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Muhammad Ali – The Greatest

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In his greatest poem entitled, “For the Fallen”, Robert Laurence Binyon writes:

“They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

Written in 1914 to memorialize soldiers who had fallen on the blood soaked battlefields of World War One, Binyon’s words echo across 100 years to find new life and new meanings in the life and death of Muhammad Ali, a man whose history tells a story not only of his extraordinary skills,{{more}} courage, and beauty as a boxer, but even more importantly, offers an astonishing biography of a man who transformed his status as the most riveting icon of a sport into the most powerful platform for racial and religious equality everywhere in the world.

The greatest Caribbean intellectual, CLR James, had instructed us that the significance of the game of cricket was rooted not only in what took place on the field of play, but even more importantly in what took place beyond the boundary of play. In the world of boxing, and indeed across all sports, Muhammad Ali was the living embodiment of that principle.

Ali did two things – each standing on its own immortalized Ali. First, he revolutionized the sport of boxing itself, by transforming a blood sport and all the ugliness and pain that come with men beating each other in ringed cages into a thing of beauty. Before Ali, no heavyweight boxer had displayed the rhythm, finesse, and footwork that would come to define a Muhammad Ali’s boxing match. His most famous line, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was no mere rhyme. It was instead the very philosophy by which he approached his craft and in doing so, he brought millions of new fans into boxing. And with a record of 56 victories and only five losses against boxers of the ilk of George Foreman, Joe Frasier, and Sonny Liston, he had certainly made a convincing case of being the greatest athlete of all time.

Second, Ali’s greatest victories, however, were to use the beauty he brought to the ring to expose and challenge the ugliness that lay beyond the ring. For, in an America deeply committed to the racial subjugation of African Americans and the waging an unprovoked and immoral war against Vietnam that would kill more than a million Vietnamese, Muhammad Ali stood in all of his lustre as the greatest prized fighter in the world and rejected American racism, rejected American militarism when it would have been easier to enrich himself by keeping silent and looking the other way.

He did not. And for that he was banned from boxing. For that he was sentenced to jail. And for that he became a hero to Black people everywhere. Not since Marcus Garvey did any Black man anywhere in the world carry such an appeal to Black people everywhere in the world. Indeed, it was the greatness of Ali that this appeal to the fundamental humanity of all people would resonate across all nations. And no athlete in no sport before or since has ever sounded that trumpet with the cadence, conviction, and consequence. And so, for Ali, who passed away on June 3, 2014, we borrow the lines of Binyon,

“At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We will remember him.”

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