(Originally published in Dawn, The Review, November 22-29, 2001)
Muhammad Ali is back in the news. On a recent visit to the rubble of the World Trade Center, when the CNN reporters asked him how he feels about the accused sharing his Muslim faith, he replied with a smile, “How do you feel about Hitler sharing yours?” The answer of Muhammad Ali was copied and emailed across the world. For millions of his admirers, it was a whiff of the same old feeling: catch me if you can!
Ali is to boxing what Shakespeare is to drama, Wordsworth to poetry, and Alexander the Great to warfare: he is a genius. What he did in his own field could be turned into a metaphor about life, and thus the story of his life is a parable of modern times.
Born in Lousville on 17 January, 1942, as Cassius Clay, he resolved to become a boxing champion while he was still a child. But long before he learnt how to cope with victory, he learnt how to handle defeat. In his professional career, he became famous as the one boxer who could never be knocked out. When the mighty Joe Frazier, the strongest of them all, knocked him down once in the fifteenth round, Ali rose up on his feet immediately with the grace of a professional choreographer, as if this was a well-rehearsed scene. How did he learn to be invincible? Curiously enough, it wasn’t his early victories in the gym that made him a champion. It was his first taste of defeat that did.
All of us who have watched a boxing match, have often wondered why healthy-bodied boxers who are knocked out, can’t get up before the count reaches ten. They aren’t unconscious, they don’t always have broken limbs, and very often they do get up just a few moments after the count is over. The teenage Cassius also pondered over this question that night in his Louisville home, and discovered what he would later label as “the half-dream room.” He sensed that a real hard blow sends the boxer to a kind of a half-awake state. Half of his mind goes to a state of dream, while the other half remains awake. The dreaming half sees lights flashing in his mind, and hears forks tuning. This is a reflex mechanism of the brain in order to avoid pain. The other half of the mind, awake, tries to recover but experiences time in a slow-motion. Once the half-dream state is over, the boxer wonders why didn’t he get out of this state of mind earlier: it was just a matter of telling your mind to shake off the dream. But there lies the big secret. “Only you have to fix it in your mind and plan to do it long before the half-dream comes. For when it comes, time stretches out slow. You have to put the plan in your mind long before you need it.” This could be true of any difficult situation in life.
The next question was how to develop this will power. “A healthy mind in a healthy body,” as the old saying goes. The secret of Cassius Clay was his stamina. While running his usual miles in the morning, he discovered that each step he took after he was exhausted built a special stamina, and it was worth the entire running put together.
When Cassius appeared for the Golden Gloves tournaments at the age of fifteen, he was not an ugly killing machine like some others. He was a well-prepared craftsman who knew how to use his mind, body and spirit in a harmony to destroy his adversary – or adversity. With his victory at the Rome Olympics in 1960, some newspapers branded him as the “real All-American Boy.” Yet he made more enemies than he made friends. For one thing, he had the infuriating habit of praising himself in manners that could only be tolerated in a Greek god: “I am the greatest! I am the prettiest! I am the fastest boxer!” (His trainer once brought him to the weighing-in ceremony with a two-inch tape fastened over the mouth!). He would write narcissistic poetry to make predictions about each forthcoming fight, sometimes even predicting the round in which his opponent was destined to go down. Even during the fight he would try his best to infuriate his opponent. All in all, he would appear more of a master entertainer than a serious prizefighter: he danced, he ducked, and sometimes it was almost hilarious to watch a hapless opponent running after him through the ring while Cassius would be hopping around like a butterfly. Perhaps all these tantrums were a part of his strategy: to infuriate his opponent and destroy his focus, sometime his heart. The casualties of this psychological warfare included the giant Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world, who refused to return to the ring after the sixth round – Ali had predicted the doom in the eighth. Thus becoming the heavyweight champion of the world at the age of twenty-two, Ali addressed the cohort of journalists like a man possessed: “Who is the greatest?” He shouted his question in the press conference. “I told you I was gonna get Liston and I got him. All the gamblers had booked me eight-to-one underdog. I proved all of you wrong. I shook up the world! Tell me who’s The Greatest?” Unable to know how to handle a man who wasn’t ashamed of being larger than life, most journalists thought it was best to cut it short by chanting in a dull tone: “You are.”
