Muhammad Ali: Athlete who meant so much to so many

It is fascinating to think back how much the 'Nam war affected the thinking of young people of that time.

Muhammad Ali was an inspirational figure of history. The tributes that have been pouring in all week for him from persons from all walks of life are a representation of a transcendental athlete whose prowess in the ring was just a small fraction of what he meant to society as a sum total of all his parts. Nearly 50 years when we were just stepping into the portals of a college, Ali was already the talking point as the focus of student anger against the Vietnam War. It resonated here in the imposing surroundings of the Loyola College in Chennai where Ali was the idol of all young minds back in the late 1960s.

It is fascinating to think back how much the ’Nam war affected the thinking of young people of that time. Long before Martin Luther King had denounced the invasion of an Asian country by one of the superpowers of a bipolar world of the time, Ali had stood up against the draft. He didn’t simply defy the draft; he trounced it, even if it brought him such tribulation and cost him more than three of the finest years of his professional boxing life. To us he was a symbol of resistance and he was spoken of in hushed tons of reverence in the debating society.

Even to those of us who sneered at boxing as a brutal sport and much preferred the willow game for its nuanced narratives and its metaphor for fair play, Ali was still a hero who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Decades have flitted away since those halcyon days when the student mind was filled with the idealism of youth. Ali, absolute hero to those who practised every evening in the campus boxing club, was to become a pale shadow of himself, stricken with Parkinson’s, brought on by the destructive physical forces of his sport of pummelling fists, even if it were governed by the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

The world of heavyweight boxing of those times was probably far more brutal than could be imagined in these evolved times when safety in sport is a prime concern. And yet all we had was grainy images on 16mm film of grand bouts that were given fancy names like Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila.

The word play and the braggadocio in his rhyming insult of opponents enhanced his appeal to a fawning fan base, a majority of whom may not have seen a single bout of his, save in snatches on news reels of the time in India. His hold on the imagination is thus rendered even more fascinating. Today, he is universally celebrated in death because he was always larger than life and we feel a pain in his passing.

In these terribly political times and in an era of professional sport in which wife-beating heavyweight champions earn in excess of $200 million for a single bout, it must be hard to imagine there could ever have been a sportsman who was willing to give up everything. As it was so splendidly said in a tribute to him by Gary Younge in The Guardian, Ali doged Vietnam “not out of fear of dying for an immoral war but as an affirmation of his life principles at a time when such opposition was not yet widespread, making the link between racial injustice in America and the imperialist injustice in Vietnam a year before even Martin Luther King would voice his full-throated opposition to the war.”

At a time when the USA has its first black president in office towards the end of his second term, it would be appropriate to remember how much a sportsman like Ali helped change the modern avatar of the land of slavery to make acceptance of inclusiveness possible. How much he means to his Afro-Caribbean brethren cannot be measured. To say he was a transcendental sportsman of the 20th century would be the understatement of the new millennium. Ali once said, “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it—then I can achieve it.” That was his life story and the world is a better place for it. Only, it is sad that it has ended.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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