The word ‘legend’ gets bandied around pretty commonly nowadays. Sadly, the word is often used to describe movie stars and musicians whose lives revolve around entertainment of the masses. Just recently, we witnessed the passing away of Muhammad Ali (rahimullah) at the ripe age of 74. Entertainer though he was, he transformed himself into so much more. Legend is a term that would certainly do him justice. Sadly, Muslims worldwide have not done an effective job of embracing our heroes, and a far worse job emulating them. It is for this reason I do not expect a new generation of Muslim millenials will realise why Muhammad Ali was such a big deal for not just Muslims, but all of humanity.
As a boxer, Muhammad Ali enraptured audiences worldwide with his nimble footwork and cat-like reflexes. He was not like Joe Frazier or George Foreman, his peers, who relied on sheer brute strength. Instead, he combined athleticism with power and cunning to become the formidable fighter he was. At his peak, he could dance around his opponent while slowly whittling them down with targeted punches or delivering withering knockout blows. He was the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion in 1964 and regained the title again in 1974 and 1978, the only one to do so thrice. Outside of the boxing ring, Ali was known for his bombastic and often poetical self-promotion, which captured the headlines and heart of fans everywhere.
In 1966, Ali was drafted to join the Vietnam War, a war he vigorously disagreed with. He publicly stated his status as a conscientious objector, which riled not just the political and boxing establishment but a good chunk of the public as well. It may look easier when we view it today, but we often forget the tremendous pressure Muhammad Ali was under to join the war and stop denouncing it. But he refused to buckle, and this brave decision cost his not only his title but also four years of his physical prime as a boxer and potentially millions of dollars. He famously explained his view, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Muhammad Ali joined the Nation of Islam, where he became a close friend to Malcolm X. This conversion coincided with his casting off of his former name Cassius Clay, which he associated with the the white overlords who had confined his people into slavery for hundreds of years. He later reverted to orthodox Islam but remained resolute in his condemnation of the racial injustices that were being perpetrated on African-Americans.
As Muhammad Ali went into retirement and later struggled with Parkinson’s Disease, the white establishment in a way sanitised his image in a similar way to Martin Luther King Jr. They made the public forget just how radical he was in his prime when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. He was unapologetic in attacking the white establishment and roots of racism in the society, and embraced his own independence from mental and physical slavery. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” That is who Muhammad Ali should be remembered as.