Muhammad Ali

Fighter all the way

Print edition : July 08, 2016

February 1964, Miami Beach, Florida: Preparing for his first heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston. Photo: ERNIE SISTO/NYT

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). Photo: FRANKA BRUNS/AP

Miami Beach, February 26, 1964: Bobbing and weaving to stay clear of the feared left arm of Sonny Liston. Photo: AP

Manila, The Philippines, October 1, 1975: In the ninth round of the heavyweight title fight against Joe Frazier. Photo: MITSUNORI CHIGITA/AP

Louisville, October 29, 1960: His first as a professional, against Tunney Hunsaker. Photo: AP

Las Vegas, November 22, 1965: Against Floyd Patterson in the heavyweight title defence. Photo: AP

Frankfurt, September 10, 1966: Knocking down Karl Mildenberger in the world title clash. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971: Felled by the famed left hook of Joe Frazier. Photo: LARRY C. MORRIS/NYT

Houston, July 27, 1971: Declared winner over Jimmy Ellis, his former sparring partner. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Madison Square Garden, January 28, 1974: In the rematch against Joe Frazier, which he won. Photo: AP

New York, March 1, 1964: With the black Muslim leader Malcolm X outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theatre in New York City, after watching a screening of films on Ali's title fight with Sonny Liston. Photo: AP

The April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine.

Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974: George Foreman knocked out in round eight of the heavyweight title fight. Photo: AP

Richfield, Ohio, March 24, 1975: Against Chuck Wepner in round 15 of the title bout that he went on to win. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

New York, September 28, 1976: Landing a punch on Ken Norton during their title bout. Photo: BARTON SILVERMAN/NYT

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) defined not just his sport but also the very age and time he lived in and was its biggest cultural symbol.

EVERY legend has its beginning —an event or an act that changes the course of the destiny of an individual and puts him or her on the path to immortality. Muhammad Ali’s legend does not begin with a tearful 12-year-old wanting to learn boxing from a kindly white police officer so he could “whup” whoever had stolen his bicycle; nor does it in his achieving the seemingly impossible by defeating the apparently invincible time and again inside the ring; nor even in his taking on the entire establishment of the United States for the sake of remaining true to his convictions. The source of Ali’s legend lies somewhere at the bottom of the Ohio river, where among the ancient sands lies buried for 56 years an Olympic gold medal for the Light Heavyweight boxing title.

He returned from the 1960 Rome Olympics a hero, the champion, just 18 years old, and the toast of the whole nation. He was so proud of his medal that he wore it all the time. “To me the gold medal was more than what I had achieved for myself and my country; there was something I expected the medal to achieve for me,” he later said. The rules that so far existed for him and other coloured residents of segregated Louisville, he thought, would no longer apply to him on the strength of his gold medal. It was his magic talisman, the key to his winning from society the personal dignity that was his due. So when the waitress in the “whites only” restaurant told him that he and his childhood friend Ronnie King could not be served there, he patiently explained: “Miss, I’m Cassius Clay, the Olympic champion.” The flustered waitress scurried to consult the owner, a large, swarthy man with “a huge stomach bulging over his apron tie” (as Ali remembered him later), who said loud enough for all to hear: “I don’t give a damn who he is. I done told you we don’t serve no nigger.”

It was the pride and self-discipline of a trained and professional fighter to not indulge himself in his moment of anger that persuaded the young Clay to quietly walk away, but the fire that was lighted in his soul was never to be extinguished. He was good enough to sign autographs for little white children, but not good enough to eat in the same room as them. Also present at the restaurant was a motorbike gang, complete with long chains and Nazi insignia, should there be any confusion relating to their politics. The gang followed Clay out deciding to teach the “Olympic nigger” a lesson; but they turned out to be no match for the champ and the loyal and deadly Ronnie with his mother-of-pearl-handled switchblade which he had acquired from a dying pimp.

On the bank of the Ohio river, while washing off the blood from the battle, the young champion saw the light. “And for the first time I saw it [the medal] for what it was. Ordinary, just an object. It had lost its magic. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon....” He walked to the middle of the Jefferson County Bridge, under which the dark waters of the Ohio ran the deepest, and, to the stunned anguish of Ronnie, watched the medal sink to the bottom of the river. It was a moment of supreme liberation in which an icon was born.

