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Peerless and fearless: Muhammad Ali was simply The Greatest

In death, as in life, he straddled the world like a colossus.

Photo: Late former US boxing champion and global icon Muhammad Ali. (Copyright CNN)
Photo: Late former US boxing champion and global icon Muhammad Ali.
(Copyright CNN)

All the major international news networks suspended regular programming to pay homage to Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer ever, the supreme sporting figure of the 20th Century, the defiant one who sacrificed a successful career on the altar of principle.

Just four years older than me, Ali symbolised the rebelliousness of so many of my generation, it was almost as if we knew him, grew up with him, that when he spoke out, confronted what we had dubbed “the establishment” in those heady days, his was our voice.

In the boxing ring he was peerless and fearless. As Cassius Clay, he first came to my attention—I think I write for many of my generation—in 1964 when he challenged the fearsome heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.

By then, Ali had won gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960 at age eighteen, turned professional, and beaten a few notables, among them the legendary but ageing Archie Moore and British champion Henry Cooper.

Liston was another kind of animal: he had won all his fights in recent times, many by knockout, including the demolition of the great Floyd Patterson in two fights, both in the first round.

Photo: Then world heavyweight boxing contender Cassius Clay (right) clowns around with The Beatles on 18 February 1964. The Beatles had hoped to meet reigning champion Sonny Liston and not, as John Lennon put it: "that loudmouth who's going to lose." Liston turned them down and they met Clay instead. Days later Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world and, later as Muhammad Ali, become one of the 20th century's most famous persons. (Copyright Harry Benson)
Photo: Then world heavyweight boxing contender Cassius Clay (right) clowns around with The Beatles on 18 February 1964.
The Beatles had hoped to meet reigning champion Sonny Liston and not, as John Lennon put it: “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.” Liston turned them down and they met Clay instead.
Days later Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world and, later as Muhammad Ali, become one of the 20th century’s most famous persons.
(Copyright Harry Benson)

And here was this brash, handsome challenger vowing to “whip him in eight”, poking insults at the giant he called the “Big Bear”. Liston was the overwhelming favourite, and that night as I sat glued to the radio to listen to the fight, my heart was thumping, probably faster than Ali’s.

When Ali survived the first round, it seemed like a miracle. As the fight progressed and the announcer described Ali’s lightening-like fists and foot-works, that he was actually punching Liston and absorbing blows from the Bear, my mood changed, my spirits soared.

By the time Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, I was delirious, dancing and singing, “Clay won! He beat Liston!”

It was one of the biggest upsets not only in boxing, but in sporting history—and we were there, radio-side, to witness the birth of The Greatest. Such moments are cherished for a lifetime.

From then on, Ali—he would announce his name-change and his acceptance of Islam shortly after that victory—became my hero.

Photo: Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay (left), celebrates after his stunning win over Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. (Courtesy Bleacher Report)
Photo: Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay (left), celebrates after his stunning win over Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title.
(Courtesy Bleacher Report)

No pun intended, but he would go on to prove that unlike so many icons who flatter to deceive or who would crumble when faced with an establishment bent on breaking them, Ali did not have feet of clay.

In the ring, he reigned supreme. In the three years after he took the title and was stripped of it for refusing to fight in Vietnam, he floored Liston in round one in the return match, demolished Patterson in like manner, and ended the boxing careers of Cooper and Zora Folley.

His fight against racism in America and against being drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam endeared him to radicals across the world. However, White America hated him and literally prayed for him to be beaten by any opponent who derided Ali’s radicalism and his new religion.

Both Patterson and Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him Clay, and who said they were fighting him “to win back the title for America”—suggesting that Ali was unpatriotic—paid a bloody price for their folly.

As he flogged them, he taunted: What’s my name? Call me Ali!

Photo: Muhammad Ali (right), then Cassius Clay, glares at fallen heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. (Copyright Entrepello.com)
Photo: Muhammad Ali (right), then Cassius Clay, glares at fallen heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
(Copyright Entrepello.com)

Ali did not dodge the draft because he was unpatriotic or a coward. He fought Liston when Cooper and other challengers were afraid to tackle “The Bear.”

He refused to fight in Vietnam because he believed it was an unjust war—as did millions of other Americans and people of varying ethnicities across the world. Some of the biggest antiwar demonstrations were staged in the UK and Europe.

Ali had the guts to say: I’ve got no war against the Viet Cong… no Cong ever called me nigger!

The hypocrites who to this day label Ali a draft dodger never point to other very prominent Americans who avoided or evaded being drafted: ex-Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton; ex-vice presidents Dan Quayle and Al Gore; Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Michael Bloomberg…

Above and beyond his prowess as a boxer, Ali fought the Washington establishment and at least 200 million hostile White Americans, not to add several million Blacks (oh yes—Uncle Toms all) based on principle: the war against Vietnam was unjust and made no sense.

Photo: An anti-Vietnam war protest in the United States.
Photo: An anti-Vietnam war protest in the United States.

