Why Muhammad Ali overshadows Tendulkar and other sporting greats | columns | Hindustan Times
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Why Muhammad Ali overshadows Tendulkar and other sporting greats

Muhammad Ali is the one whose fight with the establishment and standing up to the wrongs of a society and a nation, has diminished many other legendary sportsmen.

columns Updated: Jun 06, 2016 12:35 IST
Muhammad Ali,Sportsmen,Pradeep Magazine
Trevor Berbick, right, smiling as Muhammad Ali looks at the scale during the weigh-in for their December 11 heavyweight fight in Nassau, Bahamas. (AP File Photo)

I am no boxing fan and flinch at the violence it unleashes while two people tear into each other like ferocious dogs fighting over a piece of flesh. The nimble footwork, the artful dodge, the speed of the arm, the power of the punch, a display of horse-like stamina and the raw courage to risk serious injury are cited to convince sceptics that there is much more to boxing than gore and blood.

Since millions follow the sport, there has to be more to boxing than just two people pounding each other to pulp, but it hasn’t made me a convert so far and there are many like me who don’t consider it a sport worth wasting their time on. And yet, Muhammad Ali was a hero to even me, an incomparable icon who puts to the shade all the Bradmans and Tendulkars of this world.

Ali, the boxer, may have been pursuing a sport that exploits the baser sentiment in human nature but it is Ali the man, all that he symbolised and the price he was willing to pay for his convictions that made him arguably the greatest sportsperson the world has seen.

For us school-going kids in the early seventies, Ali just barged his way into our subconscious not as a boxing champion but as a man who stood for the underdog and fought for all the injustices of a world dominated by the Whites and the West.

Muhammad Ali landing a throw right to the jaw of challenger Floyd Patterson in the seventh round of their heavyweight title fight at Las Vegas. (AP File Photo)

The India of the seventies was politically a tumultuous period and the bicycle was a symbol of lower-middle class prosperity. Whatever the drawbacks of living in the border town of Amritsar may have been in the backdrop of India-Pakistan having fought two wars against each other and threatening to do so again any time, there was one plus that outweighed all other negatives. Pakistan Television used to beam live many sporting events and their Urdu serials were a rage in Amritsar. Most of the Ali fights, be it the more famous ones against Joe Frazier or George Foreman or with Ken Norton or Larry Holmes, were either shown live or pre-recorded and shown without any cuts on PTV.

While 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 he was the one who showed the courage to stand up against White supremacy and his conversion to Islam was a massive step of defiance that earned him the admiration of the third world.

He became a cult figure even in countries like India and Pakistan the day he refused to be drafted into the US Army, refusing to fight the Vietnam war. The seventies fights were Ali’s comeback efforts to regain the world heavyweight crown after having been jailed and stripped of his title. He obviously had lost a lot of his sharpness and strength.

Fans of the late Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion leave personal mementos as they pay their respects at the Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, US. (Reuters Photo)

The “Thrilla at Manila” against Joe Frazer or the “Rumble in the Jungle” bout against George Foreman were symbolically for us not boxing bouts but fights for retribution. These were seen as the revenge of the underprivileged, and with each punch that Ali would unleash, with each win he would achieve, we in India would celebrate it as a victory of the underclass.

Ali is the one whose fight with the establishment and standing up to the wrongs of a society and a nation, even at the cost of his career, has in many ways diminished many other legendary sportsmen in other disciplines in our eyes. We expect them, just like Ali once did, to speak up and not count the costs of rebellion. That is why Ali is a hero, a superman for even those who care little for a sport called boxing.