Muhammad Ali: King of the world
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Muhammad Ali, who died last week at the age of 74, eloquently expressed the way he had redefined boxing, becoming the world’s first global sporting icon. A heavyweight champion was not meant to dance around the ring like a ballerina. His feet and hands were lightning-quick. He put his hands down, leaned back, and bobbed and weaved with his head. The “Ali Shuffle” and “rope-a-dope” revolutionised the sport. The world had never seen such an unorthodox boxer who made brutal violence seem so graceful, and gave pugilists a respectability that such primordial bestiality could not otherwise have earned. Handsome, charismatic, and telegenic, even before the era of globalisation, Ali used an incredible wit, skilful self-promotion, boastful showmanship, and unbridled talent to put himself on the world map. Brash, arrogant, and loud, he repeatedly told all who cared to listen “I am the Greatest!”
In the heady 1960s, Ali was to boxing what Pele was to football and what the Beatles were to music. He was immortalised in Madame Tussauds, and appeared on the cover of Time, Life, and Ringside. There was the famous meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1990: one a former anti-apartheid hero who was also a keen boxer, the other the most legendary former heavyweight boxer and former civil rights campaigner. As Mandela noted: “Muhammad Ali was not just my hero, but the hero of millions of young, black South Africans…He was an inspiration to me, even in prison, because I thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport.”
Ali was born Cassis Clay in January 1942 to a father, Cassius Sr., who was a painter and church muralist, and a mother Odessa, who was a home-maker and domestic worker. The struggling family had some white ancestry. They attended a Baptist church in a segregated American South still sweltering with racism. It was Ali’s father who first inculcated radical ideas of black pride in his son from the teachings of flamboyant Jamaican activist, Marcus Garvey. Ali later noted that the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 – allegedly for whistling at a white woman – forged his political awakening. After his new bicycle was stolen, the 12-year old told a white police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to “whip” the thief. Martin invited Ali to join his boxing gym to learn how to fight. The sport introduced stability and discipline and gave Ali an ambition and drive that was missing in his schoolwork. A black trainer, Fred Stoner, was another early mentor.
Ali learned fast and, combined with his natural gifts, earned two Golden Gloves titles. Famously petrified of flying, the 18-year old travelled to the Olympic games in Rome in 1960, and won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. However, on returning home to Louisville, Ali was called the “Olympic nigger” and denied entry into some restaurants. A group of local white millionaires, nevertheless, recognised his potential, and gave him a contract, guided by Miami-based trainer Angelo Dundee who remained in his corner throughout his career.
At 22, Ali established his legend by defeating the ferocious Sonny Liston in 1964 to become heavyweight champion of the world. The intimidating Liston had the largest fists of any heavyweight champion, and had used savage jabs to defeat the reigning world champion, Floyd Patterson, in one round in 1962. Ali called Liston a “big ugly bear” and predicted he would knock him out in the seventh round. Many journalists had thus lined up to watch the “Lip of Louisville” being silenced. Ali fulfilled his prediction, famously jumping around the ring triumphantly screaming “Eat your words! I shook up the world! I’m King of the world.”
Muhammad had, from the start always had a global outlook, looking to the world beyond America which often assumed that it was the world and that what was good for Coca-Cola was also good for the world. Ali’s early exposure to the global showpiece of the Olympics made him realise that he could appeal not just to his colossal country, but to the entire globe. A year after his victory against Liston, Ali repeated the feat, defeating Liston in the first round with what mythically came to be called the “phantom punch”. Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr, congratulated Ali. President Lyndon Johnson, however, ignored this achievement, and it was not until the presidency of Gerald Ford that Ali was invited to the White House in 1974.
The new heavyweight champion of the world embodied “black power” in an era of the civil rights struggle, the Black Panthers, and post-independence Africa. In an America that even then suffered from Islamaphobia, Ali showed remarkable courage in changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali in 1964 and adopting Islam as his religion in a show of unrepentant self-assertion. He joined the radical, separatist Nation of Islam. Ali’s relationship with his former mentor, Malcolm X, soon deteriorated after the latter left the group, and was assassinated in 1965. Ali later regretted this betrayal and would himself break from the Nation of Islam, embracing orthodox Islam in 1975. But despite his strong faith, Ali’s serial marital infidelities exposed a contradictory side. He was married four times and fathered nine children.