He was right, they were wrong.

In his second coming as a boxer, he was nowhere as pretty as he had been in the 1960s. But his stature as a world statesman, a humanitarian, someone who would stand up and speak out for what he believed was right, never dimmed.

That eternal flame remains with us even after Ali breathed his last.

Photo: Former US boxing champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, poses on 1 January 1965. Ali died on Friday 3 June 2016, at the age of 74, after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. (Copyright Pigiste/AFP 2016)
Photo: Former US boxing champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, poses on 1 January 1965.
Ali died on Friday 3 June 2016, at the age of 74, after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
(Copyright Pigiste/AFP 2016)

About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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30 comments

  1. The honor rebel, Muhammad Ali. A man of principle!

  2. Nice tribute Raf.. Muhammad Ali was my hero. On the proverbial list of dream dinner companions, I have always had two, Jesus Christ and Muhammad Ali. I was too young to catch him at his athletic prime, but that didn’t diminish him in my eyes. My favorite memory of all however, was his surprise lighting of the Olympic flame in Atlanta 1996. With his tremors threatening to rob us all of that historic moment, he quieted them long enough to light the flame, his courage and determination causing many a misty eye around the world in the process.

  3. What a human being! The Greatest indeed!!

  4. Well, truth is there have always been whites who helped the blacks too. And this dates all the way back to slavery. It was never true to say all whites were this or the other. Same for any race on any topic I’m sure.
    But Ali was a blow to the racist system for sure.

    • I wasn’t suggesting that that applied to all whites . Just like today. The point I was making is that in that era Ali must have represented the “establishments” worst nightmare. A black man who refused to be controlled..had no cover for his mouth and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he knew was right.

    • Rose-Marie, and also one they couldn’t ignore because of his undeniable talent, charisma and star dust. I agree.

    • It’s a wonder he got passed the Mafia. I heard that one if his fights was under a suspicion of sorts. Even as I think he fully won it fairly, it’s astonishing that he broke the hold that the Mafia had on boxing.

    • Ali had extraordinary common sense intelligence even as he was a dud at the books – which is what makes him all the more admirable than most.

    • You might underestimate the Nation of Islam. Not easily bullied. Even by the mafia.

    • Wasn’t Ali Cassius Clay when he won his first fight? He was nowhere near the Nation at the time unless you’re suggesting that the Nation suddenly saw him and convinced the Mafia to make an exception.

      When Cassius Clay emerged, boxing was the Mafia’s metier and forte. People had stopped attending fights because the vast majority were rigged. It was Cassius who also revived the love of the sport.

    • Linda, he was in the Nation of Islam before he won the title.
      They knew he would not have gotten the title fight as a Nation of Islam member.

    • Oh very interesting indeed. Must read up more on him then. I suppose you’re referring to the world heavyweight in 1964 against Sonny Liston. Very interesting, would make sense.

  5. This was really great reading. For many younger generations who might be wondering what the fuss was all about. He really was larger than life. White people back in those days must have truly feared him more than they hated him.

  6. They don’t make em like that anymore. A wonderful review from Raffique.
    And I hope the inserted YouTube clips help. 🙂

  7. Yeah. My uncle, Embau, was a huge Ali fan. So growing up, when I visited my grand mom, there was Ali’s biography, tapes, fights…
    There was no shortage of Muhammad Ali or the Mighty Sparrow for me.
    Along with Ivan Van Sertima, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael…

  8. Andrew Gioannetti the white devils just wanted the African Americans to represent my second sweetest country just for them to be continued to be eliminated eh, yuh remember when they also injected them with syphilis I think it was eh and always trying all kind of other experiments on them eh, so my Hero was very right to refuse to join the devils to go and fight against people that he had no quarrel with especially how my African Americans was always treated when they returned to my second sweetest country from fighting the wars for them eh. Them really good yes.

  9. Raf reflected exactly how I felt during that era. Radio tortured us more,because we could only imagine what was going on in that American gayelle. We lived and almost died with this man.

  10. From my understanding of his legacy and of all the articles dedicated to him that I’ve read, this one is among the best. Wonderfully painted. This was my favourite line: “Both Patterson and Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him Clay, and who said they were fighting him to win back the title for America”—suggesting that Ali was unpatriotic—paid a bloody price for their folly.”

    Ali was far from unpatriotic. The war mongers were unpatriotic. I’m not sure if his stance was necessarily based the idiocy of the war itself or the irony of calling African Americans to represent the US in war (at that time) or both, but he was 110% correct.

  11. So pretty! So pretty! So mean I can make medicine sick!

    Truly the world’s greatest. Rest in power, Muhammad Ali.

  12. Scotty Ranking

    We’ve lost some true iconic greats this year so far. Give it up for the world’s greatest boxer ever. Class act to the end.

  13. My Hero, Gone and never ever will be forgotten (R.I.P.)