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Humble beginnings, extraordinary life: What Muhammad Ali taught us Open in fullscreen

Adama Munu

Humble beginnings, extraordinary life: What Muhammad Ali taught us

Boxing legend: Muhammad Ali seen here on 27 May 1963 [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 June, 2017

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Muhammad Ali, a living legend whose spirited principles allowed us to recognise a strength that was both human and supererogatory human. What can we learn from this prolific individual?

I doubt there is a person who does not know his name; a man who not only changed his sport but touched the lives of so many around the world, spanning over five decades.

Muhammad Ali, a living legend whose spirited principles and protestations allowed us to recognise a strength that was both human and supererogatory human. What can we learn from this prolific individual?

Humble beginnings

Born on January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, he was the eldest son of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr [1912-1990] and Odessa Grady Clay [1917-1994]. He was from Louisville Kentucky which gave rise to one of his lesser known names ‘Louisville lip’.

He was known as a precocious and God fearing individual and was raised in a Baptist church setting as with many other children. But it was not until the age of 12 that his destiny was assured. In 1954, whilst out with a friend visiting to the Columbia Auditorium which was hosting a home ware show, Clay’s bicycle was stolen.

He reported the theft to Louisville police officer Joe Martin [1916-1996]. He tearfully stated that he was going to ‘whoop’ whoever took it. Martin interestingly enough was running a boxing programme for young people in the neighbourhood and decided to enrol Ali for it.

In his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, written with Richard Durham, Ali speaks on his meeting with Martin and his introduction to boxing.

''I ran downstairs, crying, but the sights and sounds and the smell of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike.

"There were about 10 boxers in the gym, some hitting the speed bag, some in the ring, sparring, some jumping rope. I stood there, smelling the sweat and rubbing alcohol, and a feeling of awe came over me. One slim boy shadowboxing in the ring was throwing punches almost too fast for my eyes to follow.''

His determination and commitment to a sport that both scared him yet thrilled him initially amazed Martin who said to Ali: "I like what you're doing. I like the way you stick to it. I'm going to put you on television. You'll be on the next television fight."

Six weeks later Clay won his first fighting bout in a split decision.

Here lies an important lesson in the life of Muhammad Ali that emanates from other than Ali himself, by those who paved the way for him to achieve his acclaim. You will simply never know how far reaching a small act of kindness can go.

Whenever I reflect on the role of Martin in the life of Ali, I ask myself: ‘What if he had simply coaxed Ali and left the incident at that? What if he thought it meagre and insignificant to enrol Ali in a boxing programme to help temper his anger to becoming one of the world’s sporting champions the world has ever known?

Martin could never have anticipated the true extent and depth of his words and actions. But good can only espouse a greater return of good.

You will simply never know how far reaching a small act of kindness can go

Do it only one way

It goes without saying that Ali clearly had an incredible gift for boxing but he never just relied on his talent alone. Even before his entry into Islam, Ali espoused incredible Islamic traits and attributes.

By the time he was 18-years-old, Ali had captured two national Golden Gloves titles, two amateur athletic union national titles and had gained 100 wins against an incredible eight losses.

After leaving finishing high school, he attended the 1960 Summer Olympic Games where he won the light heavyweight gold medal; a moment which propelled him further on the world stage.

So much so that his powerful jabs and self-bravado earned him the nickname “Louisville Lip”.

Through immense hard work and commitment as affirmed by his coach, Ali was able to far exceed his own expectations.

One of his most incredible mantras in life for which I am personally inspired by is the emphasis which he placed on doing everything with the highest standard of excellence - no exceptions allowed!

He once said, “I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done!

I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done

Be proud of who you are 

At a time of great tribulation and divergence over what constitutes proper Islamic identity, this is the one thing for which I believe Muhammad Ali will be most remembered for.

Aside from his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his new found identity as a Sunni Muslim, Ali was a proud individual never hesitant of proclaiming his black and African roots.

This was a profound situation at a time of great societal strife. Ali living under the horrific system that was Jim Crow could have otherwise reduced his worth as a black man, but Ali, fully spirited asserted, ‘I am black and proud’.

But it should come as no real surprise for someone who was the grandson of former enslaved Africans.

He once stated: "He [the black man] needs black history, he needs black culture to know who he is."

He had spent his life travelling and seeing so many African countries including Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Egypt and always espoused a sense of self for people of African descent and tore down the myths and misconceptions associated with Africa during a time of decolonisation.

"I am glad to tell our people that there more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants. They never told us about your beautiful, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools and universities."

As a Muslim of African descent, this is particularly inspiring and thoughtful. Whilst I would argue that my blackness does not assert my full worth, is forms a part of the wonderful diversity that is humanity, and a full appreciation of this is central to the belief in the unity of mankind.

Principle over all things

Ali’s sense of worth translated into his public protestations, notably concerning over the legitimacy of the Vietnam War. It was a case of the greatest struggle for democracy for America pitted against one of Muhammad Ali’s greatest trials in his life.

Former US attorney general, Eric Holder said last year that his "biggest win came not in the ring, but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs."

The Vietnam War was a long and costly armed conflict and arguably one of the most damaging events within American foreign policy, for the simple fact that the mission in the US preventing a communist takeover in Vietnam failed in 1975 and for the bitter divisions it caused amongst Americans in between its tenure of 1954 to 1975.

On March 9, 1966, at the height of the war, Ali’s draft status was revised to make him eligible to fight in Vietnam, leading him to say that as a black Muslim he was a conscientious objector, and would not enter the US military.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Muhammad Ali was one such dissident. He refusal to fight for the US army in 1967 led him to being convicted and imprisoned for five years and banned from boxing. His conviction was eventually overturned in 1970, but it cost him much graft and opportunities to further his career.

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America

Many of those who lived during this time, would remember well the depth of respect afforded him; in addition to his already impressive life.

But ultimately, we learn that our principles, our conscience and our beliefs should always stand against the weight of temptations that we well assuredly face in this world. It is not always easy; but this will ultimately earn us the respect of Allah and his people in the long run.

When we learned of Ali’s death those fateful days before Ramadan 2016, we were not just faced with great loss, an incredibly legacy but with the full force of our mortality - as Ali did.

He had humble beginnings, but destined for extraordinary things, he fought and won; when tried, he triumphed. And he lived and died as one of the most prolific Muslims of our generation.

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