A champion at refusing to yield: The Nation

Women preparing to write quotes by Muhammad Ali before an interfaith service at the Louisville Islamic Centre on June 5.
Women preparing to write quotes by Muhammad Ali before an interfaith service at the Louisville Islamic Centre on June 5.PHOTO: AFP

In the week since Muhammad Ali died, he has been widely and deservedly eulogised for achievements on many levels far beyond the boxing ring. 

He was not only the three-time heavyweight champion of his sport but also a champion of civil rights, the empowerment of minorities, the anti-war movement and the noblest aspirations of Islam.

What Ali is probably forever going to be remembered for best, though, is his refusal to be bettered by anyone else or any authority, however daunting, whether inside the ring or out. 

He met opponents on his own terms and, until the Parkinson's disease that enfeebled him in retirement finally brought about his death, he never compromised.

The fighter who emerged on the scene as an obnoxious braggart ended up convincing the world that was not only "the Greatest" in boxing but also a man of integrity, ruthless honesty and a charisma of epic proportions.

His was a remarkable story indeed. Raised in racially segregated Kentucky, he was drawn soon after his initial successes in the Olympics and pro boxing to embrace the Nation of Islam, the "Black Muslim" movement that avowed the superiority of African-Americans. 

Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali - and was almost immediately selected to help the US wage war in Vietnam. 

Ali refused to be drafted into the military, though ("No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," he famously pointed out), and was punished by being stripped of his world title. 

By the time the Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been denied his right to be a conscientious objector, he'd sacrificed three years in the boxing spotlight and doubtless a fortune in prize money. 

Undeterred and unbridled, he got back in the ring and was soon enough the champion once more. 

Even in a revolutionary age, it was a lesson for everyone: right beats might.

Ali once said that champs aren't manufactured in the gym. 

"Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina. They have to be a little faster. They have to have the skill and the will, but the will must be stronger than the skill." It was understood that he wasn't talking only about boxing. The will to endure any setback is essential in the struggle for mankind's supreme goals - justice, equality and dignity. 

By the time of his death, this instruction was duly recognised. American Muslims, a vastly diverse group counting Shia and Sunni alike, have had to cope with the repressive adversity borne of the 9/11 attacks and the fundamentalists' attempts to co-opt their religion for political purposes. 

In an appreciation of Ali, Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called him a positive "symbol of Islam in America".

Just days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Ali had declared, "Islam is peace and against murder and killing, and the people doing that in the name of Islam are wrong. And if I had the chance, I would do something about it."

Even more poignantly recalled is Ali's final roar, just last December, when he characterised Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as a hypocrite for suggesting that all foreign Muslims be "temporarily" barred from entering the United States. 

"We as Muslims have to stand up against those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," the champ said. Other Trump detractors have noted that "the Greatest" died in the midst of the candidate's campaign to "make America great again".

America's greatness has always stemmed from its unsung heroes, the common people, and, in making the arrangements for his own funeral, Ali insisted that ordinary folks - and representatives of all religions - be invited to take part. 

He understood that everyone has the stuff of champions within.
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