I am no boxing fan and flinch at the violence unleashed when two people tear into each other. Nimble footwork, artful dodge, hand speed, power of the punch, display of stamina and raw courage risking serious injury are cited to convince sceptics.
Although millions follow the sport, I’m still not a convert to boxing, and there are many like me. Yet, Muhammad Ali was a hero even to me, an incomparable icon who puts to shade the Bradmans and Tendulkars.
Ali may have pursued a sport that exploits the baser sentiment in humans, but what Ali the man symbolised, and the price he was willing to pay for his convictions, made him arguably the greatest sportsperson the world has seen.
As school kids in the early seventies, Ali barged into our subconscious not as a boxing champion but as someone who stood up for the underdog and fought against injustice in a world dominated by the whites and the West.
The seventies was a tumultuous period in India and the bicycle was a symbol of lower-middle class prosperity. Whatever the drawbacks of living in the border town of Amritsar, against the backdrop of India and Pakistan having fought two wars and threatening to wage another, there was one plus. Pakistan Television used to beam sporting events live and its Urdu serials were a rage in Amritsar. Most of the Ali fights, be it the famous ones against Joe Frazier and George Foreman or those against Ken Norton and Larry Holmes, were shown live or recorded and beamed by PTV without cuts.
Watching those fights on a flickering black-and-white TV set in a neighbour’s house, Ali became a compelling figure for what he stood for. He was black like most of the other boxers, but was the one who showed the courage to stand up against white supremacy. His conversion to Islam was an act of defiance that won him the admiration of the third world.
He became a cult figure even in India and Pakistan the day he refused to be drafted into the US Army. Fights in the seventies were Ali’s comeback efforts to regain the world heavyweight crown after being jailed and stripped of the title, losing a lot of his sharpness and strength.
The“Thrill a in Manila” against Joe Frazier and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman were not mere bouts but fights for retribution. These were seen as the revenge of the underprivileged.
Ali’s fight against the establishment, even at the cost of his career, has diminished many other legendary sportsmen in our eyes. We expect them to speak up, like Ali did, and not count the costs of rebellion.