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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2702

Gone is the superstar, yet the light shines

By Lakshman Ratnapala - Emeritus President & CEO of PATA

He was one of the heroes of my youth, not just because he was a great boxer, but also because of his "big mouth" as we said. He was Muhammad Ali who in the exuberance of his own youth, boasted he was "the Greatest", a claim that we thought, at the time, was nothing but an exaggeration, born of arrogant brashness, the very qualities for which we loved the "Louisville Lip".

As it turned out, it was no exaggeration at all. In retrospect, we know it was an understatement. He was more than the "Greatest," vindicated by history.

Muhammad Ali, transformed almost everything he came into contact with. He transcended the limitations of his birth in socially conflicted America of the 1960s and the 1970s. He rejected his birth name, Cassius Clay, because he said it was a "slave name".

He renounced the Baptist religion of his birth and converted to Islam, because the latter provided for religious expression in the segregated South. He became a gold medal winning Olympian. He did not merely wear the badge of black pride but flaunted it with unbelievable swagger. These were not mere impulses nor showmanship designed to make money in mercantile America.

They were actions arising from deep rooted conviction, for which he paid dearly with three years of his career at the prime of life. Yet, he did not relent.

As a conscientious protester against war, he refused to be inducted into the U.S. army and was stripped of his boxing championship title and sentenced to five years in prison. Three years later, he returned to the boxing ring with devastating effect. His poetic predictions of the outcomes of his fights were not merely clever but stunningly prophetic. He loudly proclaimed to the world that it was he who deserved to win, because his opponents were ugly and he was pretty. And, in the ring, he transformed the brutality of boxing into a thing of beauty.

He literally danced around the ring, taunting his opponents. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" he would say. He introduced the term 'rope-a-dope' to the lexicon of boxing; it was his strategy to outsmart and wear out stronger, heftier opponents. They were brawnier, but he was brainier. His fights were extravaganzas that captivated the world with titles like, Fight of the Century, Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila. He converted those who looked askance at boxing as a violent sport of the uncivilized into aficionados of the sport. I was one of them.

Muhammad Ali's courage and strength of character were never more in evidence than in later years when the sport that showcased his remarkable personality took a terrible toll of neurological illness. We watched with aching hearts as with quivering hands he lit the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Games. His irrepressible and whimsical mind and his oh so beautiful body were fighting the fight of his life to overcome the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. It was a fight he was destined to lose. The man who boasted that the only way to lick him would be to put him on a postage stamp was finally KO'd by this silent opponent. Until then he battled the disease in dignity, lovingly cared for by family and loved by the world.

He made people laugh. He made people think about the inequalities of race in America and the world. His prideful defiance of the injustices of war and discrimination were inspiring. That is his legacy which rises above his brilliance in the sport he adorned.

No other sportsman can claim such unflinching commitment to principle. He was, what he claimed to be - the greatest: greater than Don Bradman, Jesse Owens, Tiger Woods, Pele, Steph Curry, Roger Federer or any other athlete. He was The Greatest.

A Superstar is gone. Yet the light shines forth. As someone (I forget who) said, "Dying is no big deal. Living is the big deal"

- Asian Tribune -

Gone is the superstar, yet the light shines
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