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For a heavyweight he trod lightly.

Behind Muhammed Ali’s boxing persona there was a man who cared. He cared about people, about causes, and about spirituality. Behind the brashness, there was a lightness of soul and a personality which did not punch, but touched. Here was a man who was born into a divided world but left it with an understanding of the oneness of humanity.

On Thursday the Islamic funeral prayer service, or Jenazah, will be held in Ali’s home town – Louisville, Kentucky. His funeral is the following day. Both ceremonies will be akin to those held when great statesmen and women pass on.World figures will come to pay homage. Both events will be televised around the world.

We are not just witnessing the passing of possibly the greatest sporting hero of the last century, we are saying goodbye to a man who helped fashion an era, who transcended sport, eventually rose above the politics of religion, and whose humanity allowed him to defeat his own prejudices, and to fight those of the world.

Muhammed Ali was born into prejudice. He grew up in a world where a black person had to sit at the back of a bus, and was refused entry to equality via 1001 Jim Crow laws.

And yet – through it all, he fought to become, by a country mile, the best at what he did, and he did it with style, grace, and bravery. Bravado also yes, but he was young, and as we look back at a life, amazingly lived, the transgressions of youth need to be viewed through the prism of of the time and his experience.

Yes, he was brash, he was the Louisville Lip, yes he challenged the stereotypes of the day, but he was never ‘uppity’ – that was a term for someone who in the racist mindset did not ‘know their place’. Ali, then Cassius Clay (named after an abolitionist), really did know his place and knew that his place was alongside anyone and everyone else – on merit.

First he was the world’s best boxer. Then, as a wonderfully intelligent mind developed, also the world’s best self-promoter, and then, as this confident, intelligent, and yes, angry young man was introduced to politics and a different religion,  he challenged an entire mindset – that of mainstream America. By so doing, he became a world figure, in some ways a world leader.

Sure he was angry – after converting from being a Baptist to the Nation of Islam’s peripheral form of Islam in 1964, and rejecting being drafted to fight in Vietnam, he said –

“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 n***er, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me…just send me to jail.”

He debated college educated students and told them, ‘You won’t even fight for my rights here – why will I fight over there?”.

Sure he said some troublesome, stupid stuff. There’s nothing like a convert for religious zeal and he was first converted it was to a form of Islam which preached that white people were devils invented by a mad scientist, hence initial support for segregation and remarks such as ‘white people are my enemy’.  He also made several anti-Semitic remarks, among them –

“You know the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world.”

He was in the grip of extremists, but his humanity shone through. He moved from the extremism of the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. Then, in 2005, he moved again, this time to the gentler, mystical side of his faith -Sufi Islam.

As he grew he refused to be bound by experiencing the prejudices of a lifetime of discrimination. In 2004 he wrote

“The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils. I don’t believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen.”

Even at the height of his ignorant comments on Jews he remained friends with sportscaster Howard Cosell and other Jews. In the 1960s, when most media people insisted on referring to Ali by his former name (Clay) Cosell broke ranks and called him Muhammed. In 1995 Ali attended Coswell’s funeral and cried openly.

After one of Ali’s daughters, Khaliah, married Spencer Wertheimer he subsequently attended the Bar Mitzvah of his grandson Jacob and according to Khaliah “My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there,”

Ali was always political, but his religion, and increasingly his spirituality dominated the second half of his life. His charitable works reached across divides as did his warmth and respect for others.

There will inevitably be a political aspect to his passing. Turkey’s President Erdogan is among the world leaders attending the funeral and reportedly had wanted to make a speech. There is a connection – Ali visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in the 90s and met the then junior official, but it is a tenuous link and more connected to geopolitics than anything else.

It is better to let Ali himself have the last word. In his autobiography ‘The Soul Of a Butterfly’ it was clear, Ali had made an amazing journey in his life, and had arrived at a place perhaps he had always been – a very human place;

“Over the the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. We all have the same God, we just serve him differently…It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”


10 Comments on "Ali. Saying Goodbye to the Soul of a Butterfly."

  1. Peter Kennedy | 8th June 2016 at 8:51 am | Reply

    Thank you for this ,Tim, Muhammed Ali was a great man and you have marked his passing in a far better way than I ever could. On Thursday and Friday the world will say goodbye and if ever there was a moment for mainstream Islam to stand up and tell the world ‘THIS is what we are about’ then this is it. Muhammed Ali was a kind, funny, charitable, educated man who was shaped by the religion he believed in and for the first time millions of Americans will see what it means to be a Muslim on their TV screens as the world says goodbye to a great man.

