Muhammed Ali was in his own words the Greatest. Many agree when it comes to boxing.
It was sad to read of his passing at the start of the weekend. It was also sad to have met him two or three years ago and seen what Parkinson’s disease had done to such a great athlete. Pretty much all that remained at that time was the glint in his eye, that said his mind was still functioning more than adequately.
Ali wasn’t called the “Louisville lip” for nothing. It was his sharp mind and witty words that helped elevate him to superstar status and help those around him earn more than what was previously on offer. He was as fast with his mouth as he was with his fists.
Not surprisingly there are many tributes being made to a man who up until the late 1990’s would still answer the front door of his own house when fans came knocking, and happily sign autographs. A man who at the turn of the millennium was voted the third most instantly recognisable person on the planet. He was beaten by Jesus, whom no one has seen, and Mickey Mouse who is not even a real person.
The reason Muhammed Ali was special apart from the fact that he had great charisma was that he was not a perfect individual. He had his flaws. He polarised opinion, but remarkably in most cases he managed to win over those who spoke against him or he spoke against. Not only that he was a Champion, but a Champion who also lost. Even in his private life he had his ups and downs with four wives. He was by no means perfect.
One thing that he had in abundance was courage. He had the courage to get in the ring and stand toe-to-toe with heavyweights bigger than him, younger than him, fitter and stronger than him. That earned him a certain level of respect. The fact that he went on too long may have diminished some of that respect,, but only momentarily.
He was a man who was prepared to make a stand outside of the ring, at a time when sportsmen and women were not supposed to have views on anything else but their sport. He spoke up for his religion, and he spoke up for black people in America, at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.
Not all of his comments were the most well thought out, yet in recent times these have been forgotten, along with the fact that he taunted his black opponents in the ring far more than he did any white opponent. Was that deliberate? Was he again playing the media of the day? Had he attacked a white boxer the way he did Joe Frazier would he have had people laughing? Would the media not have turned on him? For in the 1970’s such behaviour would not have been tolerated. Yet it was OK that he deeply hurt Joe Frazier’s feelings calling him “ugly,” an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla.” Frazier’s feelings were hurt and the two never made up.
Many said it was done to hype up the fight, but as Kenneth Carroll from the Washington DC Writers Corps wrote when Frazier died in 2011, Frazier had a hard time in his post-fight life, in part because Ali had diminished him but “never went back to lift him up.”
Ali’s most famous and poignant statement was when he refused to be drafted to go to the Vietnam War. ”
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 and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 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 cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is 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…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
This was a bold statement in the Political climate of the USA at the time. It resulted in his phone lines being tapped.
As one tribute to Muhammed Ali poignantly stated it is sad that he was only truly embraced when he lost his power of speech.
Yet the reason he was much loved by people from many lands was because he stood up for people with no voice. He used his sporting status to make such statements about race issues and the draft. Incredibly he still managed to excel in the ring, yet ultimately many believe he paid a heavy price for continually climbing back through the ropes.
He was certainly no saint, but there is no doubt he was admired by so many across the globe not just because he was charismatic, but also because he said what many didn’t have the courage to say. He fought against a draft that many did not agree with and yet did not have the courage or the profile to fight and be heard.
He was definitely a man the likes of which we are unlikely to see for a very long time.He brought joy, he brought belief and no doubt instilled many with courage to face things they felt they couldn’t, from racism to the ongoing effects of Parkinson’s disease.
May he rest in peace