Spectator sport is at its riveting best when the script involves an underdog, virtually down and out, marshalling his last ounce of energy to turn the tables on a fancied opponent. Both within and outside the ring, >Muhammad Ali embodied that never-say-die spirit. In 1964, a young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, with a gold at the Rome Olympics behind him, squared off against the reigning world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. Critics gave him no chance, but his quick feet and quicker counterpunches forced Liston to stay in his corner and give up at the beginning of the seventh round. A decade on, Ali was still taking blows on his chin and standing tall, using his “rope-a-dope” strategy to eventually wear out George Foreman, one of the hardest punchers in history, after taking a pounding on the ropes. Then he knocked him out in the “Rumble in the Jungle” match in Kinshasa in 1974. The same resilience came in handy as he weathered near-38°C temperatures to last 14 rounds and win by technical knockout against his greatest rival, Joe Frazier, in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. By the time he retired in 1981, Ali had a 56-5 professional record (including 37 knockouts). But years of pounding took a physical toll, and he bravely fought the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease for more than three decades until his death on June 3 even as he turned into a global icon of peace and an ambassador of sport at large in his later years.
The truth, however, is that the >legend of Muhammad Ali will endure as much for his political activism, his showmanship and his glib talk that forced the world to see the context of his exploits in the ring. In an America emerging from the Jim Crow era, Ali confronted racism insistently, and with uncommon dignity. He took his anti-racism polemic to another level with conversion to Islam early in his reign as heavyweight champion of the world. He refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967, and relinquished his title, and four years of his sporting prime, in becoming a conscientious objector exhorting his countrymen to settle the more important, internal war against racism. The words are telling: “No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” His emergence as a counter-cultural icon of the 1960s inspired other African-American athletes in different professional sports, basketball in particular. Ali transcended boxing, and then transcended sport. Was he the greatest of all time, as he claimed to be? Such categorisations are always debatable. What’s undisputed is that he punched well above his heavyweight all the time.