Muhammad Ali : The Legend
THE death of Muhammad Ali, the legend of world boxing, is an irreplaceable loss for the world of sports. He was three times world heavyweight champion. He won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Very few are considered unsurpassed geniuses in the world of sports – Jesse Owens, Nadia Comaneci, Pele, Maradona, Bradman, Federer – Muhammad Ali gained a celebrated place amongst them. Besides being a sports prodigy, he distinguished himself as a person who took a firm position against the injustices of his times and demonstrated remarkable courage in responding to them. His public stance against the US involvement in Vietnam created an uproar across the world. He refused compulsory military induction during the Vietnam war stating that he had no dispute with the freedom fighters of Vietnam (See box). He also cited that war is against his religious belief. Even after being warned that abstaining from military services would invite five years of imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 dollars, Ali did not change his position. On April 28, 1967 he was arrested. And on the same day, he was stripped of his boxing license and the heavyweight championships he had earned by then. The court found him guilty. Since then, he fought a long legal battle and finally in the famous Clay versus United States verdict, the Supreme Court exonerated him on June 28, 1971.
By this punishment, he lost four crucial years in the prime time of his boxing career. However, during this period, he addressed large gatherings across the country against US policy on war and racial discrimination. Through his series of speeches, he exposed the wrong policies of the US administration. This inspired the activists of progressive youth and students organisations in our country also. Many believed that his exoneration was a response of the judiciary to the democratic movement of citizen rights which was gaining momentum in USA. He embraced Islam and gave up his name – Cassius Clay – and became Muhammad Ali. Later in his life, he was drawn to Sufism. There were many songs written about Ali who `floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee'.
In professional boxing, he had 56 victories and five defeats, apart from winning the Gold Medal in 1960 Rome Olympics.
In 1985, I had an opportunity to meet the legend in Beijing. We were part of a DYFI-SFI delegation participating in an international friendly gathering organised by the All China Youth Federation in the capital city of China. Unexpectedly, Muhammad Ali appeared in the public place where we were having discussions and refreshments. He waved to all of us who stood up in awe and admiration upon the appearance of Muhammad Ali. Those of us who would have loved to have an embrace or handshake with him did not venture to do so, the reason being the intimidating presence of a group of bodyguards surrounding the legend. Naturally, we had to be content with the satisfaction of having met the `greatest’ from close by.
There are so many eminent people around, who maintain a stand that politics is an area which is not their cup of tea. Moreover, they feel that, expressing opinion on matters of public interest is not their duty. Some consider that being political is highly improper and demeaning. As against this general trend, stood Muhammad Ali through his bold public position on many highly controversial issues such as intervention and aggression of USA in Vietnam and compulsory military service law imposed by the US administration. He emerged as an inspiring symbol of the civil rights movement in North America.
The latest open political statement made by Muhammad Ali was his criticism of Republican leader Donald Trump’s racial and derogatory comments during the presidential primary campaign. It may be recalled that Pope Francis also criticised Donald Trump on similar lines. Muhammad Ali’s greatness is indelibly recorded in history due to two reasons: His unsurpassable exploits in the boxing ring as well as his unequivocal struggle in the public sphere for social justice and a peaceful world free from war and oppression.
Many boxing aficionados cherished an unfulfilled desire to witness an encounter between Muhammad Ali and Teofilo Stevenson, the Cuban boxing legend. It is true that the fame of Stevenson among the general public is far less than that of Muhammad Ali. This is because Stevenson never ventured into professional boxing. However, both respected each other immensely and knew their greatness. Stevenson was ten years junior to Ali, but they could have encountered each other in the boxing ring as both were active during the same time. Ali won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960 and soon turned professional, and therefore did not participate in any Olympics thereafter. Stevenson won his first Olympics Gold in 1972 in Munich and then continued to win two more in 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow.
Stevenson resisted the monetary temptation to turn professional due to two reasons. He ardently followed socialist ethics and was against misusing sports to make personal fortune. Secondly, turning professional would have compelled him to leave Cuba. This firm principled stand of a great sportsperson denied the world an amazing encounter of the two greatest boxers of all times!
There were dozens of books written on Muhammad Ali apart from documentary films and feature films. Ali had also been called the poet laureate of boxing.
Before regaining the title by upsetting George Foreman on October 30, 1974, he declaimed:
"You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?
Wait 'til I whup George Foreman's behind.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
His hand can't hit what his eyes can't see.
Now you see me, now you don't.
George thinks he will, but I know he won't.
I done wrassled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale.
Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick.
I'm so mean, I make medicine sick."
Excerpts from Muhammad Ali’s statement on his refusal to serve in Vietnam:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…”