The Greatest is gone

Now that The Greatest is gone, we should talk about what the multi-faceted genius accomplished outside the ring as in it.

June 04, 2016 11:12 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 10:37 am IST

Indisputably the most term abused in modern sport, with all its hype, is ‘The Greatest’.

But the incomparable genius to which that word greatest well and truly belongs, who revolutionised sporting excellence as well as being a celebrity, is not with us anymore.

Muhammad Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion, died on Friday. Every sport has at least one person comparable to the greatest in their game. But Ali, 74, it can be said was the most influential sportsman the world has known since the earliest fight/entertainment shows mankind has seen — the days of gladiatorial battles in the Roman colosseum.

When great sportsmen die, it is conventional for the sports media to deify the person and celebrate his life. Specially if the person in question is not too young. It is also a matter of routine for several members of our tribe — sportswriters — to call a departed athlete as the greatest the world has seen.

Rarest of the rare

The question ‘When comes another’ is as much a part sporting vocabulary. But Ali, as a boxer, as a rights activist, and as the conscience keeper of the world of sport, soared to such stratospheric heights that there are no questions anymore: he was indeed a rarest of rare member of our species.

Nobody who has played sport at the highest of levels can be ranked alongside him. Not Don Bradman or Sachin Tendulkar; not Pele or Lionel Messi; not Michael Jordan or LeBron James. If Ali did have a successor, we are yet to witness that unique sportsperson perform.

For Ali’s legend and his stature, not to talk about his courage in the face of adversity and the way he always spoke truth to power has never been matched by anybody who has caught our attention as Uber Sportsmen.

What he achieved in the roped-in square was significant as he danced on twinkling feet to bring up the sort of victories that saw him become the outstanding boxer of the century.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in the brutal dictator Mobutu’s impoverished capital city of Kinshasa saw many critics hit out at Ali — apparently in his own cause — for signing what they thought was a suicidal contract to fight a man whose arms looked like boulders supporting an over-bridge.

He was a 40-1 outsider with the bookmakers; and that’s as bad as it can get in a one-on-one contest of any kind. But Ali, steeped in intense self-belief, had his own plans. And they became clear as the fight made its way towards rounds four, five and six.

Leaning on the ropes, his back bent like a question mark, the great man soaked up everything that George Foreman threw at him.

Then, when the moment came, Ali grabbed it. As Foreman began to visibly tire, his feet heavy, and his mind a mess, Ali moved in for the kill and felled his opponent with a single right, without even bothering to follow up with a couple of more punches even as Foreman slumped.

A year on, in Manila, Ali and Joe Frazier found new vistas in their own heart and soul; in an extraordinary contest in which boundaries were pushed back to the very limits, the two men went at each other as if they were ready to lay down their lives on that day.

Once again Ali proved what a resilient fighter he was; he stood up to the Frazier barrage time and time again. And finally, in the 13th round, Frazier’s mouthpiece parted company with him and went flying and Ali pummelled him into submission in the 14th round.

Now that The Greatest is gone, we should talk about what the multi-faceted genius accomplished outside the ring as in it.

If Ali was not struck down by cruelty or fate — he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42 — it is quite possible for him to have accomplished much more in the area of race rights at a times when a man of colour occupies the most powerful chair. Perhaps he might have even beaten Obama as the first African-American to hold the post of president.

Stretching his career

Quite a lot of people believe that Ali stretched his career far too long and brought it all on himself. But this is not a time to celebrate his odd mistake as a professional. It is time for all of us to rejoice in the fact that we were born in the 70+ years of Ali’s life on this planet.

At the height of his powers, Presidents, Prime Ministers, dictators, Hollywood celebrities and every person in a position of power sought his company. But the great man’s heart was always with the ordinary folk, from the bylanes of Dharavi to the Favelas of Buenos Aires. It is sad indeed that many a commoner who deemed him a monarch cannot attend his funeral.

Adios Amigo! We loved you, worshipped you, marvelled at your unique skills and now that you are gone, we will celebrate a conquistador beyond compare. You will continue to live in our hearts as long as they stop beating.

Red Smith, one of the greatest American sports writers, said at a funeral oration, “Dying is no big deal. But living is.”

Especially living the way you did King Muhammad Ali!

(Nirmal Shekar is former Sports Editor of The Hindu)

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