A tribute to arguably the most influential sports personality of all time.
Over the past two decades, Muhammad Ali would make the occasional appearance at events that would air on Indian television, often for a felicitation or a lifetime achievement award of some sort. He’d seem fragile and a little loopy on stage, also always gracious and endearing. The people around him would just take a couple of steps back, maintaining a safe, unpunchable distance. Just in case. He’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, and, while the condition may have affected his body, he remained very much a badass till the end. Ali died, aged 74, on 3 June this year.
In the ring fighting Leon Spinks. Photo courtesy: mirror.co.uk/Dirk Halstead
I’m too young to have ever seen him during his time, but I was exposed to the legend of Muhammad Ali in my pre-teens and teens, through apocryphal stories relayed with great whiskey-laced fervour by older relatives, backed up (for the most part) through grainy footage on ESPN (when it still existed here) and Star Sports. Each package that would air had this manipulative Hans Zimmer-esque music track and an overexcited voiceover eulogising Ali. The script always portrayed him as a great superhuman fellow whose impact hadn’t been replicated for decades since. At the age of 12 or 13, I believed it unanimously. Strangely, it turned out to be true.
Ali began training at the age of 12. Photo courtesy: indianexpress.com
The story of Ali, for what it’s worth, didn’t suddenly spark an interest in boxing for me. I know who Mary Kom, Dingko Singh, and Vijender Singh are — same with, say, Evander Holyfield or Manny Pacquiao — but I care very little about boxing as a sport. Instead, the story of Ali stoked my interest in Ali himself, a testament, maybe, to my lack of interest in the sport, but also to the force of nature Ali was and will remain. It’s how I discovered his transformational essence.
In society, sport functions as like this comfortable escape route — a temporary departure from reality where fans can channel all their everyday hopes and disappointments on to the game being played in front of them. They can live vicariously through glorious victory and even more glorious failure. Our icons seem to exist in a different universe, function on a rulebook entirely of their own making, on a wavelength we can never fully grasp.
President Reagan ‘punching’ Ali in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy: Ronald Reagan library
Ali was all of those things, of course. But, in a way, he was so very different. He wasn’t merely an enjoyable aside or a delightful weekend getaway. Ali was real life, with all its problems and concerns, staring the world right in the face, and taunting it at each step. Beyond his pugilism skills, which were by all accounts unparalleled, he was a force of nature who tackled civil rights and political issues, using his considerable influence to effect change, fighting against oppression of the black population of America and Islam. He was a social and political activist as much as he was a boxer.
His great legacy as a boxer is naturally important, but — and this might be up for some debate — I feel a big reason why his loss is being felt so strongly across the world is because of all he did outside of the sport. He was a personality, a beast who inspired generations of people for his words and actions, for his beliefs and points of view. In that context, he was transcendental.
Muhammad Ali, a man who fought for what was right. Photo courtesy: Dutch National Archives
See, in sport, we’re always looking for this thing called “narrative”: a storyline to humanise the sportspersons on the field and make them easier to relate to. We’re looking for flaws and imperfections, and we’re looking for legends and fairytales. And, at the same time, we’re looking for impeccable technique and skill, and talent that can take our breath away. One without the other isn’t ideal; no personality and you can only admire from a distance (have Sachin Tendulkar or Lionel Messi ever said anything remotely interesting, about taxes or otherwise?). Too much personality and you remain a pantomime villain to laugh at from time to time (how Mike Tyson is better known for his face art and his teeth [among other things] than his boxing; how John McEnroe’s foul-mouthed antics are recounted before his status as the top-ranked player in tennis for a while).
He changed his name from Cassius Clay, Jr. to Muhammad Ali. Photo courtesy: superbhdpics.com
Ali was that perfect blend of these two sometimes-contrasting forces: Skill and personality. Too often, he was outspoken, arrogant, cocky, and insufferable. His views on many things remain questionable. But each platitude escaping his mouth at a presscon was backed up by actions in the real world. He changed his name from Cassius Clay, Jr. to Muhammad Ali and became a member of the Nation of Islam, openly goading White America and sticking two fingers up at the establishment, despite being such a visible public figure in a contentious period (I’m refraining from getting into the radical views held by the Nation of Islam since my reading on the matter is limited, but you can’t deny their impact). He put his forthright views on the discrimination against black Americans, exposing people to the harsh realities of America in the ’60s. He refused to serve in the army for the Vietnam War in 1962 despite being called up, choosing to identify himself as a “conscientious objector”, a punishable felony, losing all the titles he had won and being found guilty. Yet he fought on, and eventually the conviction was overturned.
And inside the ring, he was busy beating the shit out of opponents — “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” — indulging in memorable showdowns with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. He was taunting them with trash talk, baiting them, drifting across the ring, seeking the right moment to launch an attack.
A champion outside and inside the ring. Photo courtesy: newstalk.com
Elevating sportspersons to the status of role models is a tricky thing; just because they’re good at punching another person or kicking a ball hard doesn’t automatically make them well-rounded individuals to look up to and imitate. Ali himself was a controversial figure who craved the limelight, courting controversy with his caustic views on several things, including what women can or cannot do, and not everything he said was a timeless pearl of wisdom. And I don’t for a second believe that the onus of effecting widespread socio-political change lies on a boxer or a cricketer; their job is to play the sport and do it well and not much more. It’s entirely on the individual to decide who to hero-worship, if at all.
That said, it’s all the more admirable that a person like Muhammad Ali chose to take it upon himself to actively contribute to the struggle to liberate the black people of America in a fraught political climate. That he somehow managed to encourage and stir so many people, using the power society had afforded him, channeling that influence for what was, in his opinion, the greater good. There’s a reason he’s so often cited as one of the most influential sports personalities of all time. You have great women and men who inspire impressionable kids to pick up a bat or a racquet or a pair of gloves. And then you have people who inspire kids to fight the power. Ali was both.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Akhil Sood
Cover photo credit: http://pix-hd.com