I don’t cry or write often but today Ali made me do both

I don’t cry often. I don’t write often.

I want to do both of these things more often. Yet I can only do them under extreme emotion.

And since, I am not an emotional person I rarely end up crying or writing.

Today Ali made me do both.

I am not a boxing expert or a historian. I don’t claim to fully understand Mohammed Ali’s impact on the world of boxing or the race relations in the US. I can’t offer opinions on boxing as a sport or Ali as a person. If you want to know about Ali or his impact there are far better sources than me.

All I can say is this — A little less than two decades ago, a confused teenager, wondering about the purpose of life and his role in this world stumbled upon Ali. And Ali did more to guide him than most people he had ever known.

These tears and words are not of sadness but of gratitude. Like so many people around the world I just want to honour the man who had such a huge impact on me.

Even as child growing up in the pre-internet era, I had heard of Mohammed Ali (who hadn’t). But I didn’t know much beyond the basic facts. Then one day a teacher told us the story of him throwing away his Olympic gold medal in the river. I couldn’t believe it. My grand-father’s brother had won an Olympic gold medal and I knew the pride it brought to everyone in the family. I couldn’t imagine someone voluntarily throwing away their gold medal. I wanted to know the ‘why’ and I wanted to understand the ‘who’.

I researched him through the documentaries, the articles and the glorious Internet — he was the first sportsperson I googled (Sachin Tendulkar was second and Steffi Graf was third). Slowly I came to know about the man behind the legend. I was amazed at his meteoric rise in the world of boxing, his unorthodox technique, his prodigious talent and his riveting showmanship. I was consumed with the what-ifs about the prime boxing years he missed and was awed by his incredible comeback. His rhetoric was inspiring and his jokes hilarious.

But through all of this two things stood out to me :

  • At his prime, arguably the greatest sportsperson ever, had chosen to prioritise his beliefs over his career.
  • When he came back he won, not because of his quick hands or his dancing feet but because of his sharp mind and his courageous heart.

He taught me that there are causes bigger than any of us. That life can be lived for reasons more than just self-maximisation. That talent whether God given or self honed can be used for a higher purpose. That time can steal our strengths but not our spirit. And that it might take a while, but eventually, the world listens to those who speak with conviction, clarity and actions.

Over the last decade these lessons have given me the courage to make my life choices. So today as I sit here, surprised by these tears and words which are forcing themselves out of me, I wonder about the various ways Ali has impacted me. I think because of him,

  • I started to write the short and always rhyming poems I used to write.
  • I started to understand that we could take our work seriously but be silly ourselves.
  • I started to learn that you could stand for your principles and that you could overcome the backlash that would come because of that.
  • I started to believe that there truly was a purpose to our lives and that if we looked hard enough we would find it.
  • And most importantly, I started to believe in myself.

In those years of solitary reflection, books were my guides and historical figures my mentors. Out of all of them, Ali perhaps was one of the greatest mentors I ever had. And for me this is his most important legacy :

He truly was the ‘Greatest’, not just because of what he did, but because of what he made us do.

And today he made me cry and he made me write.

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