that latter came to define his mode and manner in the ring Ali said of himself “I float like a butterfly, I sting like a bee; his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” Floating, stinging, striking, winning or rhyming Ali has today emerged as the world's most adored athlete.
His actions outside of the boxing ring continue to speak volumes. In his journey he risked everything; his standing, his title, his achievements and his livelihood yet he managed to surface as a hero and a man of principle for all time. He’s always been known to stand up for his beliefs, loves children and respects women. He is a super, super star, confident, smug and incredibly handsome. Ali will always be a great inspiration to mankind as a whole and black people in particular; we can all learn a great deal from him. He gave people hope and proved that anyone could overcome insurmountable odds to achieve their dream. Since his retirement from the ring Ali has been a relentless advocate for people in need, having delivered millions of dollars in food and medical relief to third world countries and raising in excess of $50 million for charities throughout the world.
For the last two decades the terrible disease that has dogged Ali has done its share of crippling him, but he has fought and refused to let it beat him. He continues to fight Parkinson’s disease with the same courage and determination he brought to the ring and to his work aimed at alleviating poverty, hunger and intolerance. However if reports of his worsening condition are true then we shall continue to pray to God to bless him and keep him safe and pain free until the end. He touched the world and in return the likes of myself will always love him from the bottom of our hearts. With the exception of Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Ali is the one public personality that I consider as my personal hero. I thank him for representing so many things in so many people’s lives and for instilling in me the love of poetry and freestyle rhymes.
How does one comprehensively describe the story of a man like Muhammed Ali? Well, one needn’t go far because in his own words Ali once said of his story “This is the legend of Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter that ever will be. He talks a great deal and brags indeed of a powerful punch and blinding speed. But I think more appropriately Ali was, is and will always be; that which he proclaimed to be- the greatest!
Article Written by Hannatu Musawa