THE GREATEST 1942-2016
MUHAMMAD ALI ACTIVIST LEGEND ICON FIGHTER
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Muhammad Ali shouts at the fallen Sonny Liston to get up and fight after he (Ali) knocked his foe out in the first round of their controversial second World Heavyweight Championship fight in Lewiston, Maine in May 1965. In what was ranked one of the shortest heavyweight title bouts in history – lasting just two minutes and 12 seconds – Ali was declared the winner after delivering what he called his “anchor punch”.
One of many iconic pictures of three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1964. Ali is seen posing with a stack of cash inside a bank vault. The money in the photo is of a one-night win. Many might regard the photo as one of those colourful, flamboyant and showy stunts the man, who died on Friday aged 74, was wont to pull.
But it was way beyond that. Ali started the culture of negotiating his own purses. This move is largely credited for the megabucks today’s sports stars make.
Before then, it was unheard of for a boxer, or any sportsman, to name his prize. Ali changed all that.
The first indication of Ali’s defiance and hard-headedness came in 1964, soon after he beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship belt – at the tender age of 22.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on January 17 1942, the young lad soon announced his conversion to Islam and a name change to Muhammad Ali. His friendship with Malcolm X almost certainly influenced him. From then on, he took offence to anyone calling him by his previous “slave name”.
His name change struck a huge blow for Muslims worldwide. It also gave impetus to Islam in the US.
Ali soon joined the Nation of Islam. He was later to convert to Sunni Islam in 1975, and then Sufism in 2005.
Three years after winning the world championship, Ali caused another stir by refusing to be conscripted into the US military, citing his religious beliefs and his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me N*gger; they never lynched me; they didn’t put no dogs on me; they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father … Shoot them for what? … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail,” he said.
The US authorities reacted by stripping him of his title and fining him $10 000. He appealed against his guilty verdict and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the US in 1971 – where his conviction was overturned. He performed hajj in 1972. Two years later he was involved in the epic Rumble in the Jungle against reigning world heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
On his arrival in the central African country, Ali preached brotherhood and won locals to his side, portraying Foreman as a “foreigner”. He won back the title there.
As the world champion, he visited several African countries, including Ghana, where he went around dressed in the famous Kente cloth.
On one of his travels, he had to stop over at the OR Tambo Intranational Airport, then known as Jan Smuts Airport, and refused to leave the airport, take pictures or speak to anyone. He eventually visited South Africa on the eve of democracy in 1994.
In 1979 he made his first trip to China where he was to promote boxing, a sport that had been banned in 1959. The sport was later unbanned.
During one of his trips to China, Ali prayed alongside 1 000 of his fellow Muslims at the Great Mosque of Xi’an in Shaanxi province.
Ali fought in the Philippines, Jakarta, Dublin, London, Tokyo and Congo, besides the US.
In one act of humanity, he saved an unknown man in Los Angeles from committing suicide in 1981.
To sum him up, one should read the epilogue he penned at the 02 Centre in London: “I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times. Who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him. And who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all of humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then ... I’d settle for being remembered as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
BROTHERS IN ARMS
THE CHAMPS Former President Nelson Mandela enjoys a play bout with Muhammad Ali
FLOATING President Joseph Mobuto (right) shows his elaborate walking stick to heavyweight challenger Muhammed Ali during a stroll in the gardens of the presidential palace. Ali regained the title from George Foreman
1964: Muhammad Ali popularised Kente cloth. On a visit to Ghana, the then heavyweight champion of the world wore the cloth throughout his visit and press stops