Muhammad Ali: The boxer who shook up the world
London - “I am the greatest fighter to ever live… I shook up the world. I shook up the world,” Muhammad Ali proclaimed after becoming heavyweight champion at the age of 22.
By the time he retired from boxing, he had been heavyweight champion of the world three times and fought some of boxing’s greatest bouts. His first-round knockout of Sonny Liston; the “Thrilla in Manila”; the rope-a-dope during the “Rumble in the Jungle” were examples of how Muhammad Ali electrified boxing.
Ali, however, was much more than a boxer. He was a figure who transcended sport, as can be seen in the global reaction to his death and the plaudits that he has received from across the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II said Ali was “the hero of a generation and a legend of our time”. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim described Ali as a “symbol for people fighting injustice and unfairness”.
Muhammad Ali was arguably the world’s most famous Muslim. Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he announced he had joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American religious movement, and changed his name in 1964, shortly after becoming heavyweight champion for the first time. About ten years later, Ali converted to mainstream Sunni Islam.
“For Muslim American kids of the 1970s, Ali was the only megastar we saw representing us. But we couldn’t have had a better lone champion,” Arab-American writer Saladin Ahmed said.
Paying tribute to Ali’s unique role in US history, Dawud Walid from the Council on American-Islamic Relations said: “As a child, the first action figure my parents got me was of Muhammad Ali. For my generation, he was perhaps the largest and most influential pop culture icon for African-Americans and Muslims.”
“In the civil rights era, he stood against the discrimination we’ve all faced in the US. He crystallised the mindset of resistance and a feeling among many Muslims not to submit to stereotypes, that being Muslim is just as American as being Christian or Jewish,” he added.
Ali was a symbol, playing an uncompromising role in America’s civil rights movement and popular culture with his unparalleled wit and charisma. His opposition to the Vietnam war and his decision to refuse induction into the US armed services, saw him stripped of his world boxing title. He spent three years of his prime barred from the sport, before returning to wow the world with his exploits, inside and outside the ring.
Even after his boxing career was over, the “Louisville Lip” would not be silenced. In a post-9/11 world, Ali was a strong voice of reason. Speaking with Readers Digest magazine on the day of those attacks, the former champion gave a strong defence of Islam while condemning the terrorists who were responsible.
“Killing like that can never be justified… Islam is a religion of peace,” Ali said. “It does not promote terrorism or killing people. I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction but they are not real Muslims. They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims.”
Ali sought to confront the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, as represented by Donald Trump and his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, calling on political leaders to help bring understanding about the religion of Islam, not promote hatred and division.
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamist jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion,” Ali said in December in one of his last statements to the media.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam,” he added.
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Ali once said: “I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite humankind through faith and love.
“And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if people forgot how pretty I was.”