Poet. Comedian. Sportsman. Civil rights champion. Fighter for a cause. GoaT. Human being.

Muhammad Ali.

I first discovered him at the age of 6, in Chennai, when I read my uncle’s copy of his autobiography, The Greatest.

I was hooked.

From then on, I followed his every move. Read every book, saw every movie. Every victory was a personal one, every punch he took hurt me, the few defeats were personal affronts. He was my hero.

But why? I have read every boxing book, on every boxer from Jack Johnson to Manny Pacquiao, but I have never liked the sport.

Three things stand out for me about Ali.

Firstly, his belief in his cause.

Which 23 year old has the self-belief and assuredness to fight for his principles?

To go beyond the money they make, and the banal boiler-plate statements that mean nothing. To give up his career and his world championship because he believed in something more than just winning. To take the bile that came with ‘not knowing his place’ and ‘standing up for my people’. To become a target of hate for becoming a Muslim. To stand up and fight his country for a cause, of not going to war, and to do so when he could have taken the easy way out and just got an exemption.

A man who gives up 3 of his best sporting years, fighting for a principle, was always more than just a sportsman.

Banned, Abused, Vilified… by the American system. Yet he never gave up. He stood vindicated.

Second, his extraordinary ability to take punishment, and to keep coming back till he won.

To return to the ring, much slower than in his prime, to fight and win again, against more powerful, younger opponents, to take more blows than a body should be subject to. To win, in Zaire, in Manila. When no one believed he could.

We did, champ. Millions of us. We knew you would.
Because what chance did George and Joe have? They were fighting more than just a boxer.

Thirdly, his wit, his charm, his predictions, his poetry, his punchlines. Yes, some were taunts, yes they could be cruel, but has taunting ever been as beautiful and as funny?

The best one for me: “I got muscles in places where you don’t even have places’.

My favourite Ali moment: When he lit that Olympic flame in 1996.

There has been no greater moment in sport: the world’s best sportsman of all time, fighting his own physical disability, lighting the flame on the 100th anniversary of the Olympic movement.

My one regret: not taking a plane to see him in person, somewhere, sometime, just once.

Muhammad Ali.
You were the best sportsperson the world will ever know, because your causes were bigger than sport itself. To borrow a phrase from CLR James: “What do they of sports, who only sport know”.

Muhammad Ali.
You knew life beyond sport.
Champ. GoaT.
I will miss you.
But you will always be a part of me.
You touched me in places where I didn’t know I had places.

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