He did not need a medal to define him. From injustice and oppression rose one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. His destiny no longer lay in boxing alone; he was already on the path to becoming a symbol of rebellion and struggle for personal dignity and individuality in the face of relentless social and political pressure. There were others before him—Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black heavyweight champion, and the great Joe Louis, who was the heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949—who also stood up to racial prejudice and social oppression with courage and dignity, but none had the kind of impact on the whole world that Muhammad Ali had.

There is no place on this planet where people do not know the name of Muhammad Ali. This could never have happened if he were merely the greatest boxer that ever graced the ring, for Ali did not just define his sport, he defined the very age and times he lived in. He was its biggest cultural symbol, and, like all that survives the harsh and ruthless selection of history, his image and influence were not confined to any one particular period of time.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, he was first introduced to boxing at the age of 12 by Joe Martin, a white police officer and boxing coach. A tearful and indignant Clay had gone to report to the police the theft of his bicycle from a local fair, and promised to “whup” whoever had taken it once he found him. Martin then convinced the little boy that in order to “whup” someone, he first needed to learn how to fight. Clay did not need much persuasion and threw himself wholeheartedly into training. Even as most of his friends and schoolmates had their frequent skirmishes with the law, Clay’s dedication to boxing kept him out of trouble. To improve his reflexes, he made his brother Rudy (Rudolph, younger to him by 13 months, who later changed his name to Rahman Ali) throw rocks at his head while he would sway from side to side to avoid them. Such training perhaps explains how even after 61 professional fights, his face remained as “pretty” as ever. He had won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, and the national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) title before winning the 1960 Olympic gold in the Light Heavyweight category.

On his return from Rome, Clay turned professional and signed a six-year contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group comprising 10 Louisville millionaires. His first fight was against Tunney Hunsaker on October 29, 1960, which he won in six rounds. Clay at that time had chosen the legendary Archie Moore to be his trainer, and the Sponsoring Group arranged for it. Moore, the longest reigning Light Heavyweight champion of the world (1952-1962), was a fighter that young Clay admired, both for his tactics inside the ring as well as outside. Moore had a habit of baiting other fighters in order to get a chance to fight them. He even managed to get a shot at the heavyweight title against Rocky Marciano with carefully crafted gimmickry in 1955. Moore, of course, lost to the only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history (so far). Clay, and later Ali, learnt to use the strategy of baiting fighters like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and George Foreman when it came to seeking a shot at the title for himself.

But the old champion and his new protégé did not get along very well. Clay particularly resented the fact that he was made to do household chores at the Moore residence, and during a practice bout he gave vent to his frustrations, stunning the old warrior. Soon after that Clay left Moore and got himself under the expertise of the great and wily Angelo Dundee, who remained in Ali’s corner for all his fight (except the first one with Hunsaker and the 1971 fights against Jimmy Ellis).

The world of boxing is one of high drama, a world of great heroics as well as intrigues and backroom deals, a world of unparalleled glamour, unbelievable corruption. Where often sinister shadowy figures control the strings and the purses, and pugilists are mere puppets and pawns in the hands of powers they can barely comprehend. In such a world, Clay stepped in like a messiah, to change the very perception of the sport. He was a phenomenon never witnessed before and never will be again for what can be done inside the ring and outside. Before fights Ali would taunt and insult his opponents in rhyming couplets, and predict the rounds in which they would go down. In fact, for a while so accurate were his predictions and so hilarious his doggerels that he soon became known as the poet laureate and prophet of the boxing world and won for himself the sobriquet “The Louisville Lip”.

Before his fight with his old mentor Archie Moore in November 1962, he said:

“When you come to the fight,

Don’t block the halls,

And don’t block the door,

For y’all may go home,

After round four”

Moore was almost 46 years old at that time, and Clay never took great credit for this win. However, this was his first fight against a truly great champion—even though he may have been way past his prime—and one that drew international attention and brought him a step closer to challenging the heavyweight champion.

