A Personal Encounter
In paying tribute to Muhammad Ali, I would like to recall a personal encounter I had with him, that has remained vivid in my memory until this day.
On the 20th September 1972, I attended the second fight between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. Following the bout, Ali almost landed a knockout punch to me when he announced that his next fight would take place in South Africa.
After speaking to some of the Black Muslim brothers, they managed to arrange a meeting between Ali and I at the hotel where he was staying. After a brief wait, Ali emerged from his room looking very tired and exhibiting great humility. We exchanged greetings and I began to explain to him that he was greatly admired by Africans, not only as an athlete, but as a person and a symbol of black resistance in the face of white oppression.
I said that if he would decide to fight in South Africa, it would look as if he was supporting the white minority regime that ruled the country at the time, and this would lose him the support and respect of all Africans. He retorted, “You Africans do not support our struggle here in America”. I responded by saying “We are fully in support of your struggle”.
Following this brief encounter with Ali, I approached Ambassador John Malecela, Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations to see what could be done to help persuade Ali not to go to South Africa. After this, Ali was invited to the United Nations and I believe that this helped change his mind about fighting in South Africa. That is my personal recollection of the man, the legend, Muhammad Ali.
A man of principle
There are many things that distinguish Muhammad Ali from your average sports star. He was a man of principle and he displayed this in several ways.
After he decided to renounce his name of birth, Cassius Clay and turn to Islam by taking on the name, Muhammad Ali, he was heavily criticised and had to endure vitriol from fellow Americans, including some from his own community.
This was exacerbated when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, stating that he had no quarrel with “them Vietcong” and that war was only “killing and more killing” and he was not going to go and kill innocent people. After this, he was stripped of his world title and overnight, he was ostracized, turning from People’s Champion to a national hate figure.
I have often said that one has to be prepared to suffer for one’s principles. Ali is a true example of this belief, as he suffered greatly for his principles. A further indication of the principled nature of Ali, was when he came to Africa to fight George Foreman in the former Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo.
Foreman, displaying all the arrogance of a proud American, refused to bow to the picture of Mobuto Sese Seko. Meanwhile, Ali approached the leader of Zaire and addressed him as “My President.” This immediately endeared him to the locals, who soon started chanting “Ali Bomaye” in support of Muhammad Ali.
I remember Muhammad Ali undertaking lecture tours once he was exiled from boxing. I attended some of these lectures and was greatly impressed by his ability to discuss a multitude of issues that were relevant to the times. That is what separated Ali from other boxers. There are many intelligent boxers, but none who could match Ali’s wit, wisdom and foresight.
Legendary and memorable fights
There is no questioning the fact that Muhammad Ali changed the face of boxing. Until this day, all the promotional hype that characterizes modern boxing, is in existence due to the genius and personality of Ali. This genius is captured in several legendary fights that I remember, which will always go down in boxing folklore.
Following his return to boxing after having had his titled stripped , due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam (this cost him three to four years of his prime), Ali faced Joe Frazier in the first of three fights, dubbed the “Fight of the Century”. The fight took place at Madison Square Garden March 8, 1971 and Comrade Theo-Ben Gurirab, his wife and I, watched the fight at an auditorium.
After Ali was knocked down by Frazier, despite swiftly getting back up, the whole auditorium seemed to turn into a funeral parlor. It was so quiet, one could have heard a pin drop. After Frazier was awarded the fight by unanimous decision, we all left the auditorium like people who had just attended a burial.
On October 30, 1974, Ali would meet George Foreman in Kinshasa, former Zaire for a fight that encapsulated Ali’s ability to win a fight not only with natural ability, but with intelligence and tactical genius as well. Ali would avoid Foreman’s powerful punches by introducing the rope-a-dope technique, goading and tricking his opponent to exhaustion, before knocking him out in the eighth round.
The legend of Muhammad Ali was cemented in history when on October 1, 1975, Ali fought Frazier for the third time after having beaten him in their second fight. In a fight dubbed, “Thrilla in Manilla” Ali and Frazier engaged in a brutal slugfest, until Frazier’s face was unrecognizable, having been peppered by Ali’s punches.
Ali was not the hardest puncher, but his speed and stamina meant he could hit is opponent with relentless blows and this would eventually take its toll. In the 14th round, Frazier’s corner stopped him from coming out and Ali was declared the winner of this legendary fight.
Muhammad Ali is more than a boxer. He was a humanitarian, anti-war hero and an exemplary role model, who emerged out of one of the most turbulent periods of history, to bring joy, tears and hope to so many people around the world.
We will always remember and miss the People’s Champ, The Greatest, The Louisville Lip.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.