Peace Be to Brother Ali

As the news spread about the passing of former boxing great Muhammad Ali at age 74 earlier this month, a deep sense of grieving and mourning seemed universal. Not since former South African president Nelson Mandela died in 2013 did we see such a collective sense of loss spanning the globe, and it moved me beyond words.

The comparison between the two men is perhaps an apt one, since Mandela, as a former head of state, was truly a People’s President, while Ali was a genuine People’s Champion in every respect. Both men rose to the heights of glory in their respective fields in their own countries, yet maintained a love of their people and of humanity, and were deeply loved and respected in return.

One thing that strongly impressed me was how many of Ali’s accomplishments actually came outside of the boxing ring, not only within it. We all remember about Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted into the U.S. war on Vietnam and being stripped of his boxing title, forcing him out of boxing from 1967 to 1971 as he appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won.

But how many of us remember a decade later in early 1981, before Ali formally retired from boxing at age 39 later that year, when he successfully saved a distraught man in the U.S. from taking his own life? In the late 1980s, Ali also spoke out in support of the Palestinian people in their intifada against Israel, and he went to Sudan to draw the world’s attention to famine victims there.

The 1990s opened with Ali traveling to Iraq and successfully getting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to release U.S. hostages — an action that drew a swift rebuke from the White House under then-US warmonger-in-chief George H.W. Bush. Twelve years later, as Bush’s son George Jr. was in the White House and busily waging war on Afghanistan under the newly declared “war on terrorism,” Ali traveled to that country as an official United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Muhammad Ali took an active part in 1998 in the global “Stop Torture” campaign by the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International regarding the use of stun belts on American prison inmates — one of many such very public activities by Ali, both within and outside the US over the years. In short, Ali was never really out of the public spotlight for most of his adult life, and he used his status as celebrity well. He served humanity. And I was so glad to see that upon his passing, the world remembered and honored that part of his life as being equally important as his many feats in boxing.

I can still clearly remember the words of a friend of mine from my university days back in the mid-1980s, during a conversation he and I were having one day about Muhammad Ali. He noted Ali’s special place in the African American community: “Brian, I can’t tell you how proud Black people were of Ali”. Looking back now on Ali’s eventful life, it’s easy to see why he elicited such pride and just how deeply that pride ran.

We can see from early on in Ali’s career an athlete with a moral conscious in the making. Check out this great interview of a young Cassius Clay by writer Alex Haley for Playboy magazine in 1964, and you’ll see what I mean. (Haley, later of Roots fame, was the one who put the so-called “Playboy interviews” on the map and gave the magazine some much-needed credibility over the years.)

Then there was Muhammad Ali and his closeness to figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and his outspoken criticism of racism in American society.

Ali denied around that time that he had thrown away his lucrative career in boxing by taking a principled stand against being drafted in the U.S. war on Vietnam: “I haven’t thrown it away. I haven’t lost it. I’m going to say I turned it down,” Ali responded to a British interviewer. “See, the greatest sports title means nothing, mister, if you cannot be free. Boys in Vietnam are throwing away, you may say, their lives. I haven’t did that much. I’m still living. They are dying today to free somebody they don’t know. So, what in the hell is a heavyweight title, and a few stinky [U.S.] dollar bills, for my people’s freedom?”

Ali spoke those powerful words in the 2014 documentary film I Am Ali. See that movie, if you haven’t already, and another exceptional documentary film from 2013, The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

To catch another more personal side of Muhammad Ali in the later years of his boxing career, I encourage you to also watch this episode of the popular U.S. television show This is Your Life, filmed in Britain with Ali as the guest of honor. Ali was a man rarely at a loss for words, but this TV program caught him with his guard down a bit and literally speechless at times. The show was a wonderful tribute to Ali’s life up to that point by those who knew him best.

Ali left behind a lifetime of praiseworthy efforts, both in and out of sports. The Muhammad Ali Center that he and his wife established 10 years ago in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, USA guarantees that his legacy will be carried on in ways that he wanted.

What is left then, to say, about someone who personified the word greatness in his lifetime, who seemed larger than life itself? Many tributes have poured forth for Muhammad Ali in the wake of his passing from those of the Muslim faith and beyond. Anything I would have to add to those fine tributes would be trivial by comparison.

But since it comes from the heart, just let me close by saying: Peace be unto you, elder brother Ali, and a safe passage on your journey from here onward. The world you have now left behind will never, ever be the same. And I have no doubt that you’ll leave an even grander, more everlasting mark in the Big Boxing Bouts in the Sky.

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