My father was not particularly fond of sport; far from it in fact. But one sportsman whose career he avidly followed was that of Muhammad Ali. It could not have been from actually watching footage of the footwork of the balletic boxer (unless he had watched some fights on German television in the 1960s before we relocated to Goa). By the time we had television here in Goa in 1982, Ali was two years away from being diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. And my father really never took a shine to television. So his fascination with Ali must have stemmed from coverage in the national press, Time magazine and the radio.
He would follow the fights (I clearly remember the fights versus Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks) on the radio as if his own life depended on the outcome.
And my own fascination with this giant Ali began too, listening to the news bulletins and reading about his trademark bravado and taunts.
What really ingrained the “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” catchphrase in our young minds was the song “Black Superman” by Derrick Morgan. I am not sure how the 45 rpm record came into the house or even what was on Side B, but the song became a fast favourite. It was the first song I had heard of that was about a sportsman, and a living legend at that.
A friend of ours had just got a proper drum set, which found residence in our house as well. He got a huge picture of an eagle painted on the bass drum, so of course we were The Eagles. That a bunch of guys halfway across the globe also went by that name did not matter one jot to us in Post Office Square. A motley group of six or seven of us would take turns playing drums, violin, bulbul tarang (the Indian “banjo”) and tambourine, belting out the hit songs of the time with gusto.
The cacophony and decibel level could often provoke the ire of my father. When we heard a crescendo of ominous footsteps approaching, one good way to defuse the situation would be segue seamlessly into the “Black Superman” refrain. By the time he had entered the room, the song would be well underway and his scowl would melt into a smile, and he would even join in for the punchline: “He calls to the other guy “I’m A-A-li! Catch me if you can!””
Muhammad Ali gradually disappeared from the sports news headlines in the 1980s, especially after his illness with Parkinson’s syndrome. It was only later that I read about his historic stance on the Vietnam War, and his refusal to be drafted into the US armed forces in 1966, even though his career suffered immensely on account of it.
He made his reasons abundantly clear, much perhaps to the embarrassment of White America: “My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.”
When confronted by a belligerent student at a college campus, he elaborated even further: “I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”
He had cocked a snook at the white establishment in America a few years earlier, in 1964 as well, in changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and embracing Islam: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
This was no publicity stunt. He had done an extended study of religions before being convinced that Islam was the best way to bring about lasting peace, the “truth and the light”.
“A rooster crows only when it sees the light,” he said. “Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.”
And contrary to the current hysteria about Islam in the press worldwide, it was the tenets of this same religion that prevented him from going to war in 1966.
“The real name is Islam. That means peace. Yet people brand us a hate group. They say we want to take over the country……That is not true.”
With the spectre of Donald Trump looming large over the US, and Islamophobia and fascism being peddled by an increasingly right-leaning world leadership, Ali’s words are more relevant than ever.
Ali’s anti-war stance flew in the face of the notion of what one was supposed to do for one’s country. It took courage to follow the direction of his own moral, ethical compass even if it seemed “unpatriotic”, “anti-national” to do so.
In the words of New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden in his 2013 article: “Why should a black man, whose ancestors had been raped and beaten, deprived of human rights in the name of building a democracy, take up arms to fight an immoral war?”
One might ask the same question of oppressed peoples in other countries. Why should they don a uniform and shed their blood in the service of a nation that did not treat them with dignity and equality in their own land?
Ali’s actions changed Rhoden’s notion of “what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”
For throwing these questions into public debate, quite apart from his remarkable achievements in the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali deserves to be called “The Greatest”.
(An edited version of this article was published on 19 June 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)