June 8, 2016 – 5:22 am

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Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984. He was hospitalised on June 2, 2016 with a respiratory illness; and passed away the following day from septic shock. He was 74. John Wight takes a look at the boxing legend.

If anything the passing of Muhammad Ali bestows even more greatness on the man, knowing that despite all he achieved, everything he went through both in and out the ring, he was mortal just like the rest of us. The mere mention of his name and the words just trip off the tongue - ‘beauty’, ‘poetry’, ‘elegance’, ‘vision’, ‘defiance’, ‘anger’, ‘justice’, ‘rebellion’, ‘determination’, ‘compassion’, ‘grace’, ‘strength’. Ali owned all of these attributes and then some.

Who could have predicted when a young, gangly, loose-limbed boxer from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Clay took the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics - dismissed by the major sportswriters of the day as lacking the ability and power to go on and make any impact as a professional - that he would smash his way into global consciousness like a hurricane unleashed when, just four years later, not only did he win the world heavyweight title at just 22 with a performance against the fearsome Sonny Liston that induces wonder to this day, but did it while refusing to know his place as a black athlete in Jim Crow America?

“Uppity negro” is one of the kinder insults thrown his way in a society in which the lived experience of black people was racial oppression, segregation, and injustice.

Prior to that first Liston fight in Miami only those closest to him were aware of the anger, defiance and political and religious consciousness that was bubbling away under the surface of the playful braggadocio and exuberance that so endeared him to the sports pages before he turned.

It was just after that astonishing victory over Liston in which he “shook up the world” that the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, renamed the Black Muslims by reporters and TV broadcasters looking to court controversy.

It was followed by a change of name - first from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali. Overnight this tiny, marginal, fundamentalist religious sect was propelled dragged from the obscurity in which it had existed for years under its diminutive leader, Elijah Muhammad, to the front pages of the nation’s major and not so major newspapers, the subject of TV studio debates, documentaries and establishment hysteria.

Ali, meanwhile, suddenly found himself turned into hate figure, widely and roundly excoriated as befitting a young black athlete who refused to demonstrate the requisite gratitude for having been allowed to rise from his station and be used as living proof that America works.

Where the Nation of Islam connected with Ali was in the assertion that not only were blacks equal to whites they were better, producing within him a consciousness responsible for the heavyweight title taking on a political and social significance it had never known previously.

Ali paid a terrible price for his apostasy, subjected to withering columns by sportswriters, commentators, politicians, and even black leaders of the day. People lined up to attack both him and his beliefs, and ticket sales for his fights plummeted. And this was before his stance on the war in Vietnam, when after being reclassified he told a reporter that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

It was a quote that unleashed the forces of hell, with Ali openly accused of treason in newspapers across the country.

Most men would have buckled under this kind of public animus but Ali only grew in stature, finding new purpose as a torchbearer of resistance to the war and the contradictions it exposed regarding the suppurating sore of racist injustice in America.

For refusing the draft he was stripped of his title and faced prison. Exile from the ring followed and he spent the next three years struggling to make ends meet. But Ali’s shadow continued to loom large over the heavyweight championship, a title cheapened in his absence.

At the beginning of his exile he was hated, but with the civil rights movement building to become the social phenomenon it did, and with the anti-Vietnam War movement doing likewise, three years later Ali was a folk hero, lauded where before he’d been vilified, respected for sticking to his principles no matter the personal cost.

His return to the ring in 1970 against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta was a seminal moment in US sporting and cultural history. Celebrities packed the ringside seats as Ali received the adulation of the thousands in attendance and the millions watching the fight on TV or listening to it on radio across the world.

The legend from that moment on is by now well known. A trilogy of epic fights against his ring nemesis Joe Frazier, the unbelievable victory over George Foreman, fighting most of his first fight against Ken Norton with a broken jaw and, of course, the sad decline and slide into Parkinson’s.

Now he’s gone.

Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer and he was more than an icon. He was a man with the moral courage to speak truth to power no matter the consequences and no matter the cost to himself. This alone marks him out as a legend.

“Unhappy is the land that is in need of a hero,” Brecht reminds us. Muhammad Ali lived in just such an unhappy land and he was every inch a hero.

“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” he once memorably announced.

Yes Muhammad, you certainly did.

Note: John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir - Dreams That Die - published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1. The above article was posted at CounterPunch.

