By Ismail Veli……..
The word legend is often used too freely, but Muhammad Ali who passed away on 4th June 2016 at the age of 74 was a legend if ever there was one. Olympic gold winner at 18 years old, 3 times world heavyweight champion, winner of the Sportsman of the Century award and the people’s champion in every sense of the word.
Ali was first encouraged to box at the tender age of 12. Having lost his bike to a thief at a convention of the Louisville Service club at the Columbia Auditorium he was so upset that he went to complain to the policeman Joe Martin who was taking care of the boxing gym at the time. After listening to the young Cassius Clay threatening to whip the thief. Joe Martin asked if he could fight, Clay replied “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin advised the hot tempered lad to come to train and learn how to fight before he went around threatening to beat anyone. The rest is history. Joe Martin trained Clay until he won the Olympic games in 1960. Soon after Clay turned professional and walked into a career that is considered the ”golden age of boxing.”
I was only 9 years old when he beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, but even then he was my favourite boxer. Ali was expected to get knocked out in a couple of rounds instead Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at the time), forced Liston to retire at the end of round six. The USA was a different place in the sixties. Segregation was a way of life, blacks were treated like second class citizens or worse, many blacks were practically lynched simply for defying whites and laws simply did not exist to protect them.
Then came along this young brash youth who defied all authority, rejecting his original slave name he converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and stuck two fingers up at the government who tried to enlist him into the army to fight in Vietnam. His words of ”No Vietcong ever called me a nigger”, and ”I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” shook white America to the core. They stripped him of his Heavyweight title in 1967 after his 9th defense and sentenced him to 5 years imprisonment, his sentence was suspended but he was not allowed to box again until he fought Jerry Quarry in 1970 in a fight that was the start of a legendary comeback.
To say Ali influenced millions of lives is an understatement, his courage and determination in the face of all adversity captured the imagination of the world and together with legends like Martin Luther King, Reverend Jessie Jackson, and Malcolm X went on to touch the conscience of White America. Their efforts finally began to work, and some real changes in the racist laws and attitudes that were accepted as the norm in those days finally began to change people’s attitudes. Despite the fact that slavery ended in 1865 millions of American whites simply could not accept that Blacks were equal citizens. They were expected to pay taxes, fulfill their national service and to fight for the ”Democratic ideals of American world leadership” against countries that were considered to be a threat to Democracy.
The fact that blacks had no rights was no concern as they were not considered to have the same feelings or ambitions as whites. It was against this backdrop that Ali stood up and said things like ”Black is beautiful, I’m handsome, and I can whip anyone in the ring, cos I’m the greatest.” Ali’s courage and personality inside and outside the ring won him fans across the globe. No other sportsman or individual has captured the imagination of the ordinary people as he did. The saying that he was the most recognizable face in the world was no idle boast. As a child I was in awe of his boxing ability and as I grew up and understood the implications of his courage he became my idol.
It’s probably hard for present generations to quite comprehend the civil rights movement and circumstances prevailing in the America of the 1960’s but for those of us who remember that period, it would be incomprehensible to analyze the changes without the heroes who helped make the changes. In that respect Ali will not only be remembered as the greatest heavyweight champion in history but one of the greatest individuals in helping to shape the American way of life.
This was a man who stood for what he believed in, was prepared to sacrifice his title, millions of dollars, stand up to the most powerful country in the world and helped change the racist attitudes of millions who finally realized that the ideals of equality, freedom of speech and human rights should not simply remain catchphrases but adhered to in reality.
The regaining of his title against the unbeaten powerful punching George Foreman in 1974 cemented his legend. I was only 18 years old at the time and on holiday in Hollywood for three weeks. The fight was televised on close circuit cinema. The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel where I was staying was across the road to the Graumans Chinese theatre that was due to televise the fight from Kinshasa Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) It was October 30th. Like most of his fans I was concerned that at 32 years old Ali would struggle to beat the young Foreman. Ali as always astonished the world with his unorthodox style. He lay on the ropes, challenged Foreman to punch himself to a standstill until he became exhausted. Ali’s ability to not only box but take heavy punishment was an astonishing part of his endurance. Ali finally knocked out a bewildered Foreman in round 8. The reaction from Ali’s fans was a scene I will never forget, we all jumped up screaming with joy, and though not knowing each other, we were practically hugging and jumping up and down.
The passage of time has simply enhanced the courage of a man who refused his slave name and fought for the right to not only claim to be the ”The Greatest,” but prove it time and time again. He may have lost his life but his memory and achievements will never die. Rest in peace Muhammad Ali. We thank you for your courage, conviction and determination. You were our idol and will forever remain a part of our lives.