The Greatest Even today Muhammad Ali’s place atop the pantheon of sporting heroes is secure


Syed Mehdi Momin

If he were alive today Muhammad Ali would have celebrated his 76th birthday. Many believe that Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest boxer ever but also the finest athlete the world has ever seen. For others it is his quality as a human being that exceeds his achievements as an athlete. This is a personal tribute to the great man.  It was October 1980. I was a kid of nine on a plane flying from Ishurdi to Dhaka. What should have been a mundane 20-minute-long fight made a dramatic and lasting impression on me. We were just about halfway through when the captain’s booming voice came in from the cockpit.

“Ladies and gentlemen as your captain it is my unfortunate duty to give you a very bad news” he said, and then chose to go for a dramatic pause which seemed to last for ages. The tension inside the plane became thick with apprehensive passengers and several started to recite holy verses.  The pilot then stated, “Our dear Muhammad Ali has lost his fight with Larry Holmes.” The tension and anxiety were replaced by a palpable sense of grief. Even though I had little idea at that time about the nuances of boxing I had some idea about how big Muhammad Ali was and I too became sad.

Just a couple of years back he visited Bangladesh. My father was posted in Chittagong at the time. The port city was in Ali’s itinerary. I consider myself greatly fortunate that I had the opportunity of a close-up view of The Greatest. I distinctly remembered how awestruck I was by his immense size. However more than that I wondered why everyone called him black or Negro– the n-word was not a taboo at the time.

He looked quite fair-complexioned to me as did his then-wife Veronica Porsche who also visited Bangladesh with him. Much later I learned that one of Ali’s ancestors was a white Irish.

I don’t think any celebrity’s visit to Bangladesh was greeted with anything close to the same degree of enthusiasm as that of Muhammad Ali. Lionel Mesi, Imran Khan or Sharukh Khan doesn’t even come close. The papers were full of different accounts of the life and time of the maestro of pugilism. The lone television channel BTV gave huge coverage of the visit. The government donated him a sizeable chunk of land–I wonder what actually happened to the land. Sabina Yasmin sang a number devoted to Ali which was on everybody’s lips. For his part Ali was charm personified. The showman in him came to the fore when he pretended to be knocked out by a kid with whom he sparred. The aura of the man was unbelievable.

During much of Ali’s career Bangladeshi papers covered his fights quite extensively often giving ring-by-ring accounts. It was the same throughout the world. In countries without any tradition or interest about boxing Muhammad Ali was a household name. He was easily the most recognisable face on planet earth and I believe he still is.

Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest” since February 1964. And even today his place atop the pantheon of sporting heroes is still secure. However his greatness as we know was hardly confined to the ring. He took a stance against the Vietnam War and refused to get drafted at a time whole America was very much pro-war. Yet he had the guts and gumption to say “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform, and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” He abhorred the term Negro much before it became fashionable to do so.

When Ali refused to sign the oath of allegiance to join the US Army, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in jail – a sentence later quashed on appeal.  After three years of growing unrest in the US about the Vietnam War, Ali returned to the ring.

All over the world Ali remains revered like no other sportsperson. He actually became greater than boxing itself. “I shook up the world!” he yelled after beating Liston in 1964. It was both accurate and prophetic. Lots of sporting legends have films made of their lives. Ali was so big that even the story of a fighter he beat, Chuck Wepner, could inspire an Oscar-winning movie and five sequels.

When Lames Cannon said Ali was “part of the Beatle movement” he meant it as a disparaging comment. Unwittingly he had nailed another truth. There could never be another to touch Ali, partly because the circumstances that allowed him to flourish – an explosion of popular culture, television taking its heroes into every home, the rise of post-colonial black power – can never again be repeated.

Ali’s greatest moment as a boxer came in October 1974 when he defeated George Foreman in Zaire in the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle”. The eighth-round knockout regained the championship he had first won a decade earlier. He was 32, and only the second man ever to win back the title. Ali was at the height of his powers: a heavyweight with a destructive punch and the speed of a welterweight.  In Manila, Ali met Frazier, who by now confessed to hating the champion, for the third time. It was their hardest fight – and perhaps the best of all time – with Smokin’ Joe’s corner conceding victory after 14 brutal rounds.

Today there is hardly anyone who doubts that Ali, was, just as he used to boast, the Greatest of All Time (which in later years became the typically playful acronym—GOAT—that branded his projects). He won the heavyweight title three times, in an era of intense competition. Neither Joe Louis nor Rocky Marciano faced so many dangerous fighters still in their primes. Ali’s trilogy with Joe Frazier provided enough drama in the first bout alone to be deemed mythic. The fight with George Foreman, when Ali, many thought, was being sent to his doom but instead invented an almost comical escape, the rope-a-dope. Not to mention bouts with Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, killers all. In his heyday, at least, Ali fought not for survival but for his own entertainment. He presented his ring art as a kind of jazz, fully improvisational, performed to the whimsical score in his head.

Ali’s career was one of high achievement played out across continents. Till then no athlete, certainly no black athlete dared be so brazen, so bombastic, so certain in his appeal, so independent of tradition. Ali promoted himself unashamedly, scorning the pitiful opponents, predicting the exact round of their departure and generally elevating his own stature to that of god. And then he adorned his own grace in the ring—so big and so fast!—with unusual and maddening filigrees. Can you imagine, in such a deadly game, a fighter who pauses for a pugilistic break dance, a shuffle in which his white shoes skim the canvas? For that matter: white shoes?

It helped that Ali came of age in a time, and in a country, when such things as race, religion and politics were being explored more openly than ever. Although most of the tension he liked to create—whether through cruelty to opponents or just unspeakable flamboyance—could be cut with that puckishness, he did have a serious side. Switching religions at age 22, converting to the Nation of Islam just as he was coming to real prominence, was not the move to make if marketing was your game, not while the black man was still being advised to follow the get-along mode. And risking jail, suffering exile, for an antiwar stand in 1966 was not something done out of playfulness. He had his convictions and he stuck to them, even if it meant paying a tremendous price.

Later in his life, when the man who could float like a butterfly was suffering from Parkison’s Syndrome when that once indomitable mouth was mostly silenced, he became not just famous but beloved. It was very sad to see such physical elegance stiffened by Parkinson’s, but like everything else that came along for Ali, his impairment was one more opportunity to prove his greatness, perhaps even enlarge his already considerable constituency. For his last 20 years, the Ali shuffle was indeed his only form of locomotion, and it was painful to see his jazz become fugue. But he was uncomplaining, dignified, unmindful even of any infirmity, and he kept about his proselytizing, which, more than anything, meant sharing his peculiar mysticism. He’d still stoop to produce a quarter from behind a child’s ear, but now he’d explain the trickery. No need to hoodwink anybody anymore. Life was too short.

It would be fair to say Ali’s post-athlete achievements have outstripped those inside the ring. A dignified, dazzling man, he has touched the world unlike any sportsman before or since. In Britain, BBC television viewers voted him Sportsman of the Century, and he received a similar award from US magazine Sports Illustrated.

“I’m the king of the world!” Ali had declared way back in 1964. “I can’t be beat! “ Nearly half a century on, that remains true.

    The writer is a journalist


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