From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, always a fighter

Mari Marcel Thekaekara remembers the great boxer and pays homage to his audacious courage.

A smiling Muhammad Ali shows his fist to reporters during an impromptu press conference in Mexico City. © REUTERS/Jorge Nunez

I've never been a fan of boxing. I never could understand why two human beings should pound the hell out of each other for no valid reason. I consider it a brutal sport. When I read about the physical condition of a boxer after a major fight makes me feel ill. Why would someone willingly agree to a game, the outcome of which is to emerge battered, bruised, with puffy, swollen eyes, head injuries, irreparable damage, excruciating pain and trauma?

Yet I felt that familiar pang of regret and sadness that one experiences when an icon leaves our globe. Ali began his Cassius Clay victories when I was a child. I knew about his fights and wins because my father was a fan. Not particularly a boxing fan but definitely a Cassius Clay one. My dad's brother had been a boxing champion of India-Burma-Ceylon in the forties. So we were often given detailed analyses and accounts of why each of his victories was so spectacular.

Cassius Clay (R) (later Muhammad Ali) predicts that he will in the fifth round before his fight with Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium in London, Britain 18 June, 1963.

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Muhammad Ali was definitely not just another boxing champion even if the world worshipped him as one. He was definitely far more than that. It was Ali's sound bites, at a time when neither the term nor concept existed, that brought a smile to everyone who heard those audacious quotes.

Ali's 'I am the greatest' which reverberated around the earth, never sounded obnoxious or offensive. To most people, he was merely the new kid on the block who'd made it big. His outrageous boasts drew indulgent smiles. The incessant showing off entertained people in the days when there weren't hundreds of TV channels. And 'floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee' turned into a popular song that young folk could celebrate, even dance to. So somehow, against all odds, his fan club grew. Stories of his kindness and generosity abound – handing out one hundred dollar bills to beggars in South America, signing countless autographs, always happy to chat to his fans whether they were homeless people, a hot dog seller, hordes of school kids, boxers-in-making, grandmothers or teenagers. He loved his fans and he reached out to ordinary people.

Muhammad Ali posing with his boxing gloves.

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But Muhammad Ali moved from being merely an iconic boxing champion to a global giant standing up for the poor and oppressed when his refusal to fight in Vietnam hit the headlines. ‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?’ he asked. And history was made. No one could call the man a coward. He'd showed the world he could take a pounding in the arena. Now he chose to sacrifice his career, when he was at the pinnacle of success, for a principle. He was not accorded the status of civil rights leader, but much before Martin Luther King, Ali declared that fighting an unjust war against innocent people who had never harmed you, was immoral.

After his death, world headlines brought us little known or forgotten details. How he flew to Brixton in solidarity with black British people fighting the colour bar and discrimination, in the UK of the sixties. He continued to protest racism and he did so with his characteristic bombast, his unstoppable big mouth. And the world loved him for it.

Joe Frazier lands a left hook on Muhammad Ali during the first of their three epic battles at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 1971.

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Ali fought Parkinson’s disease with everything he had, with unbelievable bravery and dignity. He declared with characteristic child-like simplicity that he was not afraid to die. He comforted a woman fan who burst into tears at the sight of the once magnificent physique devastated by Parkinson’s. 'I've lived a good life', he told her, 'No regrets'. His wife Lonnie read out a quote about Parkinson’s having been caused because of boxing injuries. ‘If he had it to do all over, he’d live his life the same way. He’d still choose to be a fighter.’ On hearing the quote, Muhammad sat up straight in his chair and said, ‘You bet I would.’

By the time he died, the world would agree, here was a man who had earned his title. Not just as a boxer. In standing up for his principles at a time when so few people dare to do so, Ali didn’t merely box himself into the Hall of Fame. Like Julius Caesar, we are compelled to say 'This was a man.'

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali (R) jabs at photographers while arriving at the Orpheum Theatre for the premiere of the film "Collateral" in Los Angeles in this 2 August, 2004 file photo.

Credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/File Photo

Photo gallery continued

Muhammad Ali is seen cuddling his daughters Laila, (L ) and Hana (R) at a Hotel in London, Britain 19 December, 1978.

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Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) speaks to Muslims holding a book called Towards Understanding Islam written by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi in London, Britain in May 1966. Ali was in London for of his rematch with British Heavyweight Henry Cooper.

Credit: Action Images/MSI/File Photo

Worshipers and well-wishers take photographs as the casket with the body of Muhammad Ali is brought for his jenazah.

Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A woman holds the Holy book Quran during the jenazah.

Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Nahed Ahmed Zeead (C), 51, of Iraq, takes part in the jenazah.

Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson