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The Ali shuffle

The Ali shuffle

THERE was the incredible Ali Shuffle in the 1960s when a restless young athlete danced around his opponents in the boxing ring, delivering potent blows but taking few in return, the heavyweight champion of the whole world, as he frequently liked to put it. ‘The Greatest’, as Cassius Clay dubbed himself even before he had unexpectedly defeated the notionally unbeatable Sonny Liston to claim the crown.

Then, a couple of decades later, there was the Ali shuffle, when the physical faculties of the man who could once “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” had been depleted to the point where his gift of the gab was largely a thing of the past, and his growing lack of dexterity was manifested in the way he appeared in public.

His dignity was never at risk, though. It wasn’t just retained; if anything, it was enhanced during the years when Parkinson’s disease took its unfortunate toll. The incredible outpouring of grief when Muhammad Ali shuffled off the mortal coil last week testified to his status as a global folk hero.

He acquired it initially by standing up to the government of the United States 50 years ago, by his refusal to participate in the obnoxious war against Vietnam. “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger” is how he is believed to have justified his refusal to answer the call to arms.

It is vital to remember that this came before the antiwar movement in general, and draft resistance in particular, had picked up pace. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1967, that Martin Luther King Jr plucked up the courage to explicitly denounce the Vietnam War and his nation’s status as the primary purveyor of violence in the world, citing Muhammad Ali’s resistance in the process.

Ali was promptly stripped of his title and the right to pursue his profession anywhere in the US. This unprecedented vindictiveness transformed him instantly into an international figurehead of resistance against American imperialism.

It is seldom mentioned that Ali’s conviction that his African American compatriots had far better cause to be engaged with the battles that needed to be fought at home almost exactly echoed the stance Paul Robeson had taken while addressing a 1949 peace conference in Paris.

Like Ali, Robeson too was consequently deprived of the right to earn a living in his homeland. The pioneering athlete, actor and, above all, exquisitely powerful singer was at the time the best known African American globally. He, too, was a fighter and eventually regained his rights after a decade, but it was too late to arrest the deterioration of his intellectual well-being. Robeson spent his last dozen years in seclusion and was effectively written out of history.

Ali, of course, staged a tremendous comeback. Cut down in his prime, he was never again quite the same fighter. His unexpected victory in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle was more than an athletic triumph, though. Regaining the heavyweight crown also represented a vindication of his political stance. Like millions of others, I can clearly recall arising at an unearthly hour to watch the live transmission of the fight from Kinshasa, and the tension as Ali miraculously absorbed the blows from his formidable opponent, and then, in a transcendent moment, floored George Foreman with a flurry of devastating blows.

In comparison, his third crown, retrieved from Leon Spinks, was something of an anticlimax. He ought to have retired before then. Ali himself designated his experience during the torturous Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier as the closest thing to dying. By the time of the ill-advised bouts against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in 1980-81, the signs of Parkin­son’s were already clearly visible.

If it’s a tragedy that Muhammad Ali found his place in the world via a brutal sport, it is perhaps equally unfortunate that his politicisation owed a great deal to his membership of an organisation that called itself the Nation of Islam (NoI) — and that he chose the wrong side in relinquishing his friendship with Malcolm X, opting instead for the cult of Elijah Muhammad. This led him to expound some obnoxious views over the years: during an interview with Playboy published in 1975, the interviewer appropriately remonstrated, “You’re beginning to sound like a carbon copy of a white racist.”

To his credit, though, Ali eventually recanted some of his earlier views and, more broadly, transcended them with his inspirational humanitarian impulses. His lapses were already but a memory by the time he lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympics. The fact that erstwhile foes were willing to embrace him didn’t mean he had changed, so much as it was a tacit acknowledgement of his role in changing the world. Ultimately, it indeed turned out that “the elements” were “so mix’d in him that Nature might stand up/ And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”

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Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2016

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