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Muhammad Ali’s greatest fights were outside the ring

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Ali’s uncompromsing opposition to racial discrimination and his refusal to be drafted to fight in America’s war with Vietnam pitted him against the US establishment, writes Anil Netto.

The screen from the small black and white television flickered in front of a hall full of excited primary schoolchildren.

We were given time off classes to watch Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, both undefeated boxing legends. Held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8, 1971, it was dubbed the Fight of the Century.

Opinion was divided, for Ali had a polarising effect. I was among the many who disliked Muhammad Ali. I found him brash, arrogant, loud-mouthed, even disrespectful to his opponents. (Joe Frazier himself found it hard to forgive Ali for some of the hurtful words Ali had used against him.) Moreover, Ali had abandoned his Christian roots and upbringing to join the strident Nation of Islam.

Many of my Muslim schoolmates, however, supported their newfound hero, who had embraced Islam and dropped his old ‘slave’ name of Cassius Clay.

In the end, champion Joe Frazier retained his title by a unanimous decision. I was thrilled.

It was only years later that I realised there was another great fight outside the ring, even greater than Ali’s monumental battles with awe-inspiring boxers like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

Ali used his fame to speak out against racial discrimination in the United States, along with other figures such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

But it was Ali’s refusal to be drafted to fight in America’s war with Vietnam that pitted him against the US war machine and establishment — and the result was predictable. He was stripped of his champion’s title, losing almost four years of his prime as a boxer (from 25 to 29) simply because he refused to be part of the slaughter of Vietnamese. This was his ultimate sacrifice for his stand on non-violence.

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The heavyweight fighter who had beaten the terrifying Sonny Liston was vilified in mainstream America as a cowardly draft dodger. But Ali’s legendary words haunt us to this day:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

His battle with Parkinsons, notably his poignant carrying of the Olympic torch, inspired many afflicted with the disease.

But it is Ali’s own journey within Islam which may have relevance to us here.

Even though he started off his association with the Nation of Islam, a strident and controversial movement of black Muslims, Ali moved slowly towards a more open and moderate path, going into mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975, before finally embracing mystical Sufism, avidly devouring the books of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

In one of his final sucker punches, in response to Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Ali called on fellow Muslims to ‘‘stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.’’ These words could well apply to some of our local politicians.

“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.”

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Referring to terrorism, he said, “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.”

In fact, on September 11, 2001, Ali was among the first Muslim personalities to condemn the attacks. “Killing like that can never be justified. It’s unbelievable. I could never support hurting innocent men, women, and children. Islam is a religion of peace. It does not promote terrorism or killing people.”

From the brash, arrogant rhetoric of his youth, Ali eventually embraced humanity with love.

“My father is very spiritual — more spiritual now than he is religious. It was important for him to be very religious and take the stands he did in earlier years,” said his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali.

When asked what was her father’s most important spiritual goal was, she said, “All he’s ever done, and even more so now. than before, is try to do good, be kind to people, to lead a clean moral life and, most of all, help people in need. His spiritual journey comes back to loving people. He loves his fans and people in general, so it comes more naturally to him than most people. He really does believe he’s working for God — being kind to people, having time for people.”

This quest for greater spirituality is reflected in Ali’s own words:

“Over the years, my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognising the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone.

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“When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.

“My soul has grown over the years, and some of my views have changed. As long as I am alive, I will continue to try to understand more, because the work of the heart is never done. All through my life I have been tested. My will has been tested, my courage has been tested, my strength has been tested. Now my patience and endurance are being tested. Every step of the way I believe that God has been with me. And, more than ever, I know that he is with me now. I have learned to live my life one step, one breath, and one moment at a time, but it was a long road. I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace and understanding. l am still learning.”

In the end, this was the supreme paradox and Ali’s greatest triumph: the ultimate warrior in the ring had discovered a larger truth about what it means to embrace humanity with love.

This piece first appeared in the Malaysian Herald weekly.

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