Ali, ‘The Greatest’, dies at 74
DIMAPUR, JUNE 4: Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued three-time world heavyweight champion and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the boast, has died.
On Friday night, the towering social and political icon who later became one of the most loved and recognized sportsmen in history breathed his last in a hospital at Phoenix, Arizona after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.
Ali was admitted to hospital on Thursday with a respiratory problem – a move that was described at the time as “a precaution”. However, reports emerged 24 hours later which said he had been placed on a life support machine and his family “feared the worst”.
Ali forged his reputation as the supreme practitioner of the most brutal of sports by starring in some of the greatest fights in boxing history. His CV of classic fights include beating the fearsome Sonny Liston to become champion; the Fight of the Century and the Thrilla in Manilla against Joe Frazier, and the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 when, at the age of 32, he surprised everyone by cutting down George Foreman in Kinshasa to regain back his title.
Paying tribute after his death, Foreman wrote: “Ali, Fraser and Foreman we were one guy. A part of me slipped away. Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest human beings I have ever met. No doubt he was one of the best people to have lived in this day and age.”
Ali’s influence outside the ring was equally remarkable. He was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles.
When he refused to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam war, Ali delivered to us one of the most resonant social messages of our age: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be me.”
With respect to the other great sporting figures of the last hundred years, Pele, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Jack Nicklaus, Sachin Tendulkar, Tiger Woods and the rest are not in Ali’s league of historical importance.
As with his pronouncements about personal freedom (‘I’m free to be’), his reasoning on the war in Vietnam strikes modern audiences with a timeless clarity. ‘Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,’ he said, thus casting America’s war as a needless enterprise.
“My conscience won’t let me go and shoot them,” Ali said in that rat-a-tat-tat stream of consciousness style of his. “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. How can I shoot those poor people?” he added. “Just take me to jail.”
Ali was a rebel with a cause – lots of them. In the middle of press conferences, reporters would earnestly ask him about solving the Palestine problem, or if he could have a quiet word with Moscow about President Ronald Reagan’s star wars programme.
As soon as Ali floored Sony Liston to lift the world heavyweight championship in 1964, he renounced Cassius Clay as his “slave name” and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. He was 22 years old.
From a boxing ring in Manila to villages in Zaire to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, he had a radiant presence that seemed more in keeping with that of an international religious leader than a retired athlete. More than almost any other figure of his age, Ali was recognized and honoured as a citizen of the world.
“Look at all those lights on all those houses,” Ali said in an interview in 1983, while flying into Washington’s National Airport. “Do you know I could walk up to any one of these houses, and knock on the door, and they would know me? It’s a funny feeling to look down on the world and know that every person knows me.”