Like everyone my age, I was too young to recognize Muhammad Ali at his peak. Back in the day when new films took months to hit Nigeria, videos of boxing events such as that involving Ali must have taken two years to come to my side of the world. My Dad was an avid follower, while my Mum who detested boxing, and all contact sports couldn’t escape knowing about THE GREATEST. It was just easy to know him, and back in the day when TV wasn’t privatized in Nigeria in the eighties, if you missed a few glimpses of Ali in WEEKEND SPORTS on Saturday between 5 and 7 PM , you won’t escape a full hour devoted to boxing (featuring mainly Ali’s exploits in the ring), anchored by Segun Aderiye if memory serves. It was network, so the only station which won’t show it will be the Lagos State owned, Lagos Weekend Television, LWT a variant of the LTV during the week days. The other Nigerian Television Authority stations nationwide, three of them (channels 5, 7 and 10) in Lagos all switched over to the “network service”, so you either stayed tuned or go f_ck yourself.
Ali was stuffed directly in my face more than a gazillion times that I couldn’t help but want to know about him. Much of what I would later see on videos on cable TV, movies and now on YouTube, I had actually heard on terrestrial TV and read from the press by sports analyst, even via word of mouth by uncles or older friends, some of whom claimed to have witnessed most of the things they told me in living colour, for which I’m beginning to consider believing seeing that Muhammad Ali visited Nigeria severally (even more than Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the “Rumble In The Jungle” was staged), during the late seventies and early eighties, and most of these visits included not only to the VIPs but also to locals and downtrodden in several states, where he earned for himself a myriad of local names to boot, and that was as much as the government of the day could allow, enough to accommodate his inquisitiveness. I stumbled upon some cartoons of Ali as a kid as well, even as an adult having never at any time outgrown animation films and the likes, and what struck me was how it always ended with words of admonition for viewers, especially kids. “Impossible Is Nothing” was one of his catch phrases that stuck with me till date as mantra, and I even wrote about it months ago.
Beyond all of that, is the life away from boxing, which in my estimation was the main attraction, not because I don’t like boxing or consider that part of his life less intriguing, it is rather because he used the opportunity and platform that boxing provided to advocate for change in how society was structured or ran in his days, and though it might have been an unpopular path to career (evidenced by the fact that no protests was held by even many of those he spoke for when his championship belts were stripped off him) in those days, he lived to see those words and actions of his justified.
Back to sports, unlike with football where heads could be split, and civil war started during an argument over who the greatest footballer between Pelé and Maradona, or between Ronaldo and Messi is, there is a unanimous agreement when it comes to boxing. Unfortunately, the way boxing is structured today will ensure that Muhammad Ali will be it’s greatest of all times, and by extension, even all of sports. The glowing terms with which his peers, including the many who had been at the end of his career ending blows, speak about him kind of cemented his status. Add to that, the awe in which those after him, like Mike Tyson hold him, so much so that when Floyd Mayweather Jr. blabbed about being the greatest boxer ever, he was quickly put in his place not least by Iron Mike himself, for been disrespectful.
How Muhammad Ali was able to manage thinking himself “THE GREATEST”, and yet remain a devout Muslim will forever remain a mystery to me, seeing that there’s only one greatest in Islam, and calling himself that, could constitute blasphemy amongst even moderate Muslims. On the other hand, life has a way of humbling men who ascribe any form of divinity to themselves, and without throwing stones at Ali, I have found a recurrence of this even with that Space Shuttle “CHALLENGER” that disintegrated on its way out of the atmosphere into space, that man is soon unraveled when he tends to assume or challenge the divine or divinity, like Nebuchadnezzar and Herod (whose mistake was not acting to stop his praise singers from ascribing divinity to him) in the Bible, something those hero worshippers of Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari will do well to note and reorder their ways.
I don’t know if Ali managed his family that well, though Laila Ali could be said to have done his father proud, retiring undefeated in women’s boxing, I have recently come upon a story on his son who may not be doing that so good. The fact that Ali married more than once, and that by the time the boy was grown, his father was already incapacitated and had many decisions made on his behalf by the wife of the moment, may have contributed to that state of affairs, but that doesn’t excuse his son from charting a path different from his fathers’ and be successful at it, even if possible, exploit the leverage his father’s name would’ve provided to edge on, but who am I to judge?
When I learnt that Ali was hospitalized this last time, I feared it would be the last, yet I was taken unawares by his demise. News that he had planned for his funeral fascinated me. I am not surprised that Bill Clinton would be one of those to give a keynote address, he remains amongst many African Americans their first and probably “only” BLACK president. He may not have noticed Obama because of his illness, or there isn’t that much space to accommodate two American presidents for a funeral speech, though Obama could be excused for having presidential work to be preoccupied with, and it doesn’t matter that he’s in his lame duck months.
Even in death, Muhammad Ali wouldn’t separate himself from the every day person, such that fifteen thousand tickets were made available for free to just about anybody willing to be close to the proceedings outlined to bid him farewell in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Though, he lived well into old age, spending a better part of his aging years with a debilitating disease, hence death be considered much of a relief and a release, he’ll be sorely missed the world over by those who knew him personally, and billions who never had that opportunity, yet whose lives he touched in varying capacities. His kind will need no physical structure to be erected for him to be immortalized, as he’s already within our hearts, attained immortality.