By Sarah Stopforth
Art by Luke Clark (@meatwavves)
The world fell to its knees a few weeks ago at hearing the news of the boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, who died age 74. Many of my generation only know the legend through his fans – our mothers and fathers – who lived when Ali was a household name.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, 17 January 1942. It’s no secret Ali grew up in the prime time of discrimination in the South and was denied basic rights because of his colour.
At twelve, Ali started his path to becoming a boxing champion. His bike was stolen, and he told policeman Joe Martin that he wanted to beat up the thief. Martin also happened to train amateur boxers at the local gym.
Fast-forward six years to 1960 and Ali gained a position on the U.S. Olympic Boxing team. It was then, for the first time, that Ali showed the world his ‘dancing shoes’ by winning the light heavyweight gold medal for America. From this moment on Ali was a hero and earned his place on the World Stage of boxing.
My father has always spoken very highly of Muhammad Ali. In 1964, as a fifteen year old in a boarding school near Marondera, Zimbabwe, he was interested in boxing, among others sports, and grew up just as Ali became the legend he was.
I spoke to my dad about how “The Greatest” affected his life from the very beginning…
What he did… he really changed everything.
At that time he had his original birth name of Cassius Clay, which he called his ‘slave name’. In 1964 the boxing World Champion was a guy called Sonny Liston. He was considered unbeatable. Then here comes this little young upstart, jumping up and down, shouting his mouth off… but he annihilated him! Ali was still very young, he would have been about 22, when he won his World Title for the first time. He actually changed the game. Instead of being a basher and a bruiser, he used to dance around and he transformed the sport.
Then I just started to follow his career. I wanted to know what he was doing and who he was fighting. He was a very charismatic person. He was a marvelous athlete and he was a good looking guy as well. He had it all.
You know, there are some people that have what you call an ‘x-factor.’ They have something in their field of expertise that everybody takes note of. They’ve just got it. And that’s what he had. Even people that didn’t really have much interest in boxing were watching him! Ali was like Tiger Woods in golf; he changed the game.
At this point my mother calls out from the background, mentioning Ali’s notorious political troubles.
Ali not only made his own choices, in spite of being a public figure, but he also did not hesitate to voice his political opinions. In 1966, Ali famously stood his ground when he was drafted for the Vietnam War and refused to go. My father continues…
He had that famous quote “No VietCong ever called me [a] nigger”. At that time there was still a colour bar in parts of America, and he would not have been allowed in certain places because of his colour. American wanted him to go fight for them but they wouldn’t even let him into a restaurant in his own country. He had a point, didn’t he? It wasn’t only in his sport that he was great, but in his life as well. That’s why he has always had such a following.
He was stripped of all his boxing titles after he was arrested for not enlisting for Vietnam, but this didn’t stop him getting it back. He is the only boxer to lose the Heavyweight Champion title and get it back three times. He set so many milestones in his sport.
He was called The Greatest because he called himself The Greatest! He wasn’t shy!
It wasn’t until 1964, that Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, upon his spiritual rebirth and joining of the Black Muslim group the Nation of Islam. At the time, this group was seen as ‘radical extremists’ and the American public were not exactly thrilled with Ali’s choice to join. Ali later converted to orthodox Islam in 1975.
Muhammad Ali has not only been a beacon of hope for the black and Muslim communities alike, but for all the underdogs of the world. Despite the obstacles he faced, he found his way around them by staying true to his beliefs and never allowing the pressures of the American media or the boxing world waiver his decisions in life.
Ali once said, “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
He won back everything he lost. He was the true American Hero, even receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005. However, it took over four decades for one African American Muslim to receive total freedom in the form of a medal from a white American president. I hope it doesn’t take another four decades for the freedom of the Muslim community, who have continued to be marginalised even in 2016.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, and devoted his later career to helping others through philanthropic endeavours, something he wanted to achieve since he was in his early twenties.
After a long battle with Parkinson’s, Muhammad Ali passed away on 3 June 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Muhammad Ali was a three-time heavyweight champion, an Olympic gold medallist, an activist, a charmer, a poet, a husband, a father and an inspiration to those who watched him.
In the ring, and out of the ring; Ali was a fighter. He was The Greatest, and like my father said, “Only now and again do people like that come along, that just change everything.”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” ~Muhammad Ali