Ali, arguably the best and most well-known boxer in the world, flew with the grace of a butterfly and stung like a bee; both with his electric fist play and his unminced exclamations. This remarkable man, born of humble origins, cast away his slave name Cassius Clay, adopted Muhammad Ali and self-proclaimed himself to be the greatest! No doubt accepted and regarded as such in the boxing fraternity. It wasn’t just his powerful jabs and the sheer pace of his footwork, but the ability to tease the opponents, be it the mighty Foreman or the formidable Frazier or Liston and in making stinging remarks in press conferences about his opponents. He was a delight to watch both inside the ring in his trademark Everlast Boxing Trunks,, and outside equally and a crowd puller in every sense of the word.
Ali, then Clay, won the Light heavy weight boxing title at the Rome Olympics in 1960 but apparently threw the Gold medal away in the River later on. He became the world heavy weight champion at a young age of 22 defeating the Mafia favourite Sonny Liston against the odds. He had instantaneous recognition from the victory but his participation in activities outside the ring made headlines in America and the world over. A great critic of Vietnam War, his vocal views landed him in trouble especially when he refused military conscription, he was stripped of his world title. He joined the Nation of Islam and became an important voice for them for some time and a Lieutenant of Elijah Muhammad. Later on, he distanced himself from it and joined the mainstream Islam.
The campaign against the Vietnam War and the opposition was not restricted to some quarters in US but had widespread support amongst masses. His appeal was finally overturned and was allowed to fight again after losing a few years of his prime. His duels with Smokin Joe Frazier were no doubt the best of the lot and are deemed quality fights even now many years down the line. Ali had his name in the history books by becoming the first World Heavy weight champion three times. The fight against the giant George Foreman dubbed ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa, Zaire, made Ali the hero not just all over Africa but the whole world. The ageing Ali fighting the heavy puncher Foreman, in the Football Stadium In Zaire, with the whole country behind him chanting ‘Ali…Ali..’ is a sight never to be forgotten. In reality he could have been murdered in the ring by the more powerful ‘Mummy’ but his agility, guileful pugilistic display, speed and intelligence helped him throw a surprise punch to rattle Foreman and win the fight. His life and especially the fight in Zaire epitomised in ‘When We Were Kings’ and more recently in ‘Ali’, portrayed by Will Smith, was an apt description.
Ali had enough to fight one more historic fight with Joe Frazier in ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ in soaring temperatures which he won albeit with quite an effort. He was nearing his retirement age but still fought off some lesser known boxers, winning and losing a few bouts. It was sad to see the beating he took from Larry Holmes which I have very faint memories, maybe watching it sometime later.
Muhammad Ali was an Icon not only in the boxing world but also all over the globe as an ambassador of sports who spoke up against the rights of the downtrodden, especially the black coloured people, who were still very much discriminated in US. He made his views public on numerous occasions without fear, which landed him in trouble many a times. He believed he was the greatest, the exuberance and the confidence in himself was second to none. It certainly increased the ratings of television channels and exasperated the opponents who were ridiculed by being called Ugly, Bear, Mummy to name a few, mimicking their actions in promotions and weigh ins, drawing out applause from the controversy seeking public and media alike. It was certainly an honour and a life time wish to see him in person in The SAF games in Islamabad, but sad as well to see a shadow of a man, once the greatest. The struggle with Parkinson’s Syndrome, no doubt hastened by years of Boxing trauma, was so evident later on in his life. The iconic image of Ali lighting the Atlanta Olympics Flame in 1996 with trembling hands, the hands which once bore the might of the greatest Heavy weight boxer in the world…..was a reminder to the world.. Only God is the Greatest, the humans no matter how arrogant and strong are mere mortals and weak with the tide of the passing time!