POST TIME: 20 January, 2020 11:22:30 AM
Remembering Muhammad Ali: The greatest
All over the world Ali remains revered like no other sportsperson. He actually became greater than boxing itself
Syed Mehdi Momin

Remembering Muhammad Ali: The greatest

The birthday of the greatest heavyweight boxer, nay sportsperson ever was observed on January 17. The greatest  is longer with us but his legacy will remain as strong as ever. He boasted he was "The Greatest," and in the prime of his charismatic career, many agreed. But as great as the man was in the ring, perhaps his true greatness was outside it when he fought the United States government. His refusal to accept induction into the armed forces on religious grounds cost him millions and his heavyweight title, but in the end Ali came up victorious in the most significant battle of his life. What follows is a personal account of the Champ It was October 1980. I was a kid of nine on a plane flying from Ishurdi to Dhaka. What should have been a mundane 20-minute-long fight made a dramatic and lasting impression on me. We were just about halfway through when the captain’s booming voice came in from the cockpit. “Ladies and gentlemen as your captain it is my unfortunate duty to give you a very bad news” he said, and then chose to go for a dramatic pause which seemed to last for ages.
The tension inside the plane became thick with tension and several passengers started to recite holy verses.  The pilot then stated, “Our dear Muhammad Ali has lost his fight with Larry Holmes.” The tension and anxiety were replaced by a palpable sense of grief. Even though I had little idea at that time about the nuances of boxing I had some idea about how big Muhammad Ali was and I too became sad.

Just a couple of years back he visited Bangladesh.   My father was posted in Chittagong at the time. The port city was in Ali’s itinerary. I consider myself greatly fortunate that I had the opportunity of a close-up view of The Greatest. I distinctly remembered how awestruck I was by his immense size. However more than that I wondered why everyone cal him black or Negro– the n-word was not a taboo at the time.   

He looked quite fair-complexioned to me as did his then-wife Veronica Porsche who also visited Bangladesh with him.  Much later I learned that one of Ali’s ancestors was a white Irish.

I don’t think any celebrity’s (Ali and footballer Pele were perhaps the first global celebrity sports icons) visit to Bangladesh was greeted with the anything close to the same degree of enthusiasm as that of Muhammad Ali. Yeah Lionel Mesi, Imran Khan or Sharukh Khan doesn’t even come close. The papers were full of different accounts of the life and time of the maestro of pugilism. The lone television channel BTV gave huge coverage to the visit. The government donated him a sizeable chunk of land–I wonder what actually happened to the land. Sabina Yasmin sang a number devoted to Ali which was on everybody’s lips. For his part Ali was charm personified. The showman in him came to the fore when he pretended to be knocked out by a kid with whom he sparred. The aura of the man was unbelievable.

During much of Ali’s career the local papers covered his fights quite extensively often giving ring-by-ring accounts. It was the same throughout the world. In countries without any tradition or interest about boxing Muhammad Ali was a household name. He was easily the most recognisable face on planet earth and I believe he still is.   

Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest” as long ago as February 1964. And even today his place atop the pantheon of sporting heroes still secure. However his greatness as we know was hardly confined to the ring. He took a stance against the Vietnam War and refused to get drafted at a time whole America was very much pro-war. Yet he had the guts and gumption to say "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-cal Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger." " He abhorred the term Negro much before it became fashionable to do so.

When Ali refused to sign the oath of allegiance to join the US Army, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in jail - a sentence later quashed on appeal.  After three years of growing unrest in the US about the Vietnam war, Ali returned to the ring

All over the world Ali remains revered like no other sportsperson. He actually became greater than boxing itself. "I shook up the world!" he yelled after beating Liston in 1964. It was both accurate and prophetic. Lots of sporting legends have films made of their lives. Ali was so big that even the story of a fighter he beat, Chuck Wepner, could inspire an Oscar-winning movie and five sequels.

When Cannon said Ali was "part of the Beatle movement" he meant it as a disparaging comment. Unwittingly he had revealed another truth. There could never be another to touch Ali, partly because the circumstances that allowed him to flourish - an explosion of popular culture, television taking its heroes into every home, the rise of post-colonial black power - can never again be repeated.

Ali's greatest moment as a boxer came in October 1974 when he defeated George Foreman in Zaire in the so-cal "Rumble in the Jungle". The eighth-round knockout regained the championship he had first won a decade earlier.  He was 32, and only the second man ever to win back the title. Ali was at the height of his powers: a heavyweight with a destructive punch and the speed of a welterweight.  In Manila, Ali met Frazier, who by now confessed to hating the champion, for the third time. It was their hardest fight - and perhaps the best of all time - with Smokin' Joe's corner conceding victory after 14 brutal rounds.

His achievements have far outstripped that. A dignified, dazzling man, he touched the world unlike any sportsman before or since. In Britain, BBC television viewers voted him Sportsman of the Century, and he received a similar award from US magazine Sports Illustrated.

"I'm the king of the world!" Ali had declared in that same victory speech in 1964. "I can't be beat! “ More than fifty two years on and even after his death, that remains true.

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent