Now As Well As Then: Muhammad Ali, The Legend


A giant has died. The greatest is physically no longer with us.
Like most everyone else, I did not know Muhammad Ali personally. In fact, the closest I have come to him was once when he beat Evangelista and at an art show, where he displayed a collection of his primitivist paintings. I merely happened to have met two other giants who were close to him – Malcolm X and Teofilo Stephenson, the latter of whom adored him. Yet like with everyone else, I was mesmerised by the great man. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Ali was a courageous, generous and ultimately very humble man. His boasts as to when he was going to knock out an opponent was more in fun than in any effort to make himself seem larger than life. He was, however, larger than Life.
 He first came to public notice and fame when he won gold in the Rome Olympics in 1960. All of the USA was behind him then. He turned professional a few years later and went up against a boxer, who had terrified the heavyweight world, one Sonny Liston. To everyone’s surprise, he beat Liston in 1963. It was there he began his versifying and his incredible humour. He categorised himself as floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. He also put together the lines, after defeating Liston who did not answer the bell; he had Liston saying:
 I’m no fool,
 He’s cool,
 I’m sitting right here on my stool.
His career had begun.
 In 1964, however, when he had failed the test for the draft to enlist for the war in Vietnam, the authorities lowered the standard to make him eligible. Muhammad Ali refused. He had become a Muslim and declared that he would not act against his religious principles. He also declared that his war was not against the Viet Cong, but against the oppression that Black people suffered in the USA. He was sentenced to prison for five years as a result of his refusal to go to war. His title was taken away from him as well. His passport was seized. He was forbidden to fight in any of the 50 US states, so he had to earn a living giving speeches to College students. His speech at Harvard on Love was unforgettable. It took three years before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Having lost three of his prime years as a fighter, he went right back into the ring. Joe Frazier was the champion at the time. Muhammad Ali won the right to take on Frazier. He lost before he took on what seemed to have been an impossible fight against George Foreman. 
 His most memorable fight, however, was probable what he designated and what was called the rumble in the jungle. Here he took on the young and formidable Foreman. They had been bold enough to take a fight outside Las Vegas and Atlantic City and stage it in Kinshasa, Zaire. Mobotu was thrilled and the Congolese embraced Ali as their own, while considering George Foreman an American. They shouted in the streets, “Ali boma ye” or Ali, Kill him. In Barbados, the show was broadcast live!
 I remember it well. Mickey Walrond, who had just had a son, came to our house to watch the match along with his father-in-law. Adé, my former wife, was pregnant with our second daughter. When Ali began his rope-a-dope (another designation which he had invented) Mickey kept punching my arm and saying: “Get off the ropes!” Ali could not hear his advice through the TV, so he persisted with his strategy. Somewhere in a clinch in the seventh round, he whispered to Forman: “Hey man, you look tired and this is no place to be tired.” He knocked Foreman out in the eighth round.
 Thereafter, Ali was an international household name. He was much disliked in the USA largely because he was seen as a braggart and because he fought for the rights of Black folk as well as being a Muslim. Yet he was at one with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. His stance on Vietnam, which had been roundly criticised initially, became the general American reaction to the war. Ali himself only became universally popular in the USA when he retired and no longer spoke publicly. People like Howard Cosell, a sports announcer who initially hated him came to respect Ali, who never showed him hate in return, but friendly banter instead.
 He fought and beat two English champions, one of them being Henry Cooper. After one of his matches in England, his opponent when asked if he wanted a return bout replied that that would be pointless since Ali’s punches were so fast that he did not see all of them. He is also said to have visited Lords, where the West Indies were playing a test match against the MCC. He is supposed to have said to Garry Sobers: “Man, I do not know anything about this game, but it seems to me that you are allowing them to take this game to you when you should be taking it to them.” Garry and David Holford then went on to bat for the whole of the following day.
 When Muhammad Ali took on Frazier for the last time, what was one of the most brutal and memorable fights in history, the thrilla in Manila broke out. Ali says it was the closest he had come to death. Frazier gave out, however, in the fourteenth round. But from then on, his fighting skills went downhill. He took too many blows in the head against sometimes not superior opponents, which probably was the cause of the Parkinson’s, which he was to live with for the next three decades. 
 Ali was not just a boxer. His promotion of his fights was phenomenal. People who hated him came to see him lose. Apart from this, he was someone who pottered in art. I saw him once at an exhibition where all his pieces were sold even before he could speak. When he spoke, it was with great humility. He said he could not really paint. He made the point that had Queen Elizabeth had a similar exhibition, everything would also be sold out. He also made the point that when one became famous, it was extremely difficult to remember and retain one’s humanity. He developed a deserved reputation for kindness and a genuine love for all religions. On one occasion an old woman from New York called him to ask for some money. His people informed him that it was some Jewish old lady who said that it was cold in her apartment and she had no money to pay for heating. Ali simply said: “Send the woman $10,000!” It did not matter to him that she was not his direct constituent. For him the fight for racial and religious justice also went side by side with the fight against poverty.
 Muhammad Ali will long be remembered. All the world stood up to say: “This was a man!” His was the best-known face and name in the world. Interestingly several of those who now celebrate his life speak less of his boxing than of his bold other battles against racism and poverty and his great and generous love. He now joins the ancestors.

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