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  2. Grew up and came of age in the Ali era, a time when people ,famous and non famous stood for something unlike the Iphone superficial people and world of today.Really get a little pissed off when young people especially celebrities who were either infants ,todlers or were years from being born talk about how much Ali meant to them,Really? give me a break.If you are under say 55 then you should shut up as you dont know shit except what you have read and heard from older people and seen on youtube. If only Howard Cosell were still here,he could explain it,His times with the champ and many interviews were stuff of legend. One of the few people who stood up for him when he refused to be drafted.Dick Cavett also knew him well,and he is qualified to comment,the champs many appearances on his show in the 70s were hillarious especially when he and Joe Frazier appeared together in a 74 broadcast to promote their 2nd fight.Johnny Carson.Mike Douglas,Merv Griffin,David Frost also knew him and could comment but they arnt with us anymore either unfortunatly .Ali’s sharp mind ,wit,biting humor and childlike gleam in his eye while being on stage are what ill remember him for way more than boxing,He was a natural born comedian and could light up a room . While on these many talk shows regardless of who else was there ,Sinatra,Dean Martin.Orson Wells .Sammy Davis,Ali stood above them all,people couldnt take their eyes off him,his presence ,charisma ,and personality so great.The fact that he was the greatest boxer of all time to me will always be secondary to those other qualities.Sad that young peoples image of him is of the shaking old man who needed help to walk and who could no longer speak,they have no clue for in his youth he was so quick,witty,funny.chatty ,and had the largest presence of anyone famous i ever saw,no one even came close and no one ever will again,R.I.P. Champ,im glad that i came of age in your time and feel sorry for those who didnt for they will never know or understand what you meant to those of us who did

    By Adam on Jun 8, 2016

  3. Yeah Adam,im sad as well, also remember the things you mentioned,It was a much simpler time,a better time.Todays technology while impressive has in some ways robbed us of our spirit and humanity .The human touch is harder to find .I remember when you could pick up a phone call and actually get a person on the other end,no voicemails,texting or punching 30 buttons on a phone ti finally get to a live person.The Ali era represented those times.He became famous before the internet ,cell phones or even cable tv and is still the most famous recognized person of all time amazing. Check out Cosell’s video tribute to ali on youtube .It was his fiftith birthday special back in 92 ,Howard himself would be dead in 3 years It is timeless and could be played back at any time in history.If you dont tear up you have no heart

    By Chuck in Texas on Jun 8, 2016

  4. Ali had such presence that he even overshadowed the Beatles .when they met for that 64 photo opt it was Ali or Cassius Clay as he was known at that time who commanded the most attention,He had the it factor.You either have it or you dont

    By George Taylor on Jun 9, 2016

  5. Hey Big-O, thank you for sharing this wonderful encomium to a TRUE CHAMP…………T

    By ToeKnee in Joisey on Jun 10, 2016

  6. Hearing someone like LaBron James talk about Ali and his influence rings hollow to me ,When was he born,1984 or 85 ? Same with anyone born after 1960 maybe.As big news of his death is now, it would have been 100 times bigger if he passed 20 or 30 years ago.Actually disapointed that he hasnt gotten more coverage from the print media although its probably because younger people are running everything now and most have no emotional attachment to Ali

    By Elvin on Jun 10, 2016

  7. A real sports celebrity, but he did not walk on water nor did he find a cure for cancer, he beat people up for a living (nothing wrong with doing this if it is in the boxing ring instead of the street).

    I was nice to see his memory celebrated, but it would also be nice to see the lives and works of others who are working to make a difference in the world but are not celebrities acknowledged.

    By Jack on Jun 11, 2016

  8. Watched the Memorial service yesterday,Very emotional,Great speeches by the daughter of Malcolm X who said that her dad looked at Ali as his little brother and that he kept her father alive in her thoughts and heart for 51 years,easily the best speech of the day,Loved Billy Crystals speech as well telling how he met Ali just after regaining the title from Foreman in Zaire in 74 when he was a struggling young stand up comic. Loved his story about the time he and Ali went to Cosell’s funeral and Ali asked him if he was buried with his topee on and if not how would he be regognized, classic Ali.Could have done without that lady from Obama’s office as well as that left wing nut who kept name dropping Hillary in his speech,obviously a Hillary plant to try and get votes in the coming election as was Bill Clintons appearence and Speech, politicians have no shame and being self serving is always the motivation for anything they do. Dont remember Ali endorsing Hillary. Disappointed that some of Alis ring rivals didnt speak,Would have been a blast to hear from George Foreman,George Chuvalo,Henry Cooper,Larry Holmes ecc,or other fighters that Ali inspired from lighter weights like Sugar Ray Leonard.Also wish Dick Cavett had been there to speak.The best speech of course would have been by Howard Cosell but Father time got him 21 years ago ,too bad as his takes and insights into Ali would have been unmatched and the place would have exploded with a standing ovation ,Too bad but Father time is undefeated

    By Adam on Jun 11, 2016

  9. RIP.

    By Jan Morris on Jun 14, 2016

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