Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 in Arizona, far from his native city of Louisville, Kentucky. As a matter of fact, the living legend has been far removed from social life for a number of years due to his much weakened health. The talkative, extremely clever, incisive young athlete turned into a mute, hardly moving, sick old man, bound to a wheelchair.
An incredible number of obituaries and analyses have been published around the world. One thing is certain; he is probably the greatest heavyweight boxing champion ever.
As a matter of fact, this young black American was revolutionary in almost everything he did, totally changing our perception of the boxing world, of the situation of black Americans in the U.S. and of the incredible role a single person can play in a conservative society.
Ali started his life as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a name that had no bearing with his origin, his culture or his dreams. He represented the U.S. at the 1960 Olympics in Rome where he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight category. Although, becoming an Olympic champion still did not allow him to be able to get a hamburger in a whites-only restaurant. After the incident, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River in protest of the idiotic racial segregation in a country that praised itself on being extremely democratic and free.
He became a true figure of the civil rights movement at a time when historic personalities such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were fighting against century-old segregation laws. These were historic times, the first black leading man in Hollywood, Sydney Poitiers, was becoming a celebrity and the great singer Nat King Cole made an appearance on a TV show for the first time. But the revolutionary changes would come in a very radical way. These were the times of Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Elijah Mohammad.
Very soon, young Clay, whose mentor was Malcolm X, opted for Islam. He remained a deep believer until the end of his life. The thing he hated most was to be reminded his old name, Cassius Clay. His opponents in the ring who called him by his old name paid a heavy price for their insolence. Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell both received memorable corrections when Ali took the time to beat them round after round, never delivering the last punch that would end the bout.
He was not at all an exemplary young black American for the then conservative American society. He excelled in being insolent, unpredictable and shocking. But above all, he remained very faithful to his principles. He was stripped of his champion title because he refused to be drafted into the army to go fight in Vietnam. He did not cave in, losing what most likely would have been the best three years of his professional career, until he obtained justice from the Boxing Council. He never missed an occasion to denounce the inequalities in society, the corruption or the reigning hypocrisy.
He has also discovered, perhaps much later than Malcolm X, the universality of Islam. His rhetoric changed a lot over time, from a big mouth young black American athlete to an opinion leader with much more wisdom, moderation and penetration. He became an icon over time very much like Nelson Mandela, who loved him. People forgot the eccentricities and the violent diatribes of his youth to remember the best of Ali.
His recent denouncement of Donald Trump, who proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S., remains memorable. He wrote:
I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.
We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is."
In a world where fascism is on the rise and xenophobia and Islamophobia go hand in hand, Ali's revolutionary legacy is not to be forgotten soon, he will "continue to touch our lives with his unwavering spirit. He was not only a monumental athlete, but also a humanitarian and a global citizen," as is so correctly written on his website.