LATE last year, the world’s best known sportsman and mostrecoganised face, Muhammad Ali, was hospitalized. The whole world held its breath praying to God to spare the life of the greatest boxer that has ever lived.
Our prayers were answered a fortnight ago when Ali was released from a United States of America, his home country, hospital after a urinary infection had been treated by doctors. Today, Saturday, 17th January, 2015, the fastest most quick-witted, most handsome and first three – time world heavyweight boxing champion, Ali, is 73 years old. May Allah (SWT) spare his remarkable life for more years. Amen. Ali, was a phenomenon in the ring. There has been no athlete/ sportsman or woman who held the whole world in awe since he quit boxing in 1982. His story in and outside the ring is that of faith, courage, skill, determination and creativity conquering poverty, bigotry, fear and oppression. I am a long-standing fan of Ali, from the time he burst on the world’s consciousness in 1964. You remember his unbelievable defeat of Sonny Liston against all odds, to become the youngest world heavyweight boxing champion at 22 years. That yet – to – be – equalled feat of Ali made good his boasts of “I am the Greatest. I will defeat the ugly bear (Liston)”.
When another star, this time in music and on our soil, Ebenezer Fabiyi Obey alias “Chief Commander”, clocked 60 years on 3rd April, 2002, I wrote a diamond jubilee birthday tribute in honour of Ali and Obey, titled “Obey the Ali in you”, which was published in some national dailies (For ease of reference, The Comet on Sunday newspaper issue of 21st April, 2002). The stories of thee two icons, Ali in boxing, Obey in music, are similar and exemplary. To mark Ali’s 73rd birthday today, I recall my 2002 tribute (below) to him. “The fulcrum of this piece is an exhortation to the individual to obey his or her inner voice urging the body to actualize those noble dreams that will add value to life, as exemplified by two of the world’s great stars, Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend and the former “Chief Commander” of juju (miliki) music, now turned evangelist, Dr. Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi.
These two talented persons, aside from divine grace, actualized their dreams through the mastery of their different arts, hardwork, self-confidence, creativity plus the breakthrough given by their different motivators – a police officer/boxing coach for Ali, and a recording company chief executive for Obey. “Ali clocked 60 last January, while Obey coincidentally attained the same age on the 3rd of this month (April 2002). Their age is a period in life when any good dream ought to have been realized, or be within easy grasp in a Godly, orderly and progressive setting. Satisfied that they have made good marks in their different professional callings, Ali and Evangelist (Dr) Obey- Fabiyi have retired and today are fishers of men for God. Salvation of mankind and the kingdom hereafter are now the main pre-occupation of both men as Ali is an Islamic minister while Dr. Obey-Fabiyi heads an evangelical ministry. I am, however, weaving this piece round the lives of the two in their hey days in the ring and on stage. “As I said earlier and going by its title, this piece is to fire the zeal of future stars out there who, presently are unknown and helpless like Ali and Obey once were before providence smiled on them, leading both men to their destined ports of fame and fortune.
“First, Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942 in Loiusville, Kentucky, United States of America, the world’s best recognized face was steered to his destiny by a theft incident. One day in 1954, aged 12, he had been riding around on his new bike bought for him by his father as a Christmas present. Also riding around with the young Cassius, on his own bike, was Johnny Willis, his closest friend. A heavy rain terminated the two young boys fun on their bikes, and in want of something else to do, Cassius and his friend headed for an auditorium where the annual bazaar, the “Louisville Home Show”, for African- Americans in business was being held. They were attracted particularly to the show because the poster read that free popcorn and hot dogs would be served. “By the time the two young friends thought they had their fill and wanted to go home, Cassius’ bicycle had been stolen! In their search for the bike, someone told the boys to go downstairs to the gym in the auditorium, where a policeman, Mr. Joe Elsby Martin, was training some boxers. They followed the advice. In the gym, Cassius was told by the policeman/trainer to lodge a formal complaint which he (Mr. Martin) wrote down.
The future world heavyweight boxing champion boasted that he would “whup” the person who stole his bicycle even “if the guy is an adult”. The 12 – year old (Cassius) confidence made Mr. Martin to ask if he was a boxer or learning the art. But Cassius replied in the negative repeating his earlier boast to “whup” (beat) the thief. And according to Ali in his autobiography, “The Greatest,” as he was about to go, Mr. Martin tapped him on the shoulder and gave him an application form in case he was interested in joining the gym where they boxed every night, Mondays to Fridays. “The sight, sounds and smell of the boxing gym excited the young Cassius so much that he started to dream. Hear him. “I can see myself telling my next door neighbor, ‘I am getting ready to fight for the heavyweight title of the world, and coming back the next night to say, ‘I am now the heavyweight champion of the world!” It did come to pass.
One thing did not just lead to another, determination, rigorous training, strategic planning and faith in God culminated into turning a young, poor boy to the man who would break all known records in boxing, if not sports history. Ali brought science, beauty, money and a yet – to – be – equalled dignity to the game of brain, blood and brutality called boxing. Sad to see what’s happening to the game now. “The generations who watched Ali “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” in the ’60s and ’70s would not dismiss his claim of being the greatest boxer that has ever lived. What about his beautiful poems and wisecracks which led to a professorship offer by a British University, and the uncanny predictions of the round his many opponents would fall. As a good sportsman and world champion, Ali, never in his career, hit his opponents below the belt or after the bell had gone. He was a decent boxer. “I have watched all his recorded fights – thanks partly to the late Segun Oyedele of the NTA, Ibadan. Ali won the first richest prize in sports. He was the first and only boxer in history to have won the world heavyweight title thrice. Ali did not stop at boxing, he became a champion of human rights. His refusal, based on religious/personal beliefs, to be conscripted into the US Army to fight in VietNam in 1967 with the now famous quip, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” endeared him to millions all over the USA and the world. I was a signatory to the worldwide call to the US-based World Boxing Authority which stripped Ali of his title from 1967-70 to rescind its decision.
His draft refusal and the eventual victory at the USA Supreme Court which ordered the restoration of his title and the release of his boxing licence, to some extent, pricked the conscience of the USA and her eventual withdrawal from the VietNam war. “Today, Ali is an international peace ambassador, an icon for the ‘can do’ attitude in addition to being a philanthropist and symbol of pride for millions of oppressed people of the world. “There has never been anyone else in any other sport remotely near him”, wrote British television interviewer, Michael Parkinson. Today, ironically, a disease described as the Parkinson Syndrome, has slowed down Ali in speech and movement, but not his spirit of adding value to life.” “In Ali’s former camp, posterity will record in gold names, such as Mr. Martin, the policeman/trainer, Angelo Dundee, Ali’s coach, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, the cornerman with the ready yells of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, Mr. Elijah Muhammad, Ali’s spiritual mentor and Herbert Muhammad, the photographer who managed Ali’s purse”. Yes, indeed Parkinson Syndrome and other old age ailments might have slowed Ali down, but he is not out. If I may play on a pun, by saying that Ali was one boxer who never, not even once, failed to come out of his corner to answer the bell calling for the start of a boxing round. The whole world loves Ali and we pray for his well-being. Muhammad Ali, down but not out. Happy birthday, Champ. •Oloye ’Lekan Alabi, D. Litt (h.c), Aare Alaasa Olubadan of Ibadanland