Not many fading 74-year-olds enter the pearly gates of heaven with a standing ovation from us hard-to-please earthlings. Muhammad Ali managed the impossible even after being knocked out by Parkinson’s.
So how did the boxing legend enchant a whole world into cheering for him, although the sport has lesser popularity than say Justin Bieber (82.5 million followers on Twitter).
If you glance through the eulogies, you’d think Ali being ‘the greatest boxer’ had a lot to do with it. But the truth is he wasn’t even the greatest boxer. He was beaten five times in his illustrious career spanning 61 fights. Rocky Marciano, in comparison, stayed unbeaten till he retired with 49 fights. Several peers rate Joe Louis, America’s first black boxing hero, better than Ali as he was the undisputed heavyweight champion for 12 years.
To give you an Indian perspective, Ali was a bit like Gavaskar. He faced the toughest opponents and, hence, he probably deserves the tag. But there will always be people who think Sachin, Dravid or Kohli are superior. The pithiest way to answer this vexed issue is by listening to the ‘Louisville Lip’: “I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.”
But that still doesn’t explain the braggart’s humongous popularity, does it? I have a simple analogy to unravel the mystery. Imagine a champ with the ability of Tendulkar, the wit of Shah Rukh Khan, the charisma of Elvis, and the daredevilry of Houdini. Ali was all this and more.
He was the icon of icons. He flung his Olympic gold medal into River Ohio as a statement to protest the segregation of blacks. He dumped his given name ‘Cassius Clay’ and opted for ‘Muhammad Ali’ to poke fun at why Jesus and his angels had to be lily white. He took a public stance against the Vietnam War at the risk of being banned for three years. He came back from the wilderness and beat George Foreman when no one gave him a chance to win the world heavyweight title. Later in life, he used his tremendous goodwill to free 15 American hostages from Iraq and paid a patriotic debt.
What made him most endearing though, was his repartees. After his divorce, he is supposed to have said with tongue firmly in cheek, “My toughest fight was with my first wife.” Can’t better that punchline, can you?
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