The passing of Muhammad Ali was one of last years defining moments. The world would have been celebrating his 75th birthday today had we not lost him last June. His death and funeral proceedings united the world, commanding both a somber poignancy, as well as inviting sincere celebration of the life he had lived. World figures, from Barack Obama, to Michael Moore, all took a moment to pay tribute to the man. His former nemesis George Foreman talked about “a part of me slipping away” with Ali’s loss, while former boxing world champion Mike Tyson put it so well; “God came for his champion. So long great one”.
A Champion is Born
Born in Louisville Kentucky, Muhammad Ali graced the world with his presence on January the 17th 1942. Famously, it was the stealing of his bicycle at the age of 12 that led him to the boxing gym, in order to earn the trade so that he might “whup” whoever had stolen from him. Ali went on to win the Gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, eventually going on to win the Heavyweight World Championship, against the intimidating Sonny Liston, at the tender age of 22. On the back of his win, he publicly declared his conversion to the Nation of Islam, a seemingly fitting path taken by thousands of black men from his generation, in response to growing up amongst racism and segregation that characterized the U.S. throughout much of the 20th century.
A Life of Struggle
One of the endearing factors that immortalized Ali was his courage in the face of affliction. Truly, his life is a prime example of the reality that adversity brings with it the opportunity to rise to greatness, for those courageous enough to seize it. Among his most daunting challenges was brought about by his refusal to serve the draft and fight in Vietnam war.
Ali lost 4 of his prime boxing years fighting the U.S. government, a costly decision that might have ended his career altogether. The braveness of this decision is elevated when we consider that he could not have known at the time that he was on the right side of history and that people would look back at his principled position with admiration. He eventually defeated the court’s decision, winning at the Supreme Court and regaining his right to fight.
The elation of this victory was swiftly subdued by his defeat at the hands of his adversary Joe Frazier, in the first of 3 titanic battles between the two. The years away from boxing had taken their toll on Ali and his once phenomenal speed and dexterity were on the wane. Three years later and Ali would go on to perform his most distinguishing feat in the ring. Matched against the crusher of careers, George Foreman, most in the boxing world had written off Ali’s chances. The Rumble of the Jungle in 1974 secured Ali’s status in sporting history. He surprised everyone, including his own corner, by going to the ropes for 6 rounds, letting Foreman punch himself out, before emerging in the 8th round to knock a bewildered Foreman out, a true sight to behold. This moment certainly proved to be the pinicale of Ali’s career in the ring, with the sight of Foreman going down as Ali watched on, with a fist cocked and ready but not dispatched, etched in the memory of boxing’s collective consciousness.
The People’s Champion
All the while he remained a man of his people and the people. “I want to win my title and walk down the alleys, sit on the garbage can with the wine heads, walk down the streets with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes.” He worked tirelessly to uplift the afflicted condition of his people, engaging in community and charity work throughout his life.
He went beyond just exclaiming that Black was beautiful, he lived his life embodying this reality, exuded beauty as a fighter, a thinker, a Muslim and ultimately, as a man (and of course, a talker). “I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future”. Who can deny that he achieved this on a huge scale; how many of us, of all races and religions, drew inspiration from him throughout our lives.
After his retirement his engagement in his unique form of calling people to Islam intensified, using his status and charm to highlight the beauty and truth that he found within the religion. From the moment he converted to the Nation of Islam, and later to Orthodox Sunni Islam, he was loud and proud of his faith. He remains to be arguably the most famous Muslim of the 20th century.
In an age in which many are aggressively attempting to perpetuate the idea that one cannot be both an American and a Muslim, he was unabashedly both, marrying the two significant aspects of his identity with his characteristic confidence. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me”.
The transcendence of his appeal was starkly highlighted in the coverage of his passing and the tributes that were paid to him from people of all walks of life. As irreplaceable as his loss was to the world as a whole, Muslims breathed a little more easily during the week of his funeral as a rare break in the clouds came as a Muslim dominated the headlines for all the right reasons. It went beyond merely respect; the world expressed its love for this great Muslim man and celebrated his life with earnest.
And while we cannot all become Muhammad Alis, knowing that eminent talent and ability, handsomeness, charisma, sincerity, wit and integrity rarely align so perfectly, he certainly lifted many of us up through the light that shone from his being. His life showed us both the highs that can be reached when one’s spirit soars, transcending limiting labels, while his latter years, afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease, serve a stark reminder of just how fragile the human condition is. Even the brightest of lights will eventually dim, and even the greatest of us remain bound to the limits of the human condition. Happy Birthday, Muhammad; you may have left us, but we continue to be indebted to your indefatigable spirit.