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Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee


Today, thousands will gather in Louisville, Kentucky, to pay tribute to a man once dubbed the ‘Louisville Lip’. The reaction to his death around the world bears testimony to the impact Ali had, not only in the ring, but in other areas of life. Sky Sports referred to his career in and out of the ring as part of sporting folklore, but his life did indeed transcend the ring. Sporting heroes, movie stars and world leaders paid their tributes. He was Pele’s idol. Serena Williams pointed to him as her hero, as “someone who stood up for what he believed in.” President Castro highlighted his chivalry and ethics and his rejection of war and defence of peace. {{more}}David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, considered him as a most celebrated sportsman and role model. To King Abdullah II of Jordan he was “a great unifying champion whose punches transcended borders and nations.” He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush in 2005. After all, he had gotten Saddam Hussein to release 15 Americans held there. His impact was far reaching, leading the United Nations to make him a Messenger of Peace for his work in developing nations.

To me Ali was poet, dramatist, civil rights activist, advocate for world peace and boxer extraordinaire. He was poetry in motion – his grace and moves in the ring; his lightening speed and fancy foot-work that manifested itself as the ‘Ali Shuffle’ and, of course, the words that floated out of his mouth. When contacted by a reporter about his refusal to go to Vietnam, Ali responded, “Keep asking me, no matter how long, On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”.

Ali, as conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, lost over three fighting years at a time when he was getting to the pinnacle of his career. His position had broad appeal outside the US. He once got a call from Bertrand Russell without knowing who he was. He wondered why anyone was concerned about his stand on Vietnam, for he was just an athlete. Russell argued that the war was more barbaric than others. “I suppose the world has more than an incidental curiosity about what the World Champion thinks. Usually, he goes with the tide. You surprised them.” Ali spoke to him about his upcoming fight in England against Henry Cooper. Russell admitted that Cooper was capable, ‘but I will pick you.’ Ali’s stock answer on occasions like those followed, “You are not as dumb as you look.” When Ali found out later that Bertrand Russell was one of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of the 20th century, he sent him a letter of apology. Russell assured him that he had enjoyed the joke. They apparently continued to exchange cards and letters.

Despite the impact he had outside the ring, he was foremost a boxer. Some things stand out for me. His defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 to win the World Title was phenomenal. No one gave him a chance. Liston was a ferocious fighter who demolished anyone who came up against him, as seen with his treatment of Floyd Patterson. Ali was clearly the underdog and given little chance, but he forced him to throw in his towel in the sixth round and knocked him out in the first round of his return fight, with what was described as a ‘phantom punch’.

Ali, who had become a Muslim, had his name changed from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. This immediately created a love-hate relationship with the American public. He was booed and scorned on occasions. Some refused to call him by his Muslim name, among them Ernie Terrell, whom he fought in 1967. With every jab Ali threw, he kept telling him to call his name. ” What’s my name,” he yelled, as he devastated him with jabs and punches.

His ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in Zaire was among his great fights. Foreman was a fierce puncher who could floor anyone with his thunderous punches. Ali mystified on-lookers and even his trainer, as he spent an inordinate amount of time on the ropes, covering his face and allowing Foreman to blast him with body shots. Foreman later said that he had hit him with everything he had, but Ali kept saying, “was that all you got, George?” Foreman began to tire and Ali had his say with an 8th round knockout. His strategy, we later found out, was to get his opponent tired and then work on him, a strategy referred to as ‘rope a dope’. In an interview later, Ali smiled, saying “that’s the worst place to get tired.” Then, there were the three gruelling fights with Joe Frazier; one in 1975, referred to as ‘thriller in Manila,’ was a slugging match beyond any, as both fighters went after each other, with Ali being victorious.

Ali’s anti-war message became popular and his appeal spread, particularly on college campuses. His involvement in the civil rights struggle and for world peace stands out. Those who had been critical of his conversion to Islam began to respect and to understand what he stood for. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and with trembling hands, he lit the Olympic flame at Atlanta in 1996. Many were moved to tears as the love and compassion he generated from around the world bore testimony to the impact he had on people everywhere.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.