Obituary – Muhammad Ali: the Greatest

Muhammad Ali, the greatest heavy-weight boxer ever, and one of the greatest sportsmen, died on Saturday 4 June 2016 in a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 74. Possessed of a charming, if at times explosive personality, he will always be known as ‘The Greatest’, whose life transcended beyond sport.

His most memorable fights, i.e., the ‘Rumble in the jungle’ in 1974 when he beat George Foreman and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, in which he beat Joe Frazier in 1975, are etched in the memory of scores of millions of people across the globe.

His opposition to the Vietnam War, and his refusal to be conscripted to fight in it, showed him to be a man of boundless moral as well as physical courage, and possessed of a great spirit of self-sacrifice and love for humanity.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior, on 17 January 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali in protest against the dreadful treatment of black people in racist US society.

Through a combination of sporting ability and magnetic personality, he changed the very definition of a sporting icon. George Foreman, his long-time rival, said that to describe him merely as a boxer would be an insult. ‘The greatest boxer’? Give that to some boxer, he said, adding: ” Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met in my life“.

On top of his charisma and charm, he was famous for his short rhymes such as ” Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; his hands can’t hit where his eyes can’t see”.

He won 56 of his 61 bouts, quite apart from winning gold at the Olympics.

Even David Cameron tweeted: ” Muhammad Ali was not just a champion in the ring – he was a champion of civil rights, and a role model for so many people”.

At the 1960 Olympics, as a light heavy-weight, he took to Louisville a glittering gold medal and then turned professional. Four years later he became World Champion. He took the heavyweight crown by slaying a monster called Sonny Liston. Having converted to Islam in 1965, he, citing his religion, defied the draft and refused to serve in the army saying: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger”, thus infuriating the American ruling class and large numbers of middle and no-so-middle America.

He was stripped of his title and banned from defending his title and earning his living – and that too at the peak of his career.

He kept to his Vietnam stance. “The system was wrong. It said that rich man’s son went to college while the poor man’s son went to war”, he observed with bitter sarcasm.

His reputation was well and truly established after his return to the ring in 1970. He did not win every fight – Joe Frazier and Ken Norton both beat him.

In the end, even the US ruling class, which had persecuted and demonised him at the height of his career and made every attempt to wreck it, could not repress him. He was chosen to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996.

He was supremely confident, even cocky and arrogant – a tactic he employed to overcome the disadvantages of his birth in the racist south of the US and to get the proper attention that he rightly believed was his due. Some of his statements were positively racist and can only be explained by his desire to counter the racist culture which routinely portrayed black people as ugly, stupid and lazy.

On being asked about his lack of humility, without a moment’s pause he shot back: “It is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am”.

But his boxing had taken its toll, with the injuries he received over the years resulting in his contracting Parkinson’s disease. Trembling hands and blurring voice forced his surrender to a pitiless disease. All the same, he bore his suffering with dignity and fortitude.

Mohammad Ali is no more, but the legend of Ali will survive and continue to inspire people all around the world, not only in the arena of sport, but also people fighting against repression, discrimination and imperialist predatory wars.