When I was in my early teens, my father took me to an Adidas store to buy new sports shoes. While my dad was paying for the shoes, I asked the salesman if they had a David Beckham poster to spare. The England footballer was huge at the time and at the peak of his career. Nothing would have pleased the 13-year-old me more than a large Beckham poster to splash across my bedroom wall.
The Adidas salesman had a look in the storage room and came back to tell me that they had unfortunately run out of Beckham, but had another great one for me. He handed over a large rolled-up poster. Unrolling it with the hope that it was another of the famous footballers whom Adidas sponsored, I saw a tall and muscular man wearing boxing gloves, standing over his fallen opponent and looking at him with disdain, with his right hand across his chest as if he had just landed the knockout blow.
Embarrassingly, I had no idea who this intimidating boxer was, but to mask my ignorance I thanked the salesman and waited till we were out of the store before asking my dad. “That’s Muhammad Ali,” he said. “He was one of the greatest boxers in the world.” As I reached home and picked a spot on the wall to put it up, I saw that the back of the poster also had a quote attributed to this Muhammad Ali:
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
A global icon
It was later that I learnt that this man, who adorned my wall with the likes of Beckham, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer and Batman, was not only one of the greatest boxers in the world, as my dad had said, but was also considered one of the greatest sportspersons ever. A legend. An icon. Someone synonymous with a sport.
I learnt that he was known for several epic bouts, such as the one against world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, which earned him his first title. At 22, he was the youngest boxer to wrest the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. This was followed by a rematch the following year, which was over in less than two minutes, as Ali landed what was labelled the Phantom Punch – so swift that no one saw it coming. The picture on my wall was taken after he landed the punch.
In 1971, Ali and Joe Frazier, who were both undefeated, clashed in the “Fight of the Century”. Four years later, they locked horns again in the so-called “Thrilla in Manila”. Between those two, there was the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire, where Ali defeated the reigning world heavyweight champion using what he called the “rope-a-dope” technique – lying on the ropes to preserve stamina while the opponent tires himself out by punching, before you go for the kill (Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone, uses a similar technique in the boxing movie Rocky IV).
More than just a boxer
It was even later that I found out that Ali was known for much more than his boxing. He was born Cassius Clay, but changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the hardline Islamic religious sect Nation of Islam in 1964, declaring that “Cassius Clay is my slave name. I didn't choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali – a free name.” He was also a champion for the Black cause in the 1960s and '70s. “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up,” he once said.
In 1967, Ali was stripped off his world title for refusing to serve in the US army during the Vietnam war, citing religious reasons. He famously told reporters, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Ali did not enter the ring for more than three years, until the anti-war sentiment grew popular and he received support for his stance. He then hit his peak, in the early-to-mid 1970s.
Three years after retiring in 1981, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He battled it for 32 years before dying at the age of 74 in 2016. In spite of his tremendous achievements, it’s rather harsh that Ali's name may not resonate with Millennials and post-Millennials. Those born in the 1990s and later will remember him as a famous former boxer who did great things, but spent the final few rounds of life as a sick, old man.
And that will be a distorted memory. For, his reputation is unprecedented. Even those who don’t follow boxing know who Ali was. He was considered a Herculean figure – mighty and invincible. How many times have you heard, during a neighbourhood fight or quarrel, the phrase: “Apne aap ko Muhammad Ali samajhta hai kya? Do you think you are Muhammad Ali?”
“He haunted the planet as a sportsperson,” said veteran Indian sports journalist Ayaz Memon. “I don’t think any other sportsperson had such an appeal. The aura around Muhammad Ali was unprecedented. He changed the socio-political narrative of America and was a symbol of the fight against suppression. He was a towering influence and a man of great charisma.”
Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated, while the BBC made him their Sports Personality of the Century. His spectacular life and career was the inspiration of an Academy Award-winning documentary, When We Were Kings, and a biopic, Ali, for which actor Will Smith won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the titular role.
Not only was he a brilliant boxer, but he very well knew it and flaunted it. “He loved the attention and his genius was in making a star out of himself,” said Memon. This is clear from the name of his autobiography: The Greatest. It’s also evident from some of the Louisville Lip's other quotes, such as:
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
“I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologise.”— Muhammad Ali
Ali came to India in 1980, towards the end of his career, to take part in some exhibition matches. When asked by a reporter if he had lost touch, he answered, “Son, in my 49 fights I have knocked out 32 of my opponents and I haven’t suffered much punishment. You see my face? Do you see any scars or disfigurements? It looks nice and clean isn’t it? That’s it, that is why I am the greatest.”
And here's where it began.