Ali’s journey as a pro boxer ended with his last professional fight against Trevor Berbick back in 1981, which he lost. And his mortal journey in this world ended last week on Friday after fighting with Parkinson’s syndrome for more than three decades. While everything has already been profoundly said and written in the past week or so about his demise, his achievements in and out of the ring, the human side of him which became evident more so after the illness and all that made Ali, Ali. Even the Potus issued a grief-stricken statement last week with an image of himself sitting by a portrait of Ali in the White House on social media. So, in all fairness, any addition to what has already been said and written would seem repetitive.
Yet write I must. Not a typical obituary of sorts for the king of boxing but rather how I see Ali as a man and as a champion boxer. He was indeed the greatest of them all — his winging punches, cobra jabs, upper cuts, his quick yet easy butterfly-like movements in the ring made one marvel at his fighting abilities. And what also made Ali, Ali was the way he used to talk in his commanding voice, much better than everyone else in the world, and above all his prettiness which he was so proud of. This was the man who reinvented the boxing of his era and remains perhaps the best self-marketing sportsperson in the history of sports who would proclaim time and again that, “I’m the greatest”. He had a certitude in his abilities which was greater than any form of self-belief. This was the man who whupped Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and, when it came to that, even the United States government.
His highest accomplishment as a fighter would be remembered as the way he used his formidable and lethal left hand which dominated the world of boxing till the time he ruled it, and the way he would drop his gloves to his sides while fighting — the technique which is a nightmare for every boxing coach — and would expose his face to his opponent and then, when his opponent would throw punches at him, he would pull back his head just in time to miss them. That was his way of tiring his opponents. His style with his feet and fists whirling was peculiarly Ali-esque. There hasn’t been another Ali-like boxer and the chances are there would never be one. The way he used to throw a combination of punches in a lightning speed, spring a triple hook off of a jab and then explode into the uppercuts, he was a sight indeed in the ring. He would often predict before the fight, “I will knock him out in the fourth round,” which he actually did most of the time and at times in the fourth round itself.
He showed the world two sides of his personality, in two different phases of his life: the Ali that he was in the ring and the Ali that he became after hanging his gloves.
In 1960, fresh out of college, young Ali represented the United States in the light heavyweight category in Rome Olympics and went on to win the gold medal. In 1964, Ali converted to Islam and in the same year he was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, after knocking out Liston in the seventh round. In the following year, he would successfully defend his title on eight consecutive occasions and once by knocking out Liston again in the first round. Then came the US-Vietnam war, when Ali was arrested for refusing to be inducted in the US army. His boxing licence was suspended and the championship title was revoked. He lost his best fighting years due to the ban. In 1970, three years after the incident, his licence would be reinstated. And he would again give a shot to the title but he would fail against Joe Frazier. During his career, Ali won world heavyweight championship thrice. And then, in 1984, he would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, his health would begin to deteriorate drastically. An aura of silence would surface the great man — he would become more spiritual.
The legend and life of Muhammad Ali soon began to shrink — people began to lose interest in the black American who stood against racism, who refused to be dictated and continued to live on his own terms. And ironically, it was his left hand which helped him achieve his boxing greatness that would shake almost continuously. The luminous Ali who lived a life larger than any sports personality the world has known, would become dull but more human and humble. He would see those old fights and interviews and wouldn’t believe it was him.
Ali’s condition deteriorated further after the death of his mother in 1994. His hands would tremble constantly, the left one in particular. His head would shake and his face would get that mask, that covers one’s facial feature due to Parkinsonism. During 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ali would stand on the top of a stadium with the torch in his shaking left hand with which he would light the Olympic flame. And it was this footage that has constantly been shown on the televisions for the past week or so after his death, where he is shaking miserably while holding the torch.
Ali in a way is an example for all of us to submit to the greater power that governs us. Even “the greatest of them all” had to submit to the will of that power. The man who conquered the world, who could stun you with the might of his tongue as well as his moves in the ring, was inflicted with a devastating blow by life.
What is most admirable about Ali is that he stood for the cause of humanity — be it his stands for peace or his Muhammad Ali Centre which was established in his hometown, Louisville. Ali even travelled to Baghdad in 1990 during the Gulf war days to negotiate with Saddam Hussein, the release of American hostages. In 2002, he went as a United Nations’ messenger of peace to Afghanistan.
The world doesn’t admire Ali for his achievements in the ring alone or his career stats that speak volumes for his greatness — 56 wins, including 37 knockouts, five losses — but for the way he carried himself gracefully all through his illness with dignity, which again is a sign of his greatness. He showed the world two sides of his personality, in two different phases of his life: the Ali that he was in the ring and the Ali that he became after hanging his gloves. People around the world who admire Ali will always remember him not only for his extraordinary abilities as a boxer but for the man he was, his charm, his boastfulness that suited him, his humour, his wit and of course for the brave stands he took all through his life. He has left behind a legacy for the world, both as a man and a boxer.