Growing up with Mohammad Ali’s Legend

This is 1971 and I am in class IV in Islamabad. I find myself in the midst of young people animatedly discussing the impending fight of the century in  a charged environment. We in Pakistan are excited about a Cassius Clay who converted to Islam and became Mohammad Ali but was stripped of his Heavy Weight Champion title for refusing to join the Vietnam War or for having converted to Islam. He was going to fight Joe Frazier who was the reigning champion to reclaim his title. Both were undefeated and were going to enter a fight which has been hailed as the Fight of the Century.

In USA this was a black anti-war, young, liberal fighting against the white, conservative America. In Pakistan this was a fight of a young black Muslim who was stripped off his title for having converted to Islam and who was fighting against the white supremacists who had been our former colonial masters and slave owners who had ravaged Africa for slaves and diamonds.

I remember around that time getting hold of an issue of the Monthly Sayyara Digest during a visit to one of our relatives and absorbing that lengthy but interesting life narrative of the legend in making: His childhood, winning of the Olympics gold medal, winning of the world heavy weight champion title, the journey of Cassius Clay becoming Mohammad Ali, his fights, his outbursts, and his fight with the US Establishment for not accepting the draft and being sentenced to prison and getting stripped of his title.  The reading had a profound impact on me as I can see the picture of that day when I was reading his life history imprinted on my mind; there is a vivid recall of that house in Chachi Mohallah near Raja Bazar Rawalpindi, its balcony, the weather, the daylight, the arrangements, even the setting of the room. How effortlessly one remembers things and events that are accompanied by strong feelings and emotions!

I remember discussing animatedly the upcoming fight with my fellow student in my school after my pack up time as I waited for my elder sister in the senior section to get off. Her pack up time was some time after the junior section pack up time. I can still see me; a small kid of 9 years, sitting on those stairs leading up to the auditorium (of my school IMSG, now known as ICG), waiting and animatedly discussing that impending Fight of the Century. The next scene is myself again after the fight. Mohammad Ali had lost.  I see vividly myself again waiting for my sister, after my pack up time; sitting alone on those stairs, thinking deeply about the loss: My hero had lost. I am deeply disappointed. I think it is my defeat; it is defeat of my belief, and defeat of my aspirations. How desperately I tried to grapple with those feelings of being out and down. I remember brooding over that loss for nights, for days and even month. But, my hero had that tenacity to fight back and rise up from defeats. This was only the first time he had lost. But, he would rise and will win Super Fight II” and the “Thrilla in Manila” against his rival Joe Frazier, with a final tally of 2 wins vs 1 loss.  There would be several more losses later such as the loss in 1973 to  Ken Norton who broke Ali’s jaw while giving him the second loss of his career. This led him to seek retirement, but came back to win a controbersial decision against Norton in their second bout. But, with each loss and a setback, my hero would muster that tenacity to rise up again again and again.

Thank you, PTV,  for enabling us to view this and other fights. A luxury in those days of local TV broadcasts. That fight followed by fights with Ken Norton, the repeat fights with Joe Frazier and then of course the The Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 which was again telecast live and was accompanied by such a breathtaking buildup. We waited with our fingers crossed and tense and praying day after day for his eventual victory. This was the highest point of my adulation for Mohammad Ali. Later fights could never attain the same crescendo. The Vietnam war was over, the conflicts has decreased, civil rights movement was in ascendancy, the rebel views of Mohammad Ali were becoming mainstream. His task was done. He has laid his mark on history. During all this rise of his fame and of course privileges, he was being milked dry by his promoter Don King and the way he lost all the millions that he made is a sorrowfully captured in that documentary that I saw several years ago.  The later fights were more of celebrity shows and commercial such as the  1976 contest versus professional wrestler Antonio Inoki  which generated a great hoopla and fanfare in Pakistan, but ended more in a whimper than a bang. Finally, he had to throw in the gloves and reconcile to the fact that he was only a human in the end with his fights with Spinks and Larry Holmes!

The interests that these fights generated in Pakistan and our religious addiction to all news related to these fights made me an avid reader of newspapers both English and Urdu. It had a tremendous impact on my comprehension and also my understanding of the underlying issues as I followed intensely the reports of his fights in the newspapers.

As I remember his passing away, I can co-relate the rise of his legend with the rise of my awareness and understanding of the world around me, and its connection with my understanding of a hero who is only a human and whose frailties are that of a man with limits to his power and faculties. This became increasingly evident with his advancing years and also the onset of Parkinson and the realization that the Greatest can only be the creator and not a man. A very painful and a sombre realization for a child growing up with the legend!

His greatest triumph was to stand up to the greatest superpower of the world and to say out powerfully what no one else could have done, except him at that juncture of time. With following words, he started that great rise of protests against US involvement in Vietnam:

Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating that he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong”.[46] “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father…. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”[47] He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeals process. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8–0 ruling[Wikipedia]

What a man! The greatest sportsman of the century!

[I wrote the first two paragraphs of this post about one year before his death]

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