The crowds just adored him. Even those who hated him loved him. Clay may have been young, but he was canny enough to know that his antics and his brash and arrogant attitude were drawing in the crowds. They wanted to see the loud-mouthed braggart fall. “Shut him up,” they would scream. “Hit him in his big mouth.” Amidst these shouts and boos, Clay could be seen supremely confident, and smiling. It was all going according to his plan. However much they wanted to see him fall, he could not be beaten in the ring. “The louder the boos, the surer I was that some promoter would see that there was more money to be made with me fighting a title match than any so-called contender above me,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story.

He was the lord of the outrageous, the king of cool, the high priest of psychological warfare. They could not match the speed of either his mouth or his fists. They were as helpless outside the ring, at the onslaught of his tongue, as they were inside, facing the flurry of his blows. In an age when boxers remained silent and trainers and managers did the talking, Clay, with his incessant jabbering, was considered a freak. Years later, Angelo Dundee affectionately recalled, “When I was with this guy for the first four years, everyone thought I was a mute. I couldn’t get a word in.”

But sometimes even he would get carried away by his own proclamations and land himself in trouble, like the time he fought Britain’s darling Henry Cooper (later Sir Henry Cooper), referred to by his fans as ‘Enry’s ’Ammer for his famed left hook, in June 1963 in Great Britain. Before the fight, Clay had dismissed Cooper as a “bum” and had predicted, “This ain’t no jive / Henry Cooper will fall in five.” Clay was dominating the fight from the start and with his stinging jabs had opened a cut above Cooper’s eye. He wanted to get him in the fifth so he was not laying out too hard; but in the third, distracted by Elizabeth Taylor in the front row, he let his guard down, and the famed left hook smashed into Clay’s jaws and knocked him down. Dazed and slumped against the ropes on the canvas, Clay was saved by the bell. He proceeded to win the fight, as the cut on Cooper’s eye got worse and the referee had to stop the bout. Later Clay acknowledged that “Cooper hit me so hard that he not only shook me, but also shook my relations in Africa”. True to style, Clay had worn a crown and a regal robe to the ring. Asked about his attire after the fight, he said: “I understand you have a queen in England, but you don’t have a king.” They even loved his insolence.

World Heavyweight champion

In 1964, with an undefeated record of 19 professional fights under his belt, Clay was the number one challenger for the heavyweight crown held by the terrifying Sonny Liston. Liston was the original bogeyman with a baleful stare that could chill your blood, a mob-controlled champion whose life outside the ring was as tragic and fragile as it was invincible and frightening inside it. Ali, in spite of his dazzling talent, his impressive record and his Olympic gold, was considered no match for the indestructible reigning world champion.

But Clay was confident of victory. He had been pestering Liston incessantly for six months before the fight. He was outside his house, outside his gym; on one occasion, he landed up in a casino while Liston was playing dice. But when Liston took out a gun and fired in the air, Clay and his companions bolted like erring children running from chastisement. The gun was full of blanks and Liston shot at himself to prove that. Clay had a good laugh about it later, but it was one of the rare occasions when someone got the better of him outside the ring. Clay wrote a poem describing the fight before it took place:

Clay comes out to meet Liston

And Liston starts to retreat

If he goes back any farther

He’ll end up in the ringside seat.

He had predicted that Liston would fall at eight. But it happened before that. Clay was just too fast and too skilled and those dreaded fists of Liston’s that could shatter bones barely touched him. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee/ His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” Liston refused to answer the bell in the seventh round. “I shook the world! I shook the world! Oh I’m so pretty! I’m the King of the World!” the 22-year-old champion exclaimed after the win.

The heavyweight boxing champion of the world has always been one of the most famous and recognisable names in the world, and there have been great champions. But when Cassius Clay stepped into the professional ring for the first time, he took the sport to a different level; and as long as he was dancing, shuffling, swaying and weaving about in the squared circle, boxing had a magic of its own, which simply disappeared the day Muhammad Ali bowed out. He was 6’3”, a heavyweight who moved as lightly as a middleweight, had the fastest hands and feet ever seen, and was better looking than Elvis Presley.

