It's like a part of me just passed with him", said Muhammad Ali's former formidable opponent, George Foreman of Ali's passing away on June 3, a few days shy of the blessed month of Ramadan. Foreman had lost his world boxing championship to Ali at a historic fight, widely known as the "Rumble in the jungle" in Zaire in 1974. In the ensuing years what Foreman lost was gained many times over by the unique friendship he forged with Ali. Foreman spoke of Ali being greater than his boxing. His sentiment is also echoed by the countless millions from all faiths, races and nationalities worldwide. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stated on the passing of Ali, "Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period?..Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it." Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton in his remembrance of Ali rightly said that not all famous people are great. So many world boxing champions had come and gone while people hardly remember their names. But Ali's case was remarkably different, Sharpton pointed out, "he was a champion out of the ring and in the ring... he made a standing for something against all odds?he didn't risk it all, he lost it all?even people who were pro war at that time?they respected a guy that really stood by what he had believed."
I had the great opportunity of meeting him and listening to an electrifying speech during his memorable visit to Bangladesh in 1978. I was lucky enough to be seated at a close range in the large stadium. Then I had yet another rare opportunity of speaking with him in USA over the telephone in the early nineties. The phone meeting had been coordinated by his wife Lonnie Ali and one of his friends. Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's disease, which was diagnosed in 1984, had progressed considerably over the years. As a result his audience and visitors had to be strictly limited. I consider myself a very fortunate one for gaining an access to him in spite of the limitations imposed by his illness. I introduced myself as a human rights' activist and an immigrant from Bangladesh. I spoke briefly of his historic visit to my motherland. He said that he certainly remembered the heartfelt welcoming he had received from all segments of people of the country. Despite the Parkinson's disease which slurred his speech, his deep passion undergirded his words. When I asked him what his message would be for the youth. He responded, "Prayer...prayer is the answer to many problems our youth are facing today. Sister, please tell our youth to pray to the Merciful God......"In spite of his legendary fame and success, Muhammad Ali never swayed from his faith deeply rooted in compassion for people irrespective of their race, faith, gender and class. He believed in cultivating our spiritual core in order to reclaim our true selves. His spiritual evolution from the sectarian Nation of Islam to the main stream universal Islam and his delve into the teachings of the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan in later years reflected on his emergence as a peace and reconciliation hero, champion of the poor and help lesson a global level. As he battled with his illness so did he progress spiritually over the years. In the end he was transformed in to a world citizen. His examples can serve against those who misuse religion and kill innocent people.
Muhammad Ali won his first Olympic Gold Medal at age eighteen in 1960 and earned his first world boxing heavy weight championship defeating the "unbeatable" Sonny Liston in 1964. Ali, born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay (January 17, 1942) of humble African American descent, declared his conversion to the Nation of Islam soon after his victory against Liston. His unconventional tactic of overpowering his opponent through the psychological warfare, boastful claim, such as " I am the greatest", humorous poems, " float like a butterfly, sting like a bee..", swift speed and dance like stance at the boxing arena left millions stunned and entertained like no other sport champion before.
Even after thirty five years since his retirement in 1981, his battle with the Parkinson's disease since its' diagnosis in 1984 and his recent passing away at age seventy four, he is as alive in people's hearts and minds as he was in the peak of his boxing career. Ali is great because he walked the talk by standing up under great ordeal for what he believed to be right. In the prime of his youth, Ali had risked his golden career, million dollar income and safety in favour of truth, justice and human dignity. Thus, his greatness as a man of conscience and conviction had surpassed his legendary fame as a three time world boxing champion. In 1967, when he opposed to be drafted to the Vietnam War on the grounds of his religious beliefs and conscience, he was arrested; his boxing license suspended; passport seized and his heavyweight title was stripped off of him. He shocked the establishment when he declared, "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."
Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison with a ten thousand dollars fine. Yet he did not compromise his position in the least. He appealed to the court. In 1971, the US Supreme Court conceded in his favour. Ali emerged as victorious. But it was a different kind of a victory he achieved which transcended all the worldly gains and glories. It was a victory of human spirit, in all its beauty, and resilience. This was Muhammad Ali, a real great man who dared to walk the talk and inspired generations to come.
Sharmin Ahmad lives abroad and is the author of the work 'Tajuddin Ahmad: Neta O Pita'