Another global tragedy strikes. The venerable world famous and intensely engaging pugilist, Muhammad Ali, has rested. The sun sets over Louisville tomorrow Friday 10th June 2016. An era has closed.
Immediately coming to mind is his image with Nelson Mandela ‘playing slow motion boxing’ in child-like manner, two giants of their times fused by a common experience in sport, civil rights and sacrificial attachment to good works.
Numerous voices have been raised in accolades and appreciation of the deeds, life and performances of the man who defied all odds to become a universal phenomenon.
Incontestably, Muhammad Ali transcended sport. President Barack Obama described him tacitly: ‘He was the greatest, period’.
A great admirer of Muhammad Ali, Obama sees not just ‘the greatest’ but a hero; a man who stood his ground and changed the world. Yes, Ali ‘shook the world’ in a whirlwind and in more realms than just sport.
The media has characterised Ali as one of the best known men in sports and most charismatic in boxing; an outspoken force of nature who stood for much more than just sport.
Ali was an accomplished workaholic sportsman who focused his life and energy on success. A three-time world champion and a global colossus Muhammad Ali inspired many and shaped the futures of those who pursued him through his dreams.
Uniquely, Ali salvaged the sport when boxing was nearly on its knees threatened with backstreet status, and took it to unprecedented glory singlehandedly. At peak he was infinitely skilled in movement, attack and in pre-fight words which magically unsettled his opponents.
This was a truly unique sportsman who combined the speed of a lightweight and the venom of a heavyweight, the fighter who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. His daughter described her father’s style as ‘scientific’ in its execution.
Muhammad Ali jumped into the ring 61 times and in 56 of those times jumped off it an undisputed victor. He knocked out all known heavyweights of his era to become a wonder worth study and an irreplaceable icon of agency hitherto unknown.
And his life and achievement influenced many, some of them in far flung sport disciplines
Pele, himself a legend in matters football, says the world has ‘suffered a big loss’ and he an idle and hero. ‘There will never be another Ali’. No there won’t be! The books are closed.
In Ali’s own trade Mike Tyson simply said ‘God has come to take his champion’. George Foreman the man Ali defeated in ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 says ‘one of the greatest people to appear on television. He was beautiful. A part of me is gone.’
Incidentally to Ali, Rumble in the Jungle was not only his finest fight, it was meant to be the last. Well it never was as this great force of his time went on for another seven illustrious years before retirement in 1981.
Muhammad Ali was a boxer who not only entertained; he lifted many out of indignity, white or black; young or old. An ‘extreme machine’ in the ring, Ali was a pacifist who believed in love, peace and equal progress for all manner of people.
Yes, Ali wore a permanent smile always ready for a joke. As Obama observes ‘illness could not take the spark from his face’. Here was a boxer who was both deeply human and lion-strong in one ‘contradicting’ package.
Less known to those infatuated only by his boxing feats alone Muhammad Ali stood against white supremacist and American imperialism, taking uncompromising positions regarding race and racialism working alongside better known Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X and others
He said in 1974, ‘I am seriously working for my people’. And visiting Brixton United Kingdom in 1974 Muhammad Ali spoke forcefully against racism and racial segregation in support of the local black population. He left a mark on the course of things.
This is the story of an extraordinary man, in one package a boxer, civil rights campaigner, poet and philanthropist. He was obdurate, passionate and free speaking mind, sometimes unguardedly rude.
In the words of President Bill Clinton: “when I saw Ali fight the first time I thought I saw something that the world may not see again. Ali was a global citizen who never stopped to be American. Goodbye my friend, you were great”.
What can we learn from Muhammad Ali?
The distinguished role that personal determination plays in the life of an individual comes first. Yes, one sees the power of genius but this is cultivated from the force of the individual will to achieve.
If you wish to be philosophical, boxing for Ali became an expression of freedom, a kick in the face of racists and a journey to liberate black people through a demonstration of both peace and valour.
This was a man of special courage. Even in ill health Ali lit the Olympic Flame in 1996 in Atlanta Georgia with dignity. For 30 years he fought Parkinson’s disease till he could fight no more.
As an individual Ali was a shrewd personality who knew how to promote his fights and his own image. ’It is not conceit, it is confidence’ he once said when blamed for arrogance.
On the basis of faith and principle, Muhammad Ali firmly rejected conscription into the Vietnam War and came back from the ashes of de-registration of four years to win against one of the most formidable boxers in the name of George Foreman
A childhood friend described him as “an outrageous humanitarian about whom nothing bad could be said” while his brother Rahman Ali simply called him “an angel”.
I remember his pre-fight chant with heavyweight George Foreman:
‘I am the champion, I am the real champion, there will never be anyone like me; I am the greatest’
You were the greatest Muhammad Ali. Your work is done. And this time Allah has come to take his champion to rest in eternal peace.
As for the black populations it is aluta continua.
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