By that time Clay had already come under the influence of the Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad and its charismatic spokesperson Malcolm X. Soon after his victory, Clay proclaimed to the world that he had converted to Islam and announced his new name, Muhammad Ali. “Cassius Clay was a slave name. I’m no longer a slave,” he said. It was clear from that moment that this would be a world champion like no other. Nothing was more important to him—not public opinion, not even the world title as it would later be evident—than his pride, his convictions and his identity. Even if some of his views after his conversion appeared to be fundamentalist, he did not care. He would not play the game of deception that others wanted him to play. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think, right? I don’t believe in forced integration.” Even if one did not agree with him, it was hard not to respect him.

The controversial Ali-Liston rematch took place in May 1965 in which Liston was felled in the very first round by what has now come to be known as the “phantom punch”. As Liston lay prone on the canvas by the punch nobody at the ringside saw, Ali stood over the ex-champion exhorting him to get up and continue the fight. Many felt that it was not Ali, but the dark hand of the mob that brought down the great Sonny Liston. Five years later, Sonny “the Big Bear” died in mysterious circumstances.

Later that year, Ali defended his title against two-time former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson refused to address him as Ali and paid for it in the ring.

No to draft and exile

The next few years would be a turning point in Ali’s life, one that would elevate him from being a legendary boxer to a legendary figure of contemporary history. In 1966, when he was notified of his eligibility for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam, Ali made his stand unequivocally clear: “I will say directly, no. I will not go 10,000 miles to help kill innocent people.” He said that it was an unjust and unholy war and that it stood at odds with his religious beliefs as a Muslim. But it was more a stand to assert his identity as an African American citizen long oppressed by a discriminatory social order. “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong never called me nigger,” he famously said. He started a new movement among the African American community regarding the war, and they chanted along behind him: “If he don’t go, we don’t go.”

As a result, he found it increasingly difficult to box in the U.S. and had to go abroad to hold fights. He fought the gritty George Chuvalo in Toronto in March 1966; Henry Cooper, again in London, in May; Brian London, once again in London, in August; and Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt.

He could fight only three more times in the U.S. before he was banned from boxing and stripped of his title in April 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the army. The most notable fights in that period were against the hard-punching Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell. The fight against Terrell presented another side of Ali never witnessed before. Terrell insisted on calling him Clay before the fight, which brought out the cruel side of Ali. He punished him for a full 15 rounds, and held back from knocking him out time and again just so he could hurt him more. “What’s my name, chump? Say my name, Uncle Tom,” he mocked as he inflicted more and more punishment on the hapless Terrell. The fight is considered a black spot in Ali’s otherwise impeccable career.

A New hero

In April 1967, Ali was stripped of his title, his boxing licence was revoked, and he faced a possible five-year prison sentence. And just so he could not go and fight abroad, the U.S. government stripped him of his passport. Isolated, denied a livelihood, and wrongfully robbed of what was legitimately his, this was the time when Ali showed true greatness. He was the champion. By taking away his belt they could not stop him from being that; they merely broadened his scope. He was now not just the champion of the ring, but the champion of all humanity. In April 1968, the cover of Esquire magazine featured Ali in his boxing shorts and shoes posing as Saint Sebastian with arrows piercing his body. This iconic picture had the caption , “The Passion of Muhammad Ali”.

With the anti-Vietnam movement spreading like wildfire across the U.S. and the whole world, Ali became the most sought-after speaker at colleges and universities, institutes of higher learning and at public forums. He practically became a symbol of the civil rights and anti-war movements. “We don’t hate you. We don’t hate those of you who are white. We just want to stay black,” he said. Thus, he aimed the most telling blows at intolerance and at discrimination, and at the same time was guiding and inspiring not just African Americans but people all over the world to embrace their own identities and never compromise on them for anything in the world. “The greatest sports title means nothing, Mister, if you cannot be free… so what in the hell is the heavyweight title and a few sneaky dollar bills for my people’s freedom,” he said.

The impact Ali’s stand had was best expressed in a letter Bertrand Russell wrote to him: “I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. They will try to break you because you are a symbol of a force they are unable to destroy, namely, the aroused consciousness of a whole people determined no longer to be butchered and debased with fear and oppression.”

