The passing of Muhammad Ali on Friday morning met with responses from around the globe. People from all walks of life have commented on the man, his life and how he touched them. In many ways, I knew of Ali as long as I have known of myself. He was always part of my own unfolding life. And his passing has reminded me of what still needs to be done.
In the early 1980s, my elder cousins, an uncle and his family who lived with us, as well as my father and I, stayed up late one night to see Ali fight his last fight in the Bahamas. The disappointment was palpable among everyone, including me at the time, although I was only 10 years old. By then Ali stood for more than boxing – his immense personality and his iconic status across the whole world, especially the Muslim world, had made him a hugely popular individual. His community work and his stand against oppression and tyrannical politics made him a household name. He was a performer, entertainer and above all a world-class boxer who rose from relative obscurity in Louisville, Kentucky to become the greatest boxer in the world.
I felt immensely disturbed by this giant of a figure ultimately reduced to a walking zombie that night. His opponent, Trevor Berbick, refused to hit Ali as hard as he could, with cries of ‘fix’ from my family. Later I realised that Berbick had understood that Ali was nowhere near his former self, and therefore Berbick was quite deliberate about what he was doing to Ali. The only reason this fight went ahead was for the money – from the fees for the fighters to the syndication of the fight itself and to the immense advertising revenues for the television companies, all selfishly promoted by Don King. At his prime, King was a shady figure behind so many boxers and with so many lawsuits against him. It seemed that everyone had decided to cash in on the star man. There was little or no desire to protect Ali from the harm that befell him. After the fight, Ali had effectively had no choice but to retire. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, his speech became demonstrably slower, and his movements limited. Any other man who had risen to the top of the boxing world because of his strength and speed, his amazing footwork and punching power, now reduced to a mumbling shadow of his former self, would have capitulated, but not Ali. His heart was as strong as ever, and he continued his charity and community work for as long as he could, even though his illness made him weaker with each passing day.
When I got onto my doctoral studies in ethnic relations during the mid-1990s, it was the first time in my life that I got a sense of who I was, where I was from and what it all meant politically. I felt that everything I had learned about the world had been a lie and that the answers to so many of the questions burning inside of me were found in the study of race and ethnicity. It was at this time I became aware of the award-winning documentary, ‘When We’re Kings’ (1996). It focused on the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight between Foreman and Ali but also touched on Ali the man. It was a moment of awakening. I was moved by his personal journey, taken in by his immense personality and his unbounded charm. I was inspired by the bravery of this man – from his origins to his experience with trying but failing to get served at an uptown restaurant in his hometown after winning gold in Rome in 1960 – to his stand against the Vietnam war that cost him over three prime boxing years. A more recent documentary, ‘The Trails of Muhammad Ali’ (2013) is a brilliant account of what Ali had to endure during this time. Put simply, it was not just his boxing that did the talking. As I have reached a certain maturity in my own life, his wisdom and humanism has touched me – and thus another kind of his courage.
As we see come to realise his presence on this earth is no more, the world has lost arguably its greatest hero. He was a beautiful black man, a Muslim, a champion of the people, a warrior of peace, a fighter for justice. All knew him – and none had anything against him. Words are not enough to describe his immensity. From a man born into the legacy of slavery in the US, he became an Olympian gold medal winner and then a world champion. At the height of his powers, he stood by his principles. Sadly, once back in the game, the cruelty of boxing took advantage of his personality to make profits – and when his body was its weakest, his heart remained as strong as ever, and it never failed him. He was the closest humankind has come to knowing a real-life biblical prophet. He did not just make a difference – he was the difference. There will never be another like him.
The sad reality is that little has changed in the lifetime of Ali. Many black folks in America still suffer near the bottom of society. There are civil rights abuses that occur every day. Racism is rife. There are illegal and unnecessary wars that have raged on since Vietnam. Ali’s ‘Muslimness’ was never a consideration in how he was perceived. But if someone other than Ali said today what he uttered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they could be arrested or under suspicion for being a terrorist sympathiser, or worse a terrorist. In many ways, this is why the world has responded as it has done to arguably one of the most recognised people in the planet. There is not merely grief at the loss of a heart that touched every living soul on Earth, but at the fact that we live in an era riven with conflict, violence and abuse of various kinds. The world has descended into a place where people are so far removed from each other, so divided by politics and fear (or both) and so absorbed in the self (virtual or imagined) that we need a man like Ali. Let us hope that there are a few among us who can still carry (or even hope to carry) the torch he lit. We sorely need it.