I HAVE WRESTLED WITH AN ALLIGATOR, I HAVE TUSSLED WITH A WHALE
If I could meet one person in the world, it would without question be Muhammad Ali, and I would probably collapse in a pool of blubbering tears at his feet, such is my worshipful admiration of the man. The first time I remember hearing about Ali is when I was ten. The “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman, was coming up, and the whole third world rallied behind Ali. He was our champion, our symbol of hope. A few years ago I wrote about that fight at 3QD, and this is what I had to say:
Mohammad Ali’s most famous fight of all, the Rumble-in-the-Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire, is the athletic world’s most powerful instantiation of the David versus Goliath story. It speaks to our dream of the triumph of cunning and skill over brute strength. And this is what Ali’s life has been about, inside and outside of the ring. He is not a big boxer, as heavyweights go, but he more than makes up in speed and nimbleness what he lacks in size. Ali’s hold on our psyches is such that I can remember my mother, who knew and cared nothing about sports, not only getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Rumble-in-the-Jungle live via-satellite, but very earnestly saying a prayer for Muhammad Ali to win. If you have not seen the documentary When We Were Kings, please do yourself a favor: buy the DVD and watch it every Sunday as I used to do until I practically had it memorized. [I just bought it again, here in the Sudtirol, and have been showing it to people on Sundays!] Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were at the fight covering it as journalists, and comment on the fight looking back. There is music by James Brown and B.B. King, and there is the fight itself, along with delightful footage of Ali from before and after the fight, including his reciting some of his poetry, such as this bit to describe what he has been doing to train for the fight:
I have wrestled with an alligator,
I have tussled with a whale,
I have handcuffed lighting,
Thrown thunder in jail.
Yesterday, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean I make medicine sick!
The movie, and Ali’s story, is so moving that several of the people I have shown the film to have wept at the end, out of sheer joy and admiration for the man. At the time, Ali was a bit of a has-been fighter in his 30s while George Foreman was the new, young, invincible, 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman was built like a bull with the personality of a pitbull. He was taller, heavier, and had much greater reach than Ali. He was nothing like the amiable teddy bear of a guy-next-door we know so well now from commercials for his electric grill and Midas mufflers. And the sheer force of his punches had already become mythic. The bookmakers gave him 7-to-1 odds againts Ali. Ali didn’t care. Muhammad Ali crushed him in an 8th round knockout in a blindingly fast flurry of punches (see picture), having tired him out earlier in the fight by inventing what we now know as the rope-a-dope trick (leaning back against the ropes in a defensive stance and letting your opponent pound you until he or she gets exhausted). Ali became world champ for the third time that day.
But Ali is such a colossus that his herculean boxing accomplishments can only explain a small part of his appeal. I cannot think of another human being as physically beautiful, as talented, as intelligent, as charming, as articulate, as funny, vivacious, and brave, and as morally principled, as Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali has been the greatest international symbol of standing up to overwhelming might that the sports world has ever produced. He is the modern-day David that took on the Goliaths of racism, the U.S. government, even the Nation of Islam–after he broke with it. He gave hope and strength to those who opposed the Vietnam war and American imperialism, not only within America, but everywhere. He refused to run away to Canada to avoid the draft and faced the prospect of jail instead. He was stripped of his title and was not allowed to box for years. He suffered and sacrificed for his beliefs, and he never gave in. Ali is the only sports figure ever with Nelson Mandela-like dignity. As George Plimpton puts it toward the end of When We Were Kings: “What a fighter. And what a man.”
I AM THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. I SAID THAT EVEN BEFORE I KNEW I WAS.
Do yourself a favor: watch ’em all!
I SHOOK UP THE WORLD.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE. MUHAMMAD, MUHAMMAD ALI.
“What a fighter. And what a man.” Indeed.
This post is dedicated to my sister Azra, one of the most passionate defenders of African-American rights that I know; my brother Tasnim, whose stubborn integrity, among other things, reminds me of Ali; and also to my friend Husain Naqvi, a fellow Ali admirer.
All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.
Have a good week!