In the next few years, Cassius became the most well-known sportsman of the Twentieth Century – at a very heavy cost. A little before the Liston fight Cassius had converted to Islam, changing his name to Muhammad Ali. The resentment of the majority against his choice of religion reached a peak when he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. His champion title, which he defended nine times in the ring in three short years (including a second fight with Liston in which the veteran was knocked out in the first round), was taken away from him and his boxing license revoked. Hence Ali was forced to spend the three best years of his life away from the ring. When finally he was allowed to come back in 1970, it was generally thought that his career was over. No boxer had ever stayed away from the ring for three years and then come back to fight. Once again, Ali’s remarkable capacity for preparation came to his help. He subjected himself to more physical stress than most other boxers could endure. Contrary to everybody’s expectations, he was back in the ring. Not with bitterness, not with regrets, and with no sadness. It was the same old Black Superman, big-mouthed and phony as ever, dancing and ducking like a schoolboy. However, this second round of his victories was punctuated by two defeats by Ken Norton and Joe Frazier (both of which he avenged in repeat fights within two years). All this and more, but he still wasn’t the World Heavyweight Champion, as the title had gone to George Foreman.
Ali-Foreman fight in 1974 was a moment of high suspense. Broadcast live via satellite from Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (Africa), the fight was watched by keen onlookers across the globe who held their breath as they watched the mighty Foreman pushing Ali into the ropes. At the very start of the fight it became evident that in strength, Foreman was like a tank. However, Ali won the fight through his remarkable endurance, will power and cleverness. It was well known that Foreman had knocked out every boxer by the third round, so Ali took to the ropes, and let Foreman thrust his punches into him for six rounds. Foreman was knocked out in the eighth.
A great prizefighter as he was, it may seem that he had something unlucky about his relationships with the opposite sex. He divorced his first wife Sonja in 1966, just two years after their marriage, because she wouldn’t wear modestly like “a good Muslim woman.” He divorced his second wife Belinda (Khalilah) in 1975 after eight years of marriage when she objected to his extra-marital affairs, at least two of which had borne children. His third wife, Veronica, only to be divorced in 1986, was the woman over whom his second marriage had broken. His current wife is Lonnie, fourteen years younger than him, but also considered his “best friend,” and his life seems to be a happy one at last.
Ali lost his heavyweight once again in 1978 to Leon Spinks, only to regain it a few months later, thus becoming the only heavyweight champion in the history of boxing to have won the title three times. He lost it again in 1980 to Larry Holmes, his former sparring partner, and fought only one other fight the next year before the neurological disorder caused by Parkinson’s disease rendered him partially paralyzed. The news of Ali’s sickness came as a shock to many of his fans, and seemed like the ultimate triumph of nature against the man who had stood up to every challenge. He had gained his victories by controlling his reflexes to block out the signals of pain. It seemed that Mother Nature had at last taken its revenge on him. Also, the big-mouthed boy from Louisville was finally forced to duck the media out of self-consciousness. However, he made a comeback when everyone was beginning to think he was gone forever.
In 1996, Ali was chosen to light the Olympic Torch. The event, covered by live television across the world, was as dramatic as any of his boxing matches. As his right arm stretched out with the torch to light the cauldron, the camera showed his left hand as well: shaking under the influence of his disease. Stripped of its power to fling those fatal left-punches, the hand still seemed to throw up a challenge to nature: catch me if you can.
Note: Muhammad Ali passed away on June 4, 2016
Note from the author: the anecdote that prompted this write-up in 2001, and is quoted in the opening sentences, is now generally believed to have been an “e-rumour”. What he actually said is now believed to be that Islam is a religion of peace and the perpetrators of the WTC attacks were not the followers of Islam, therefore he would back whatever action the US takes against them but he “couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem.”