At the prime of his career in 1967, Ali was barred from boxing for three and a half years for refusing to be conscripted to fight America’s imperialist war in Vietnam. As he famously noted: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…no Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger’”. Ali was denied the status of conscientious objector for standing up for his principles until the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned the decision in 1971. By then, however, he had lost millions of dollars and some of the best years of his professional career. Only at 29 did the years of wilderness end, and Ali’s “second coming” into the ring begin.
In his absence, a new crop of heavyweights had appeared on the scene. He fought a trilogy of memorable battles with “Smoking” Joe Frazier, the reigning heavyweight champion whom Ali offensively referred to as a dumb, ugly “gorilla”. This triggered a life-long animosity between the two men. The first epic bout in 1971 – “The Fight of the Century” – saw a rusty Ali lose for the first time in his professional career on points after 15 bruising rounds. Ali defeated Frazier in the second fight three years later in a 12-round decision. The third fight – “The Thrilla in Manila” – in 1975 is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most brutal slugfests in history. Frazier failed to come out of his corner in the fourteenth round after his eyes had been badly cut. Ali would collapse shortly after in triumph, later describing the fight as a “Near Death” experience.
The “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – is undoubtedly the most famous boxing match in history. It netted each fighter an incredible $5 million purse. This was a David vs. Goliath battle of Biblical proportions. A contest between brains and brawn, between raw strength and unnerving courage. An irresistible force was finally encountering an immutable object. The undefeated Foreman had destroyed Frazier in two lop-sided fights to claim the heavyweight title, and was even larger than the fearsome Sonny Liston.
I remember staying up until 4.00 in the morning to watch “the miracle after midnight” on a black-and-white television in Lagos. As a dancing 32-year old Ali and a snarling 24-year old Foreman stepped into the ring, the 60,000-strong Congolese crowd screamed “Ali, bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”) The aging challenger employed his “rope-a-dope” tactic: covering his face, dancing around gracefully, and leaning on the ropes. He taunted Foreman to throw more punches, saying “Is that all you got, George?” Ali took some ferocious punishment, allowing Foreman to punch himself to exhaustion, before knocking him out in the eighth round. As Ali later noted: “The bull is stronger, but the matador’s smarter.” The 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings” vividly captured the extravagant occasion, while Pulitzer prize-winning American author, Norman Mailer, also saw the fight live and recorded it in his 1975 book The Fight.
Ali continued to defeat the cream of heavyweights: Jimmy Young, Ken Norton, and Earnie Shavers. In 1978, however, he lost and regained his title against Leon Spinks at the age of 36: the only heavyweight fighter to have won the title three times. Ali unwisely refused to retire, losing a painful bout to reigning heavyweight champion and former sparring partner, Larry Holmes, in ten one-sided rounds in 1980. He would finally retire after losing his last fight to Trevor Berbick a year later. By this time, Ali’s speech had already began to slur, and many believe that the punishment he suffered in the ring contributed to the Parkinson’s disease that was diagnosed in 1984. He bravely lived with the illness for the last 32 years of his life. One of the most poignant sporting moments of all time was surely the image of a trembling Ali lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta.
Despite his illness, Ali tried to live a devout Muslim life. As he noted: “I’m not afraid of dying. I have faith; I do everything I can to live my life right; and I believe that dying will bring me closer to God.” He promoted peace and reconciliation throughout the world, embarking on goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, taking medical supplies to Cuba, and travelling to Iraq to free 15 American hostages. He raised millions of dollars to fight Parkinson’s disease, and visited sick and disabled children. Ali’s last wife Lonnie, whom he married in 1986, became his devoted pillar of strength.
In 2005, the Muhammad Ali Centre was founded in his hometown in Louisville as a monument to his incredible sporting legacy. His life was captured in a feature film, Ali, starring Will Smith in 2001. Countless documentaries have been made. Ali’s universal appeal was underlined by the fact that it was the war-mongering US president, George W. Bush, who awarded him the Medal of Freedom (the country’s highest civilian honour) in 2005.
In a 21-year career, Ali had fought every heavyweight contender in a golden generation that produced a bountiful harvest of talent. He won 56 fights and lost only five, including two when he was clearly past his peak. Barack Obama, the first black president of the US, keeps a pair of the boxer’s gloves near the Oval Office under the iconic photograph of Ali towering over Sonny Liston. Obama noted after Ali’s death: “He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.” The “King of the World” has now mounted his throne for the last time, and ridden off into the sunset in a blaze of glory.
Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg, both in South Africa.