The Greatest 1942-2016

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

 

Mohammed Ali was perhaps the greatest sportsman of the last century but to describe him as a boxer would be to do him a disservice. He was a fighter, a renegade, a poet and a civil rights campaigner. What resonated with me when I watched the numerous documentaries surrounding his life over the course of the weekend was that he was a man of several seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that somehow he managed to mesh together. He was a fighter and a lover. A fierce patriot who held the Olympic torch but fought tirelessly for civil rights. He imbued self-confidence yet was humbled and dignified when he succumbed to defeat particularly towards the end of his career. He was also a man of principle in a society in which celebrities and politicians manoeuvred their ideological positions back and forth to suit the prevailing mind-set at the time.

He refused to fight in Vietnam War because as he saw it “why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” . As a result of this stance he was stripped of his title for three and a half years during what should have been the peak of his career. He spent the time instead touring around university campuses debating and actively campaigning for civil rights. An outspoken critic of the institutionalised racism that was prevalent in the United States during his life, he converted to Islam in what is still a deeply conservate Christian country when he was younger and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Mohammed Ali in order to reclaim his identity which he had been robbed of by his white oppressors. He went on to claim that Clay was his slave name and refused to be called by it thereafter. 

Towards the end of his life he fought his hardest battle of all, finally succumbing to Parkinson’s disease after suffering with the disease for decades which he had done so with a dignity and resoluteness that characterised his persona. He was, by all accounts the people’s champion.