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Meeting Muhammad Ali was like being hit by a verbal tornado. A lot safer than the real thing but in a one-on-one interview, there were only two people in the ring. One had the jab, the lip and the combination punches; the other just lay back and soaked it up, trying to keep up with the speed of delivery and the message. There was a third person in the ring, not the referee, but the aura, the indefinable thing that speaks of greatness. I spent 90 minutes interviewing Muhammad Ali in 1980 in New Delhi and came away feeling like I’d just gone a few rounds with him in a boxing ring, so intense was the crusade and so overpowering his faith. At no point in contemporary history has Islam been blessed with such a universally admired and respected ambassador.
As he told me then: “How many people can say ‘I think I’ll go to see Brezhnev’ (then Soviet Union supremo), get on a plane, and one hour after I arrive, I’m sitting in his office rapping with him.” I was a little bleary-eyed because of the ungodly hour he had picked for the meeting: 7 am at his luxury suite at the Maurya hotel. Since his arrival in India the day before, Ali had been constantly on his feet, mobbed wherever he went. Yet, when I arrived, he looked fresh. He’d been awake since 5 am, when he’d risen to pray and read from the Qur’an. He was already showing the effects of Parkinson’s Syndrome: there was a tremble in his hands. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself, and there was no reason for anyone else to feel sorry for him. What kept him going was his faith and the quest for peace. “This is not going to be the kind of interview you’re expecting. I’m tired of talking about boxing—how many people in this country are interested in boxing anyway? I’m gonna talk about the new Muhammad Ali and what makes him tick. I’m going to talk about my mission in life. You just sit there and listen real good and you lay it down just the way I say it.” Those were his opening words and it was clear to me that, even as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace. As President Obama wrote: ‘He shook up the world and the world’s better for it.’
I got an early glimpse of the Muhammad Ali who would shake up the world. Even as his then-wife, Veronica, fussed about, trying to keep Ali from exerting himself, the man who called himself The Greatest was in full flow—a fighter for a higher cause. I recalled what he had once said: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.” Those goals he outlined in that one-sided conversation in 1980. “God didn’t make me popular just to be a movie star or spend my day playing games. My mission is to do something good in the world.I’ve been offered roles in movies that could keep me busy for the next 10 years. World champion boxers have offered me millions to train them. But I wouldn’t be satisfied spending the rest of my life in a gymnasium or on a movie set. I want to do something good for humanity, for peace in the world. What I’m doing is taking my popularity and using it on people. I can go to Russia and meet Brezhnev, I can go to China and talk to Deng, I can go to Libya where I know Gaddafi well, and now I know Mrs Gandhi and your President. So if I can take all this and do something with it as an individual, not political, not racial, just doing something to make life a little better for people.”
Mohammad Ali seen with Indira Gandhi
He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless—calling Joe Frazier ‘Gorilla’, for example—and a little confused as Islamic militancy grew. But what I caught in that meeting in New Delhi was his wonderfully infectious, innocent spirit. There have been few more powerful forces for peace and reconciliation around the world. The world watched a hero light a torch in Atlanta with unsteady hands and realized that he was fighting his greatest fight of all on the world stage once again; a battle against the disease that ravaged his body, but couldn’t take the sparkle from his eyes. There has, quite simply, never been an athlete like him. There have been those bestowed with the title “the greatest”—Pele, Federer, Tendulkar—but Ali was the first to be called The Greatest of All Time. The rest became rich and famous but took no stand and ruffled no feathers. Whereas Ali used his popularity and his influence to travel the world 300 days a year once he retired, spreading the message of Islam; his Islam, which focused on peace. He fought for the rights of the underprivileged, even if it meant losing his title, being banned from the sport during his peak years, and facing the threat of jail.
Many years later, I made a pilgrimage to his hometown Louisville, and his modest home at 3302 Grand Avenue, now turned into a museum, where the full import of his life and times came alive. I was no hardcore boxing fan but I was a fan of Ali, converted by his passion and his unceasing crusade. Inside, there was memorabilia aplenty—a sparkly robe to wear in the ring given to him by Elvis Presley with the phrase ‘People’s Choice’ inscribed on the back. The clapboard house is now a shrine but Louisville, where segregation thrived during his childhood years, was converted. This is his city and he is its favourite son, with a Muhammad Ali Avenue, Mohammad Ali Boulevard and the six-story Mohammad Ali Centre and now the museum. The Centre features a mock boxing ring, a two-level pavilion housing boxing memorabilia and history. A large projector displays his signature fight with George Foreman, arguably the greatest fight of all time. There are medals and gifts from world leaders as well as a crazy looking easy rider motorbike he once owned. Everybody in Louisville will tell you a personal story about Ali but if you are seeking answers to the legacy he leaves behind, it is here. He left here to become the most famous man in the world and by the time he finished boxing, he had changed the Louisville of his youth—a segregated, provincial city—forever.
What made me such a fan was not so much what he said, but what others who I admired wrote about him. Those books line one of the walls and they include writers of the calibre of Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter Thomson, George Plimpton. They were all critical assessments of the man and his influence. Many consider Mailer’s The Fight to be the greatest book ever written on any sport. This was Mailer at the peak of his powers and covers perhaps the most important fight in Ali’s career, the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. No one gave Ali a chance against Foreman, who was supposed to be unbeatable. Ali, of course, stunned the world with a whole new strategy (one he christened Rope a Dope), winning back the heavyweight title. This is the story of the fight, told by one of the greatest authors of our time. Mailer had access to Ali, Foreman, their trainers and followers, and he roamed Zaire, picking up local vibes. The result is history.
The Ali story, however, remains untold. As he told me in between his beloved magic tricks with strings and coins; “I can’t say I’m going to solve all the problems of the world. Jesus Christ couldn’t do it. Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t do it. Mohammad or the Queen of England can’t do it. All we can do is contribute a little something. And I’m sure as hell going to try and do whatever I can, in my own way.” Ailing and old, Ali stood by his beliefs, taking on Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from America. Ali’s last words for public consumption were these: “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.” Throughout our talk, he gave glimpses of his persona and beliefs, showing that lack of higher education was no barrier to intellectual growth. His words to me in 1980 sound so prophetic now that he is gone aged 74. ”One day, we are all going to die. Life is so short. One day you’re a little baby and somebody is changing your diapers. And before you know it, you are a 90-year-old and somebody is still changing your diapers. “He spoke most movingly about Islam and civil rights and the healing that needed to happen so the world could be a better place, ending the interview with this: “It all starts with Muhammad Ali. I’ve made my move. Now it’s up to the rest of the world.”
A statetement released by his spokesperson says that Mohammad Ali began giving directions regarding his funeral decades back. He insisted that his last rites be conducted in the tradition of his adopted faith—Islam—and that they take place with as much inclusion of poor people of colour as possible. The proceedings have begun and they will include a festival and funeral prayer event.