Muhammad Ali and Us,
a View from Africa
Gabriel C Banda
IN Africa, from the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was widely respected and loved. People followed, and accepted, as the boxing champion changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. In newspapers, magazines, and broadcast, they keenly followed Muhammad Ali.
The 1960s were a period when many societies of Africa became independent states. But the United States of America was still struggling with some apartheid after passing through the sin and evil of slave trade. Persons like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X and millions of other persons were fighting organised racism in America from many angles.
People of African descent were focussed on developments in Africa, the United States, the Americas, and many places of the world. The projection of Muhammad Ali onto the world stage light affected the feelings of persons of African descent.
Straight from achieving independence through various experiences, it was time of courage. Many persons of African descent were asserting themselves as equal human beings of humanity, no lesser than others in the human family. None is inherently inferior or superior by nature of their birth grouping.
Ali was one key symbol of asserting humanity. Being born in January 1942, he was still young, but very assertive. Many people in Africa observed and accepted as Muhammad Ali changed from the Cassius Clay name, mentioning the unfair slavery circumstances from which the name had come about. And Africans of various religions accepted his choice to turn Muslim.
Throughout, Muhammad Ali, as persons in Africa against colonial and apartheid racism, was a very vocal critic of the apartheid in the United States.
And then Muhammad Ali refused to fight armed war for the USA in Vietnam. He said it was unfair to travel 10,000 miles to go and kill Vietnam citizens. In Africa, and other places, many persons were critical of the US war in Vietnam. They supported Muhammad Ali.
They further applauded when he sacrificed the boxing crown for his principle against the war. Of course, at those times, there were also many other Americans, like singer Joan Baez, another person of greatness, who were against the war in Vietnam. People were with Muhammad Ali when some years later he got back to boxing. And won. His following and support increased. New generations began to join the following and support.
So, persons in Africa admired Muhammad Ali and his courage. Ali became a heroic icon. And, more, he was to affect persons across colour, religious, culture, language, politics, location, economic situation, and other factors. United by a common person, the fans were from various backgrounds.
Many bonded with him. They loved Muhammad Ali. He was a friend. Muhammad Ali united humanity from many angles. He was an active child of the family of the whole of humanity.
Boxing has been called organised violence and is many times violent, and even brutal. But in Muhammad Ali, many did not consider brutality. He did not come out as brutal. He was friendly. His situation was that of a skilled person entertaining the audience with physical tact and verbal talk. In boxing, here was a master. He was showing what one in any sport should achieve.
Muhammad Ali had grace. He was alert. And calm. He had endurance and stamina. Clearly, any one that wants to attack must first learn to defend. Muhammad Ali could take punches and attacks to the body. And much of that he was doing while he was in control of the situation.
Ali was creative and strategic in his game. A quick reader of things, he was a careful observer of the forces affecting him. He tested and sized up the other contestant. He was careful, rarely careless.
Surprisingly amongst most persons in the heavyweight divisions, Muhammad Ali was swift in response. He was efficient with his size and weight. And he enjoyed playing with words, psyching his opponents in the match and outside. He spoke in very direct manner. He had spontaneous rhyme and poetry for persons, matches, and situations. He enjoyed working on others through words.
Unlike now, in the 1960s and 1970s, in Africa, just after independence, there were few persons with television sets. But when there were boxing matches involving Muhammad Ali, people, young and older, would go to watch at neighbours and relatives places. Many times, because of the time difference involving Africa and places like the USA, the boxing matches were in late night and very early morning.
In the morning, people would go over to work and school. Many who watched Muhammad Ali ordinarily did not like boxing. It was not fighting they were watching. They were watching Muhammad Ali the person, Muhammad Ali the big soul. Boxing was merely the means that allowed them to watch a big soul like Muhammad Ali.
The boxing was not an end. Ali was an inspiration touching other persons also be lifted and soar in their own fields. A master’s work inspires others in other fields. In a master of any field, the mind and spirit of the master has control over the results the body does. A skilled boxer, soccer player, or other sportsperson, will learn to use many limbs.
In addition, Muhammad Ali contributed a lot in time, money, mentoring, and friendship to those in need. His name and resources became means of supporting others. He interacted with persons from various backgrounds and reached with them the point of Human to Human, and perhaps Soul to Soul, communion.
People knew Muhammad Ali’s family history and who was who. They followed events in his family life. They knew the trainer Angelo Dundee (1921 – 2012). They knew about his cheer person Bundini Brown (1928 – 1987). When Muhammad Ali retired from boxing contests in 1981, his following did not fade. New generations joined the veneration.
Muhammad Ali met people from various fields all over the world. They felt their journeys were linked to his.
The condition of Parkinson’s disease greatly affected him. But his soul was still active and interacting with people. When he passed away recently, June 3, 2016, aged 74, great memories and appreciation came into hundreds of millions of persons all over the world.
As Muhammad Ali’s funeral was being organised in Louisville, Kentucky, for burial on Friday, June 10, 2016, it was clear that this was one rare moment where such a huge number of persons, from various backgrounds, and from all over the world, are united around a person.
Muhammad Ali touched and lifted up many persons. Millions and many generations appreciated Ali. As when he was boxing, in his death, Muhammad Ali has united humanity.
Based in Lusaka, Zambia, the Author is involved in Writing and the Arts, Social Development, and observation of conflict and peace issues.
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GCB, June 2016, LUSAKA.