Muhammad Ali: The boxer who shook up the world

Sunday 12/06/2016
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right against challenger Joe Frazier in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines, in October 1975.

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.”