Like Ali, how many of our icons will take a punch for what they believe in?

That bunch Muhammad Ali hit fell well beyond the 16/25 feet of the boxing ring. They fell in the Establishment. They fell among the meek and the militarist. They fell among conformists and colluders. They fell among white supremacists and chauvinists of Christendom. They fell in media pens where they often dared his arrogance with hostility. They fell among the vanities that would have a provincial reputation relentlessly swelling to kingsize pricked down to a turncoat and a braggart, no more.

By Sankarshan Thakur
  • Published 5.06.16
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Muhammad Ali at his mountain retreat in Owigsburg, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1974, while training for his fight against George Foreman in the then Zaire, now Congo. (Action Images / MSI/Reuters) 

"I have a great one-two punch; the one hits a lot but the two hits a bunch."

Muhammad Ali to writer Norman Mailer in The Fight

That bunch Muhammad Ali hit fell well beyond the 16/25 feet of the boxing ring. They fell in the Establishment. They fell among the meek and the militarist. They fell among conformists and colluders. They fell among white supremacists and chauvinists of Christendom. They fell in media pens where they often dared his arrogance with hostility. They fell among the vanities that would have a provincial reputation relentlessly swelling to kingsize pricked down to a turncoat and a braggart, no more.

Ali fell like God on wanton critics, he flayed them for sport. "He ran a marathon everyday with his tongue," Norman Mailer wrote of Ali in The Fight, an elliptical personal narrative of the 1974 Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in Kinshasa.

"Sure, and never stumbling over anyone else's thought. If a question were asked for which he had no reply, he would not hear it. Majestic was the snobbery of his ear."

Most lately the feared Ali punch fell on the Donald Trump bunch. It came swift and strong upon Trump's mid-campaign call to bar Muslims from entering the United States.

It came quite unhindered by Parkinson's, which had tarried Ali for three decades. "We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," Ali said in a statement.

"Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is." The upper cut had been rammed without Trump even being thought worthy of a mention by Ali.

He said it like it was, with all the visual vehemence he could bring to his Louisville lip.

• "You serious? I got to stay here and lead my people to the right man Elijah Muhammad,"- when asked why he doesn't flee America, because he had converted to Islam and turned down military conscription.

•  "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong, I'm not going to no war with them Vietcong because no Vietcong never called me a nigger," - when he turned a conscientious objector and refused to be conscripted for the war in Vietnam in 1966.

•  "I calculated I've taken 29,000 punches. But I earned $57 million and I saved half of it. So I took a few hard knocks. Do you know how many black men are killed every year by guns and knives without a penny to their names?" - on why he did what he did all his life and how it may have reflected on race relations.

• "Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I'm sure there's a heaven in the sky and coloured folks die and go to heaven. Where are the coloured angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing milk and honey.

"We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he's white. White Owl Cigars. White Swan soap. White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax. All the good cowboys ride the white horses and wear white hats. Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devil's food cake is chocolate. When are we going to wake up as a people and end the lie that white is better than black?" - when fighting conscription across the US.

•  "I told you all, all of my critics, that I was the greatest of all time.... Never make me the underdog until I'm about 50 years old." - when he beat George Foreman in Kinshasa in October 1974.

•  "My name is known in Serbia, Pakistan, Morocco. These are countries that don't follow the Kentucky Derby,"- on the meaning of being Muhammad Ali in 1977.

•  "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am.... I am the greatest." Undated, but rightly so. Dates can't be put to that sort of thing. It must require cosmic courage to proclaim yourself "the greatest" to the world when you know how unaccepting the world can be of a black man and a Muslim. But that was Ali and the dare of being him, a panther in the jungle who had to roar in order that it was silenced.

It wasn't for nothing that William Rhoden, sports columnist on The New York Times wrote what he did of Ali in 2013: "Ali's actions changed my standard 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?"

He had already brought the US an Olympic gold and was a home hero when the chains fell on him for refusing to be chained.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison of the Beatles with Ali when they visited the boxer at his training camp in Miami Beach in February 1964. According to an anecdote on Ali’s official website, the boxer, who was then Cassius Clay, told the Beatles: “You’re not as stupid as you look.”
“No,” Lennon replied, “but you are.” Clay checked to make sure Lennon was smiling, and he was, adds the account on the website.

When he defied the might of his government and the tide of public opinion to refuse to fight with US troops in Vietnam, Ali had his boxing licence suspended.

For three years between 1967 and 1970, for three prime years between age 25 and 28, Ali wasn't allowed into ring or arena. He spent them campaigning against the war and championing black rights on campuses across his country. It isn't far to suggest - probably only fair, in fact - that our sporting heroes would probably have preferred the ardours of an ad shoot.

When was the last time that one of our demi-god icons spared the shine of their halos on a darkened patch? When a man is reduced to torn dead flesh for the variety of meat he may have consumed? When another, and another, and another, is taken down for the sin of propagating science and plain sense? When custodians of the law and guardians of our founding principles, the same founding principles Rhoden wrote of, turn brazenly to taunt and tarnish them? When a man becomes guilty not for his deed but by dint of where he happened to be born and falls victim to overt, covert, rampant prejudice? When, ever so often, the ravages of nature visit the hapless across our geography - flood, famine, quake, avalanche - and leave behind a benighted devastation awaiting salve?

Ali became what he did - The Greatest - not merely because he could float about the ring and land a punch like nobody else could.

Ali became what he did because he was ready to stand up outside his domain and suffer a punch for what he believed in. Sport seemed to turn incidental to what Ali wished to enunciate. To our stars the indulgences that sporting excellence fetches them are the thing of essence and end. Ali stood tall; they are jostling to lower their heads so medals can be slipped in. Their manner is unable to recall the majesty Ali's name forever will.

As Ali himself once committed to paper in pencil - and Mailer, harsh after his mien, called it an act of matching "one dumb-wit line to the next" - after one practice bout preparing to meet Foreman in Kinshasa: "The words of truth are touching; the voice of truth is deep. The law of truth is simple; on your soul you reap."

Fly well and float far on your soul, Muhammad Ali, you reaped for the world the dare of the dream.