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Why Muhammad Ali’s greatness goes far beyond boxing

On Saturday, 5 June 2016, the world was stunned by the death of the African-American boxer, political activist, poet and entertainer, Muhammad Ali. Our contributing editor Michael Nnaji pays tribute to the global hero.

Even for those of us who were too young to experience Muhammad Ali first-hand, his legend was relayed in such regular intervals by the media, that it seemed as though time had stood still in its wake to capture the essence of this greatest of sportsmen whose legend transcended his chosen field to permeate the very essence of society and transform a whole generation.

US president, Barrack Obama, led the tributes, saying that Ali “shook up the world”, revealing that, as a source of inspiration, he had in his private study a pair of Ali’s gloves and a picture of the young Ali hovering over Sonny Liston “like a roaring lion” after knocking out the latter in their much anticipated boxing heavyweight bout in 1964. Indeed, that fight would serve as an inspiration for later generations to push beyond perceived boundaries to fulfil their potential, for as Ali later admitted he had gone into the fight scared stiff of Liston, who took no prisoners. He, however, still summoned enough courage to face him down and triumph over the then undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Indeed, that courage, allied with determination and fearlessness would become the common thread that ran through Ali’s life. He just didn’t stand up and be counted for its – or for that matter – his own sake but for a better world. His civil act of disobedience in later refusing to be drafted for war against Vietnam, citing the injustices wrought on Black people in his own country, can be placed side by side with the  deeds of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Mahatma Ghandi. 

The myriad stories that have made the media rounds following his death, which all invariably revolve around his boxing feats, for this writer, probably only capture an aspect, not the essence of the man. As one writer put it recently, Ali stood for changing times, youth and self-determination. 

To understand the trajectory of Ali, it is important to immerse oneself in the historical context of the period in which he shot to stardom. Back then segregation and racism was rife and in full bloom in the United States. One would suspect that repeated exposure to racial abuse would have helped in sharpening Ali’s sensibilities. It has been hypothesized that this mindset made him receptive to the ideologies of the radical Muslim group, the Nation of Islam, to which the radical civil rights activist Malcolm X had subscribed and that would later turn out to be the latter’s bane. It was upon joining this group that Cassius Clay was cast off (“a slave name”) and the name Muhammad Ali was taken on by the boxer. Ali himself would later abandon the group.  

And back then, boxing stood at the edge of things and was charged with political significance. Ali, more than anyone at the time, understood this fully and exploited same to the hilt. He was not just a pugilist par excellence (he remains 

the only one to have won boxing’s heavyweight title a record three times on three separate occasions!) but also a poet-musician, raconteur, as well as an interviewer’s delight and represented a boon to the press in his prime. In an oft relayed, indelible interview leading up to a fight I first saw as a teenager, Ali was asked by his interlocutor why he was “truculent”. Not one to mince words, Ali snapped: “whatever that word means, if it’s good, I am that!” 

Even while being ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, the debilitating, progressive neurodegenerative disease that impairs motor function, speech and ultimately cognitive function, Ali bore all this with dignity and remained a beacon of hope for millions around the world. Rather than shun the public glare while in the throes of the disease, Ali sought by his brave, various public appearances to create awareness for the ailment. 

Following his death, Ali’s daughter, Hana, took to Tweeter, revealing that Ali’s heart kept beating for half an hour even after other organs had given up the ghost. It was a fitting metaphor: for Ali to keep living in our hearts through wonderful memories is not to die. Long live the King! 

Ali’s remains were laid to rest on Friday, 5 June 2016 in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.