Like elsewhere on the globe, Muhammad Ali’s passing left fans grieving in Pakistan, too. But it also rekindles memories that are unique for a reason: he remains probably the most famous convert to the Muslim faith in modern history, and was deeply admired beyond the sport, which really has no base in Pakistan to speak of.
Ali came to be lionized across the world for taking a high moral ground in refusing the Vietnam draft and going to the extent of giving up his World Heavyweight Champion title for his beliefs.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister, even offered him to come live in the South Asian country when he was being ostracised in the US. Eventually, Ali came for a visit in 1988 and was predictably, jubilantly mobbed.
One would like to also make an own recollection in trying to figure out what the most famous athlete of the last century meant to the world.
Watching I Am Ali — the 2014 documentary that provides rare access to audio journals spanning hundreds of hours that he had maintained over the years — was insightful. Whilst going through the paces and looking at his frail form in the face of Parkinson’s fist, the fear when we would hear the last of him — he had been hospitalised for mostly pneumonia and urinary tract infection a few times — was all too real.
I have blurred black-and-white images imprinted on my mind of the patchy live feed on the state broadcaster (Pakistan Television), bringing the glory of Ali at often ungodly hours. Even though he always seemed and remains larger than life, one didn’t always reconcile with his bombast about being ‘The Greatest’ but paradoxically, that’s the sweeping legacy he leaves behind. He was lightning quick on his toes as we all know, but in later years, he did debunk the ‘myth’ of any human being the ‘greatest’, saying it was the sole reserve of God.
For me, what first made him a hero was learning through a chapter in the English curriculum whilst doing my 10+2 in New Delhi, India, about him throwing away his coveted Olympic medal in the Ohio River. Ali (then Cassius Clay) was only 18 and wore the distinction with pride all the time! He felt deeply hurt and outraged after being refused service at a small dinner party in the US just because of his race.
Ali’s iconic life from thereon — particularly, a stinging rejoinder to the Vietnam draft on a principle so profound it brings tears to one’s eyes — will remain etched in memory.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?,” retorted Ali.
Considering that boxing was his bread and butter, he took a massive risk in taking the fight away from the ring for people of his race, who desperately needed a voice.
Forsaking self — and three prime years of his career — until the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction ensured the people’s hero found a halo that has, for its import, a certain Nelson Mandela streak to it.
In the documentary I Am Ali, there is audio of an inspiring phone conversation between Muhammad Ali and his young daughter Maryum. The flashback gives rare insight to Ali’s life away from the ring.
“So everything God made; the cows, horses, the moon, stars, ants, everything has a purpose,” Ali tells little Maryum. “Now what’s your purpose? You’re a human being. If God made the sun have a purpose, humans have a purpose, too. You haven’t found your life purpose yet, have you?”
“Yes,” she replies.
“If everybody was born for a purpose, what do you think you were born for?”
“To make people feel better,” Maryum answers. “To fix people up.”
“That’s good,” Ali says proudly.
That’s what Ali did ever since the reawakening.
Maryum has been a social worker. His other children proudly carry on that legacy, too.
This, more effusive side of the ‘conceited’ boxer — that of a loving father — was visibly drawn by his photographer Michael Gaffney in one interview. With a lump in his throat, he recalled asking The Champ if he could take a picture of him with Laila — then only two-and-a-half weeks old — and was given a go-ahead thus: Ali knelt down, holding the tiny baby in his big brawny hands as if he had eyes only for her and the world stood still.
There’s one amazing dichotomy governing Ali’s legacy. We’ve always been taught that sport is bigger than the player — that no player, however great, can rise above the game itself. Ali perhaps, was an exception.
It is difficult to recall a single other instance where such a large assembly of connoisseurs agrees that his aura then, and legacy now, transcends the sport itself! Probably, it has to do with his powerful persona and prowess outside the ring (when wrongs in the American social fabric were riding roughed over rights) more than inside it (where throwing punches was di rigueur).
Finally, a confession: a paradox as it might seem, I’ve always had a bone to pick with boxing and never considered it a sport. It is difficult to accept that something, by design or default, may bring down a competitor with sometimes fatal consequences. Physical hammering any which way is not equal to sport in my book. History is littered with boxers dying of body blows or becoming the walking wounded.
But still, one related to and loved Ali like no-one’s business; caught on to his peppy ode Float Like a Butterfly/Sting Like a Bee as a child; was awed by his conviction of beliefs with humanity at its base and spiritual configuration of life in later years.
In his prime, he had the gift of gab, the sense of occasion and unbridled chutzpah that gelled well with his handsome self. Ali’s demise will remain one of the saddest days for his legion of admirers. But of course, it’s not for his prowess in the ring that he always endeared himself to us, although to start and end with, that’s why we’re even talking about him here!
The 32-year fight with Parkinson’s could not make light of his heavyweight legacy. But it’s a relief that he’s past it — as his now retired champion boxer daughter Laila suggested: “I have been sad for a long time, just watching my father struggling with Parkinson’s disease. (But) I have comfort knowing that he’s not suffering anymore.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer may have been slightly overwhelmed when he called Ali a “supernatural figure” — but the rest of the tribute was on message — “who crossed all kinds of boundaries, from athletics to art, to humanitarian activities, from black to white, from Christianity to Islam, and he belongs to the world.”
R.I.P., Ali. In life, you were sometimes knocked down, but not knocked out — the spirit never wavered whoever you faced: be it opponents in the ring or opponents out of the ring, discriminatory judges or debilitating disease. May you now find peace that you always deserved.