Ali first encountered Russell when the latter had called him up in 1966 to congratulate him on his stand on the Vietnam War. It was just before the second fight with Henry Cooper, and Ali asked Russell who he thought would win. When Russell admitted that he believed that Ali would prevail, Ali shot back with his customary “You’re not as dumb as you look” repartee. He had no idea who Russell was, and it was only later when thumbing through an encyclopaedia he got to know he had spoken to one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th century. “That very minute I sat down, typed out a letter of apology for my offhand remark,” Ali later wrote.

The return

After a hiatus of three and a half years, in September 1970, Ali was given back the licence to fight. The heavyweight title was now held by Joe Frazier, another Olympic champion. Ali wanted the belt back. He made short work of Jerry Quarry when he returned to the ring in October 1970. But his next fight against the tough Italian Oscar Bonavena turned out to be far more difficult and went the full 15 rounds. What followed next would mark the beginning of the greatest rivalry in sports history.

Ali’s practice of putting down future opponents continued in the case of Frazier as well, only with greater intensity as Ali felt the title held by Smokin’ Joe was rightfully his. He was relentless in his verbal attacks against the soft-spoken and shy Frazier. He referred to him as “clumsy, ugly, flat-footed Joe Frazier”. He made fun of his appearance, likening him to a gorilla, his way of speaking, his activities outside the sphere of boxing (Joe used to like singing), his style of boxing, his intelligence —practically anything and everything related to Joe. He labelled Joe an Uncle Tom and bracketed him as a champion of the white supremacists, while he (Ali) presented himself as one “fighting for the little man in the ghetto”. Frazier, a man of enormous pride and dignity, could not take much more of Ali’s constant taunts. The silent and sensitive Frazier was not going to let Ali get away with hurting the sentiments of his family and making his children cry from the taunts they received in school because of Ali’s words. “How can he say I am ugly, when I have such beautiful children,” he said. The bitterness between the great fighters would continue long after each had retired from the sport.

The run-up to the 1971 championship fight was fraught with such tension that it was labelled the “Fight of the Century”. It was a gruelling bout which Frazier won in points. In the 15th round Ali was stunned by the famed left hook of the reigning world champion. Any other fighter would not have been able to get up after that blow, but Ali bounced up almost immediately. It was Ali’s first professional loss.

Ali wanted a rematch and so he kept up with the cruel taunts for two whole years, defeating 10 other opponents on the way. But an unknown boxer by the name of Ken Norton stood in the way between Ali-Frazier II. The rangy Norton had a style that Ali found difficult to handle. In the second round a thunderous right by Norton broke Ali’s jaw. But the fighter in Ali refused to give up, and he continued to fight in spite of the excruciating pain for 10 more rounds. Six months later, Ali had his revenge when he beat Norton in 12 rounds.

The rematch with Frazier took place in January 1974. This time Ali prevailed by unanimous decision in 12 rounds. By that time Frazier had lost the title to the menacing George Foreman, and the stage was set for Ali to stake claim to the title once more.

Second-time champion

Ten years after his first fight with Sonny Liston, Ali was up against another indestructible force, George Foreman—a mountain of a man, whose uppercut could actually lift a heavyweight off his feet. The fight, known as “Rumble in the Jungle”, which has gone down in the annals of boxing history as one of the greatest upsets of all time, was staged in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974. Big George had won the title from Joe Frazier in 1973, knocking him down six times in the course of the fight, and six months before his fight with Ali, he had demolished Ken Norton in just two rounds. Both fighters had scored victories over Ali and had gone the distance with him when he had won against them.

That Ali was older and slower than he was in 1964 were factored in the scales that tilted heavily in favour of the young and seemingly invincible Foreman. But Ali used all his guile right from the beginning. The first thing he did was to win over the people of Kinshasa. He became their chosen champion before the fight even took place. On the night of the fight, it was the chant “Ali Bumaye” (Ali kill him) that resonated the arena. Foreman may well have felt that he had not a single supporter in the whole country. There was no slide in the rhyming power of the Louisville Lip either:

“Only last week I murdered a rock

Injured a stone, hospitalised a brick

I’m so mean

I make medicine sick,”

he chimed out by way of warning to George Foreman.

