Like several millions of his admirers all over the world, the news of Muhammad Ali’s death hit me like a scud missile. I take it as a personal loss because there is probably no day that I don’t remember Muhammad Ali due to the sheer force of his humanity and the aggregate of his superb qualities.
Just three weeks ago, this column zeroed on “rope-a-dope”, the boxing style I said Muhammad Ali invented, which has implications for patience, forbearance and determination to overcome challenges. Little did I know that the self-acclaimed “the greatest” would soon bid us bye, leaving the whole world morose and lachrymal. Muhammad Ali’s death is akin to the death of humanity, which was attested to further by the diversity of races at his funeral!
Virtually everything about Muhammad Ali was spectacular. Do we talk of his wit and wisdom or sheer gift of the garb? Do we talk of his amazing boxing skills that would make him the greatest sportsman of all time? For me, Muhammad Ali was a school from which several lessons could be learnt and I would find myself masticating his words for pleasure. He had worked himself into immortality through the sheer force of his words, the profundity of his conviction and his tenacity of purpose. The legend lives on in our hearts!
Well, I am a lover of words and I appreciate Muhammad Ali’s verbal eccentricities. His verbal engagements with his opponents were as devastating as his punches. An ideologue, he said of Patterson he was to fight in 1965: “I’m gonna put him flat on his back/ So that he will start acting black/ Because when he was champ he didn’t do as he should/ He tried to force himself into an all-white neighborhood.”
A champ of the ring and king of hyperbole, his words before the “Rumble in the Jungle” bout of 1974 keep assailing the world’s psyche: “I done wrassled with an alligator/ I done tussled with a whale/ Only last week I murdered a rock/ Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick/ I’m so mean I make medicine sick”. How would you dare such a man?
When he was to fight George Foreman, too, Ali waxed his powerful poetic lines with impressive end rhymes and cadence: “You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?/ Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind/ Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee/ His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see/
Now you see me, now you don’t/ George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.” He did as he said.
Ali surely knew how to blow his own trumpet. He called himself “the legend…/ the greatest boxer that ever will be/… Of a powerful punch and blinding speed/ Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance/ If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance/ Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right/ If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night.” Of his speed, the exaggeration was decidedly humorous: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
Above all, Muhammad Ali was a man of peace par excellence. The Vietnam war was controversial and he wouldn’t be enlisted even if all hell would be let loose on him. He was persecuted but he stood his ground as a “conscientious objector” because he said as a Muslim, he wouldn’t fight an unjust war. Apart from his memorable words, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he was ready to face the consequences of his decision: “Clean out my cell/ And take my tail to jail/ ‘Cause better to be in jail fed/ Than to be in Vietnam, dead,” he said.
When Muhammad Ali accepted Islam and opted to change his name from Cassius Clay, tongues wagged in the American media that the “good boy Cassius Clay” had become “bad Muhammad Ali”. His response was wow and prophetic: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky – my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.” The American society got used to the Blacks and a member of them was elected President.
May God forgive Muhammad Ali and grant him Paradise!
Dr Adedimeji, I am an ardent reader of your column, “Edupeace”, in New Telegraph. I savoured your stuff on “rope-a-dope”, applying Ali’s strategy in Kinshasha fight in dealing with people. I benefited a lot from it! As it was part of a material you presented at a conference in 2012, I wish to make a request that you kindly oblige me with a soft copy of the complete paper. My e-mail is…. Thanks. – Sunny Odogun