Muhammad Ali: still The Greatest at 70

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The dancing master is back! screamed a TIME Magazine headline in October 1970 after heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali finally climbed back into the ring three years after being stripped of his world title and boxing licence following his refusal to be drafted into the United States Army as a conscientious objector.

This week the same the America and the world at large celebrated with the same Ali his 70th birthday.
I can say I was introduced to Ali by my late mother around 1964 when I was a mere boy.

She showed me a newspaper picture and accompanying story about a negro (thats what African Americans used to called then) boxer called Cassius Clay, who didnt look particularly strong, but had sensationally knocked out the fierce-looking world champion Charles Sonny Liston to lift the title.

I was there and then converted to the Cassius Clay cause. Here was a young, brash, handsome, gifted black boxer who had conquered the world celebrity was written all over him!

His soundbites such as Its gonna be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the gorilla in Manila, referring to his upcoming fights, and one-liners such as float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, describing his silky boxing skills, were apt and profound unlike the banal tisastrous wordplay of one local professor.

Being a Christian family, a few days later we were all disappointed to learn that Clay had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

In a backlash, the US government served him with military draft papers ordering him to join the army, with the prospect of being deployed to the then raging Vietnam War. Refusing conscription, Ali famously said in 1966: I aint got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

They never called me nigger. How could he fight abroad for a system which excluded him at home? Said Ali: Everything I say I am prepared to back it up. He undoubtedly expanded my horizons at a stage I was growing up. He was proud without being vain.

These are my first and enduring impressions of Ali. Ali was complemented by black singers of the time such as Sam Cooke with his song vowing A Change is Gonna Come, Marvin Gaye pleading Whats Going On? and Aretha Franklin demanding Respect.

So we quickly came around to re-embrace him as he fought against the US political establishment without ever submitting until he prevailed in 1970. He took on the system at the height of his boxing success whereas others could have compromised and sold out with all the money to be made.

I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin hell, but as long as they aint free, I aint free, he said. He was and still is popular without being populist.

And to think that he was only 22 years old and didnt have, as they say in the US, a college degree? He became more influential than some of these self-absorbed big brains put together.

He brought both context and understanding to global issues, particularly as regards inequality and prejudice.

Education on its own cant move mountains it takes the X-factor; i.e., being at the right place at the right time, courage, a relevant message, charisma and Ali had all these. He did not set out to become a leader, but he ended up one. The opposite applies: some people set out to become leaders, but they lack the X-factor to be one.

But Ali could also have a mean streak. He threw back what racists threw at him. But over the years, he mellowed and proved that one can be an activist without being an extremist.

Today he is using Islam to spread peace and charity. Said his long-time white trainer Angelo Dundee: Muhammad doesnt hate anybody.

Fast-forward to 1974, The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo): Ali finally regained the heavyweight title by sensationally knocking out the gigantic George Foreman in a masterful tactical display which caught everyone, including Dundee, by surprise.

There was Ali leaning on the ropes a suicidal stratagem to all watching the bout – letting Foreman pound him in the midriff. But Ali had in training hardened his stomach muscles almost to steel, and Foremans thunderbolts were not effective at all as they were bouncing off Alis stomach. I did it my way, crooned Frank Sinatra so did Ali on that hot, steamy night.

But by the time Ali was pounded into submission by his former sparring partner Larry Holmes in 1980, I was deeply hurt that it had to come to this for him to retire.

He had become a caricature of The Greatest. Nevertheless, after that sad chapter, he re-invented himself as a global elder statesman. He has shown himself and the world that there is life outside the ring.

This is what the generation of Zimbabwes founding fathers should do instead of getting involved in ugly, undignified political fights with a younger, more relevant and more vibrant crop of leadership (whether from within Zanu PF or outside or a coalescence of both).

They still have a role to play, but not in active politics they no more have the physical and mental stamina to do so as Ali found out to his great cost in 1980 and, sadly, the subsequent diagnosis of Parkinsons disease, after over two decades in the ring. Age catches up.

This cannot be reversed. The only option is to bow out gracefully as dignified elder statesmen instead of grumpy old men.

A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life, says Ali. That is why he is being celebrated the world over this week he has salvaged his reputation and legacy by moving on.

Ali is indeed a living legend thats why he is still The Greatest at 70.

ctutani@newsday.co.zw