  2. He visited Newcastle in 1977 to raise money for a local boys club and spent four days I think it was mixing and talking with ordinary people. My sisters husband who would have been about 13 at the time met him and shook his hand, I forget now what he said to him but ever since whenever you mention Ali his face lights up and he will tell you how he had hands the size of shovels.

    A little piece about his visit on the chronicle here

    If your interested there is a 50 minute question and answer section he did at Eldon Square where he talks about religion towards the end, in any case Ali is always a good watch.

  3. Patrick Blewer | 8th June 2016 at 9:50 am | Reply

    Great boxer and an endlessly fascinating man. His treatment of Joe F in particular increases the complexity. He was no pure saint, but he was the sportsman of the 20th century, because he was so much more than just a sportsman.

  4. Never entirely sure what to think about Ali as a boxer. His prime was quite different to the time when he was most famous; his better known fights were in the 1970s when he was clearly no longer quite as light on his feet. ‘Rope-a-dope’ was famous and rightly so, immortalized in Mailer’s ‘The Fight’ (highly recommended if you’ve not read it), but was it great boxing? Was Ali the greatest heavyweight? Perhaps but the first years of Tyson seemed so special. His flame was so genuinely fierce that you just knew it would eventually consume him as it did. As a cultural figure, however, there was and will never be anybody quite like Ali. Self-promotional plug: a link to something I wrote earlier in the week on Ali and greatness. Definitely not a saint but that was part of his greatness.

    • It’s very hard to judge David, as any champion can only beat what is in front of them. In Tysons case the heavyweight division was pretty weak when he won and defended his titles against the likes of Trevor Berbick, Tony Tubbs and Tyrell Biggs. Tony Tucker was one of the few half decent fighters around at the time and he took Tyson the distance despite breaking his hand early on as did “Bonecrusher” Smith. Not saying Tyson wasn’t an exciting explosive fighter but he never had to face Foreman, Frazier or Liston at their peak and Foremans ability to win the title and take Holyfield the distance in his 40’s (a feat Tyson couldn’t manage aged 30) perhaps shows the relative merits of the two eras.

      • Yes, I’ve heard that argument before and it’s very persuasive. And, indeed, you cannot compare, which is probably why I quite like boxing — comes down to an almost aesthetic judgement or something that’s harder to define. Tyson is the only boxer I’ve seen who gave me a visceral thrill seeing him in action but, as you say, he might well have been one dimensional and struggled against more technical fighters. Those lists of all time greats make for such good reading but if the experts can’t decide then I know I can’t. I guess I am just loyal to the era when I enjoyed boxing, before boxing became what it is now when fighters look like walking lumps of steroid abuse. In fact, possibly one of the few good things you can say about Fury is that he looks like a proper fighter.

  5. Peter Kennedy | 8th June 2016 at 4:55 pm | Reply

    David, regarding something said in your article it should be noted that links between Ali and wrestling go back a long time. He was a guest referee at the first Wrestlemania and the ‘I am the greatest’ persona was copied from a wrestler called Gorgeous George who had a similar attitude to show business but was not so successful.

    I agree with you though, he was no saint, and anybody who makes a living beating people up must have a mean streak in them. In the 1967 fight with Ernie Terrell he repeatedly taunted the man after he was called Cassius Clay and the phrase “What’s my name fool? What’s my name? has now passed into history. That fight stretched into fifteen painful rounds for Terrell and by the end of it he certainly did know who he was losing against.

    • Ah, thanks, Peter. I didn’t know that about Wrestlemania, though, to be honest, wrestling is one of my blind spots. Never liked it and I doubt if I ever will. Boxing exists in that place between wresting and MMA, between showmanship and violence. I don’t like MMA because it’s just feral instinct. Boxing is partway to that but has the control that is goes too far in wrestling. I think Ali could stray a little towards the performance but, perhaps, I misjudge Ali’s genius. I just find it so hard to split the fighter from the showman. I’m going to find time to sit down and reread the Mailer. Long time since I read it. Now might a good time to revisit it.

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