In the ring, what Ali may have lacked in speed and power, he made up for in experience. He devised a strategy which he called “Rope-a-Dope”. Foreman’s formidable punching power was largely neutralised by Ali’s leaning back on to the ropes and defending his body with his arms. A befuddled Foreman began to tire, and in the eighth round, spotting an opening, Ali, displaying the speed that first made him champ, knocked out the mighty Foreman. It was deja vu. He shook up the world once again and became the world heavyweight champion for the second time.

Thrilla in Manila

Ali, who had said he would retire after the Foreman fight, seemed to have forgotten his resolve and continued to box. After the title defence, it was time for another Ali-Frazier showdown. The third fight between the two, known as “Thrilla in Manila” (taken from Ali’s rhyme “killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila”), took place in October 1975 and is considered among the greatest fights in boxing history. Ali said it was the closest thing to death he had ever experienced. After 14 rounds, with Frazier unable to see, with both his eyes swollen shut, his chief second Eddie Futch refused to let him carry on, even though Frazier wanted to. Ali collapsed in his corner. Speaking to an interviewer in the ring, Ali referred to Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all time next to me”. Years later Ali wrote: “Laying there drained, I hear the blood pounding in my ears, and in the middle of the pounding Joe’s words come back to me: ‘You one bad nigger. We both bad niggers. We don’t do no crawlin’.” Many believe that it was this final fight with Frazier that hastened the physical disintegration of Ali. When Frazier died in 2011, Ali was among the first to pay tribute: “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.” Joe Frazier will always be an integral part of the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

Three-time champion

Many felt that Ali should have retired after the third Frazier fight. But there was still a little more sporting history to be made. He retained the WBC and the WBA titles six times before Leon Spinks came along to stick another feather in Ali’s well-plumed hat. If Spinks had not beaten the aging and complacent champ in February 1978, then Ali would not have been compelled to reclaim the title seven months later and create boxing history by becoming the first man to win the World Heavyweight title three times.

Ali most certainly should have retired after this. But it is hard for a warrior to hang up his gloves and not rise to another warrior’s challenge. In 1980, almost 39 years of age, Ali lost his title to his former sparring partner, the much younger Larry Holmes. The fight had to be stopped in the 10th round, and it was the first time in his career that Ali lost by a TKO—in his three previous losses, he had gone the distance. The elegant and graceful Holmes, nicknamed the Easton Assassin, sat and wept in his dressing room after the cruel beating he had inflicted on his mentor and idol. Later, he went over to Ali’s dressing room, where the former champion was getting a massage. “You know I love you,” he told Ali. “If you love me, then why did you beat me up?” Ali quipped back. Even in defeat and pain, he had his sense of humour. There were no hard feelings, and the two remained friends until Ali’s death. He returned to the ring one last time in December 1981 to lose to Trevor Berbick in a 10-round decision. By that time the first signs of Parkinson’s disease had set in. There was a slight slurring in his speech and his coordination was perceptibly slow. He could see the blows coming but could not get out of the way. His boxing record—61 fights, 56 wins (37 by KO) and five losses—is one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

He dedicated the rest of his life to serving humanity and making people happy. He travelled all over the world to be with whoever needed him by their side, negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of American hostages, went to Afghanistan as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, attended charity events in all corners of the globe. His illness had robbed him of the smoothness of his speech and the fluidity of his movement, but it could not take away the twinkle from his eyes or the love from his heart. He continued to remain one of the most famous men on the planet. From world leaders to cultural icons, from rock stars to politicians, from business tycoons to artistes, all wanted to be photographed with the champ. He duly obliged, but there was no doubt that the time he felt the happiest was when he was with the common people, especially with little children. “To label him a boxer is to insult him. Boxing was too small for Ali,” said George Foreman after Ali’s death on June 3, 2016. Ali was more than a personality. He was a symbol of resistance against injustice and oppression. Even in death he united the world in mourning for the passing of one its greatest figures.

Every legend has a beginning and an end too. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, during half-time in the basketball final, at a special ceremony the International Olympic Committee presented Ali with a replacement medal. Amid the frenzied cheering, Ali stood there holding the medal in his shaking hands and then tenderly kissed it. How deeply it must have hurt him to cast that medal away in 1960! Life had come full circle for this icon of the 20th century.