Fifth death anniversary of Ali–The humble and greatest boxer in history

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Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

It was today, exactly five years ago, on 3rd of June 2016, that the butterfly flew away forever and the bee could sting no more. Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete of the 20th century, moved away from our lives into history.

Some people still wonder why does he deserve to be called The Greatest?

The answer is not difficult to find. He was unconquerable – not only inside the boxing ring but outside it too. After he had become the world heavyweight champion and proved his bravery in front of the entire human race, he was called upon by the Government of the USA to be drafted into the army for service in war torn Vietnam. 

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He refused point blank. He said: “War against the innocent is against teachings of my religion. I will not fight in an unjustified war. I have nothing against the people of Vietnam.”

He was put under arrest and his championship title was taken away from him. But he did not bow down. He fought against the world’s most powerful government in court and knocked it out after a five-year long legal  battle. He then climbed back into the ring, started once again and reclaimed the world boxing crown which they had unfairly taken away from him. He did it not once but twice.

In this April 28, 1967 file photo, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is escorted from the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston by Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commandant of the station, after Ali refused Army induction. Ali says he was a conscientious objector who would not serve in the Army of a country that treated members of his race as second-class citizens.  Photo: Associated Press

That is why he was called The Greatest and he fully deserved to be known by that title. He was a champion who had physical courage and also moral courage. 

His gift for making up instant rhymes made him popular throughout the world. The lines that he made up on the spot at meetings and press conferences stayed in the minds of many people. It was a gift that no other sports champion had, especially not boxers. His most famous lines describing himself were:

Float like a Butterfly,

Sting like a Bee,

That’s who he is,

That’s Muhammad Ali.

There is another aspect of his life that not many people know about. He was good at doing magic tricks and could regale audiences with his tricks. He had very quick and flexible hands and could do tricks with cards and other objects. 

Born as Cassius Clay in 1942 to a working class family he rose to dizzying heights. His father was a signboard painter and his mother a domestic helper. At the age of 12, his life took a momentous turn. A thief stole his bicycle and so he began to learn boxing hoping that someday, he would meet that thief and beat him up.

From that fateful day, his God given talent began to unfurl itself. He went from strength to strength and won the Olympic Gold Medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Later he turned professional and his great day came on 25th of Feb, 1964 when he defeated the reigning world champion Sonny Liston.

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. The bout lasted only one minute into the first round. Ali is the only man ever to win the world heavyweight boxing championship three times. He also won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome as a member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. In 1964 he dropped the name Cassius Clay and adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. (AP Photo/John Rooney)

His rivalry with Joe Frazier was the stuff of legends. Their first battle at the Madison Square Garden in 1971 was dubbed “The Fight of the Century”. It attracted the attention of celebrities and political leaders from all over the world. Hollywood stars like Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra were at the ringside. Actor Burt Lancaster served as a commentator. Nelson Mandela from his prison in South Africa, expressed his excitement about the contest.

But perhaps the years of forced layoff had taken a toll on Ali. He was floored by a tremendous left hook from Frazier in the last round. Ali got to his feet by the count of four but his jaw was broken. At the end, the judges gave a unanimous verdict in favour of Frazier.

Boxer Muhammad Ali (R) steps away from a punch thrown by boxer Joe Frazier during their heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden, New York, U.S., March 8, 1971. (Getty Images Photo)

Interestingly Ali’s wife Khalilah had a gut feeling that he would lose against Frazier. She wore a black dress as a sign of sorrow and went to watch the bout because she knew in her heart that he would lose.

Years later, she recalled her conversation with Ali before the bout. She told him: “Let me tell you something, you have not been training the way you are supposed to train. And you know what? It is time for you to lose. So I am going there to just sit and watch you lose.”

But three years later, Ali was back at the pinnacle of world boxing. He defeated the huge and menacing George Foreman in a bout which he had titled “The Rumble in the Jungle”. He had said that he would defeat the younger and stronger Foreman and he did. The Magic of Muhammad had worked again!! 

One of his daughters named Hana has written a lovely book about her life with her father. It reveals what Ali was like as a father, husband and friend. He was a loving father and a kind hearted friend who never let anyone down. He loved to talk and he could strike up a conversation with any stranger. He had no airs. Presidents and Prime Ministers of the world wanted to meet him and invited him to be their guest. But for Ali, a President and a common man were the same. He treated both with equal respect.

According to an article in Washington Post, Ali’s conversion to Islam in 1964, (when he went from being Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali), defined his career and legacy as a boxer with conviction. He went on to become an icon for American Muslims. But on one occasion he got into a heated argument with his wife. She told him: “You call yourself The Greatest. But you will never be greater than Allah.” 

She then told him to write down why he had changed his religion and after he had collected his thoughts and written that essay, he became a changed man. He became more humble and more focussed. By writing about his thoughts, he understood himself and his role in the society. 

When he was alive, Ali was the most written about, the most photographed and the most sought after athlete. Till today there is more information available about him on the internet than any other sportsman. 

There are few countries in the world where he did not travel and where he was not welcomed. Communist countries, capitalist countries, poor and rich, everyone knew him and adored him. That is a quality that only very few people have. One such rare person was Muhammad Ali, the all conquering champion.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.