For sports fans, Muhammad Ali was a genius in the ring – a fighter of incomparable grace who floored his rivals.
To the world he was a wit, a man of tremendous wisdom whose philosophy of self-determination was an inspiration.
And for African-Americans he represented a new black identity.
No longer cowed by bigotry but proud of their heritage. No longer Cassius Clay, but reborn as Muhammad Ali.
Boxing is one of the most essential of sports: two people fighting to the finish. It’s gladiatorial, sometimes cruel.
But it is complex and brilliant, too; requiring brains as well as brawn. As Gareth A Davies, our boxing correspondent, writes in our memorial supplement, Ali reinvented the heavyweight as a dancer. “He developed the shuffle, had sublime balance and, behind his changing masks, an unshakable self-belief.”
Sometimes he would allow himself to be cornered, as if on the verge of conceding, then find a sudden burst of energy and pummel his way back.
He was an original. He grew up in a time and place where white and black lived separately, and it was assumed that black people wouldn’t go too far. Ali’s ascendancy was impossible to restrain.
A convert to Islam, a conscientious objector during Vietnam – he defied the political correctness of his time. As the years went by, his poetic ego gained a universal appeal.
Barack Obama recalls Ali visiting a hospital and picking up a boy with no legs. “Don’t give up,” said the boxer. “They’re sending men into space. You will walk someday and do this,” and he proceeded to do his famous shuffle.
When Ali developed Parkinson’s disease, his suffering, in his own estimation, only brought him closer to people. A strong man became a fragile man, and yet his spirit remained like iron.
His final victory was to hold on to his humanity through everything. The world has lost one of the giants of its age.
Factbox – Eight Facts about Former Boxing Champ Muhammad Ali
Ali had a show-time personality, dazzling footwork and great hand speed that combined to make him a champion like his sport had never seen. His career record was 56 victories, 37 of them by knockout, and five losses. He held the world championship an unprecedented three different times.
Fighting under his given name of Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In a 1975 autobiography he said he threw the medal into a river one night after being refused service in a Louisville restaurant and being harassed by a gang of whites. Two biographers, however, said Ali actually lost the medal unintentionally.
His first professional fight was a six-round decision in 1960 over Tunney Hunsaker, whose day job was police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Ali and Hunsaker became friends and Ali wrote in an autobiography that one of the hardest body blows he ever received came from Hunsaker.
After Malcolm X helped Ali become a member of the Nation of Islam, he dropped his given name in favour of Cassius X. Malcolm X later split from the church in a dispute but the fighter stayed on and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad said was his “true name.”
Claiming conscientious objector status, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967. He was sentenced to five years in prison, lost his title and could not get a fight at a time when he was in his athletic prime. He never went to prison while his case was under appeal and in 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome that apparently was linked to his career. It left him slow, shaky and unable to speak much above a whisper but close associates said he never lost his sense of humour or zeal for his faith.
Ali, named the top sportsman of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated magazine, met world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. He was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
The U.S. Army measured Ali’s IQ at 78. In his autobiography he said, “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
(Reuters)Follow us on Twitter at @Riverinenews
Copyright 2014 Riverine News.
Permission to use portions of this article is granted provided appropriate credits are given to http://riverinenews.com/ and other relevant sources.