Boxer, icon, revolutionary

first_imgI never saw Muhammad Ali fight live. I didn’t really understand the intricacies of boxing. Yet the mesmeric boxer with dancing feet is embalmed forever in the mind. He wasn’t just the greatest boxer of his generation, he is, arguably, the greatest sportsman of all time. In this age of,I never saw Muhammad Ali fight live. I didn’t really understand theintricacies of boxing. Yet the mesmeric boxer with dancing feet isembalmed forever in the mind. He wasn’t just the greatest boxer of hisgeneration, he is, arguably, the greatest sportsman of all time. In this age of hype and astute marketing, we confer ‘greatness’ like confettiat a wedding ceremony. Ali didn’t need any PR agent to proclaim hisgreatness; he was his own impresario, a 24×7 echo chamber. With anyoneelse it might have seemed empty braggadocio, but with Ali it defined his intense self-belief in and beyond the ring.Rajdeep SardesaiThere are othersportspersons who stand out for what they contributed to their sport. ADon Bradman, for example, is statistically way ahead of any batsman whowielded the willow. A Michael Jordan defied gravity with a basketball in hand. A Roger Federer used a tennis racquet like a wand. A NadiaComaneci achieved perfection as a gymnast. Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps lit up swimming pools with golden glory. Usain Bolt is the cheetah ofathletics. Pele and Diego Maradona were masters of the beautiful game.Even among boxers, Rocky Marciano lost fewer fights. But only Ali amongthem actually transcended his sport, not just in terms of individualpopularity but in his ability to impact society.Ali wasn’t just a boxing legend. He was, in a sense, a radical social revolutionary, anemancipist of the modern age. To black people across the world, he was a symbol of one of the most powerful movements of the 20th century: thefight for racial equality. Ali wasn’t a Jesse Owens at the 1936 BerlinOlympics, who accepted racial segregation without rancour, or even aJohn Carlos or Tommie Smith, who put up a symbolic black power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. Ali actually gave up hisheavyweight crown on a matter of principle-of not fighting in Vietnam.He threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio river when he was denied entryinto a ‘whites only’ restaurant. He was ostracised by people in hisLouisville hometown, but he never took a step back. Ali floated like abutterfly and stung like a bee in the ring, but outside it, he showedraw courage to walk the talk. He was almost invincible with fists, hewas certainly invaluable with his beliefs.advertisementWhich is why I see himas the sporting world’s equivalent of a Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar too sacrificed a potentially lucrative legal career to fight for casteequality. If Ali saw conversion to Islam as his big protest moment,Ambedkar chose neo-Buddhism to challenge Brahminical Hinduism. LikeAmbedkar, Ali too was ahead of his time. And if Dalits veneratedAmbedkar, Ali became an iconic figure for millions of blacks across theworld. If one fought in the battlefield of ideas, the other was no lessexpressive with his words.And his words packed a punch. “Why areall the church angels white? Why ain’t there any black angels?” he asked at a church ceremony in 1983.Like many other sporting greats, he could have walked into the sunset with a hefty bank balance. But hekept coming back, refusing to allow age or authority to knock him down.Even a debilitating Parkinson’s disease didn’t stop him from speakingout. When dozens were killed in a terror attack in Paris last year, hedidn’t hide his feelings. “I am a proud Muslim and there is nothingIslamic about killing innocent people,” he said.There are twopublic images of Ali that stand out. One is of the brash young boxerdaring Sonny Liston to get off the canvas after knocking him out in just the second minute of round one in their 1965 fight. The second is ofAli, hands shaking, lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 AtlantaGames. Thirty-one years separated the two events. Cassius Clay was nowMuhammad Ali, the body had weakened, but the spirit had not.Inthat magical moment when the Olympic torch was lit, you couldn’t helpgetting emotional. It was America’s redemption song, of apologising andatoning for the sins of racism. It was also the world’s way ofcelebrating the transformative quality of sport. Ali had not justentertained millions with his boxing, he had, more crucially, given allof us hope. A hope of a better tomorrow, where no one would be isolatedbecause of the colour of their skin. Which is also why Ali’s death madeus teary-eyed. We hadn’t just lost a childhood hero. We had been sent areminder of our own mortality. God, after all, is the greatest. Ali wasonly his messenger. RIP.advertisementSardesai’s book, 2014: The Election That Changed India, is now on the standslast_img read more