My Muhammad Ali Day

Ali was a humanitarian. A leader who championed freedom and equality.

“Muhammad Ali has passed away.”

It was reading these words that my day began. Not that I was surprised by the news. It was well known he had Parkinson’s and could hardly utter any coherent words and recent feeds on his hospital visits carried not-so-good news. So the grief wasn’t like, say, the recent loss of Prince.

Instead, a small pocket of nothingness, a void, formed inside me. I felt that bit less of myself. That sense you have when your backpack, hitherto shoulder-strap-cutting heavy, is now light and empty. And as you look inside it to find out what’s missing, so did I dive under the layers of my present state, desperate to mitigate the spread of vacuum.

Mohammad Ali was that big a figure. He dazzled and befuddled the boxing aficionados, alright. He provoked peers and rivals and establishments alike. He inspired and influenced, true. But more than anything else he touched lives.

People of any age, sex, caste, creed, race, country, President to pauper to Pope, simply, anyone who met or watched or read or heard him were all touched by ‘The Greatest’, a title he conferred upon himself — and that over the years the world came to recognise was true. For he truly was the greatest among the human beings.

I first read about Ali in a factbook at school while I prepared for a national-level sports quiz competition. The slim paperback had short profiles on Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Pele and other famous personalities, covering their prime sporting years. But the one on Ali was a standout.

Yes, it had accounts of ‘The Thrilla in Manila,’ ‘The Fight of the Century,’ ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. Every other sportsman in the ‘100 Great Sportsman’ had had great sporting moments on the field and their share of controversies — each varying in degree and domain.

But what intrigued me the most was a single paragraph that cursorily noted his refusal to serve in the Army, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and of Ali being a “humanitarian”.

And over the years as I read more about Ali — from the Wikipedia article to magazine profiles to biographies to the recent obituaries — this one definitive quality of his has always glowed more brightly than any of his feats inside the boxing ring. Ali was no mere boxer. Ali wasn’t just a sportsman. Not your regular ‘great’ player that broke all records, retired in his glory days, turned coach or commentator, or a respected season-ticket holder.

No.

Ali transcended sports. He was more a ‘man’ outside the ring than inside it. A voice of the masses — the many who hid their true sentiments for want of courage or a leader. And Ali was that leader. A leader who championed freedom and equality for not only the Blacks but for the entire human race. His defiance to the Government, refusal to be governed by the unions — at large and ruthless then — his reformist views, and his fight against all that was unjust in this world was beyond any sportsman’s field of play. His brash demeanor hid behind it a sensitive soul that had seen the worst of human exploitation and, more importantly, refused to forget it. So much so that he eschewed his “slave name”, and refused to answer to it even as some continued to call him by it. A man who would later sting like a bee was already bitten by the beasts of the society. And he ventured to avenge his wounds — and didn’t want his people to be maligned and marginalised by it anymore. Boxing was only a stage to profess his beliefs and principles.

He was hated, but now he’s loved. He was vilified, but he’s now eulogised in gold. He was banned, but he’s now bowed at. No other sportsman, wait, no other human being, ever commanded such widespread respect and following than Ali. He was in every sense a “People’s Champion”.

Ali’s boxing bouts are well recorded, so are his many public discourses and popular beliefs — in writing and other forms. And while these may remain with us forever to learn and quote from, the man himself is now no more amongst us.

But then was he ever one of us?

Never.

He was that elusive, luminous, colourful butterfly always out of reach, whether inside the ring or outside it, never one to be pinned by authority or plucked by glamour.

A man who led his life head held high wanted his people to do the same. To stand for their rights and fight for their dreams and live free.

As I read all I could, wrote this piece, watched videos and gifs, and although I’d never seen him in person, I realised this was too personal a loss to easily recover.

As the day came to an end, and I lapped up all the news and quotes I could, I felt more empty than ever.

There are some who live a life too big for this small world, and, when they leave, they leave behind a void equally big.

Adios, Ali.

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