Muhammad Ali’s greatness transcended his sport and geographical boundaries
This song I’m going to sing was written at a moment in your country’s history, when people’s yearning for a more open and just society exploded. Bob Dylan had the courage to stand in that fire and he caught the sound of that explosion,” Bruce Springsteen had said, as he sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997. Dylan, sitting alongside then US President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary, raised his arm in approval.
Dylan wrote the verse in 1964 at the height of civil rights movements and racial segregation in the United States. A year previously, he penned Masters of War, protesting the Cold War arms build-up and America’s active involvement in the Vietnam War.
In 1963, John Lennon and the Beatles told the British royalty to ‘rattle their jewellery’ at the Royal Variety Performance in London with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in attendance. Lennon reportedly wanted to incorporate the F-word before ‘jewellery’, but a very iffy Brian Epstein persuaded him not to. Give Peace a Chance and Imagine would come later.
Dylan and Lennon have been two of the biggest things to happen to planet earth over the past half-a-century. They fought for equality and justice, and made a telling impact. Muhammad Ali’s fight was even tougher, for he started as an outcast. His triumph was mankind’s success.
“No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age. To put him as a boxer is an injustice,” said George Foreman after the ‘final bell’ rang on Ali’s life. Don’t forget Foreman got a verbal ‘whupping’ from his rival before the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire in 1974. “You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned. Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind,” Ali had rhymed before calling the latter a ‘Belgian’ to win over the locals. Zaire (now Congo) had once been colonised by Belgium. Still, Foreman was among the honorary pallbearers for Ali’s memorial service, attesting the greatness of the champion who transcended his sport and geographical boundaries.
As a boxer, Ali called himself ‘the greatest’. He indeed changed the art of heavyweight boxing, ‘floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee’. He was so fast that lesser opponents could barely touch time. He invented the ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy to upset Foreman. He took perseverance to a different level to down Joe Frazier in ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Ernie Terrell once refused to call Ali by his Muslim name, insisting that he was still Cassius Clay. That was the only time Ali boxed to hurt an opponent. “What’s my name?” he repeatedly asked Terrell, beating him black-and-blue. A 56-5 career record, including 37 knockouts, puts Ali in the highest rung as a boxer, but the ‘Louisville Lip’, who rejected his ‘slave name’ and joined the Nation of Islam, became an icon because he changed America and the world.
By choosing to be a ‘draft dodger’ and refusing to go to the Vietnam War, Ali had put his career on the line. In 1967, ‘draft evasion’ by a black American was considered to be an unpardonable offence. Ali wasn’t afraid… Far from it.
“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. 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…
“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,” Ali had said.
He had been convicted, stripped of his title and was banned from boxing. Ali faced a possible jail time —he didn’t know then that the US Supreme Court would overturn the conviction four years later—but never abandoned his conviction. Ali’s courage laid the groundwork for a fair and equal society in America and all over the world. Little wonder then that President Barack Obama paid a glowing tribute. “His (Ali) fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognise today.
“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.” Ali was the reason why a black American eventually occupied the Oval Office.
Ali personified bravery with his fight against the establishment and battle against Parkinson’s. He lit the torch for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with his trembling hands, bringing a lump in everybody’s throat. He outshone the greatest show on earth. Ali lived his life like a real hero. His death has left an irreplaceable void.