Obama hails Ali as champion 'who fought for what was right'

Muhammad Ali working out for his fight against Ron Lyle at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 12, 1975.
Muhammad Ali working out for his fight against Ron Lyle at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 12, 1975.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama paid tribute on Saturday to late boxing great Muhammad Ali, as a towering champion “who fought for what was right” not just in the ring but outside it as well.

The former heavyweight champion, who passed away late on Friday after struggling for years with Parkinson’s, was “a man who fought for us,” the US President said.

“His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognise today.”

In elegant, elegiac prose, Obama wrote of the boxing legend, one of his personal champions: “Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d ‘handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail,’” he wrote in his statement released by the White House.

“But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing,” Obama said.

The 74-year-old sports legend died in a Phoenix-area hospital in Arizona where he had been admitted suffering from respiratory problems.

“Like everyone else on the planet, Michelle and I mourn his passing. But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that The Greatest chose to grace our time,” Obama wrote.

“In my private study, just off the Oval Office, I keep a pair of his gloves on display, just under that iconic photograph of him – the young champ, just 22 years old, roaring like a lion over a fallen Sonny Liston,” the President wrote.

“I was too young when it was taken to understand who he was – still Cassius Clay, already an Olympic Gold Medal winner, yet to set out on a spiritual journey that would lead him to his Muslim faith, exile him at the peak of his power, and set the stage for his return to greatness with a name as familiar to the downtrodden in the slums of South-east Asia and the villages of Africa as it was to cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden,” Obama continued.

The President went on to quote Ali who stated: “I am America, I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

Obama added that “the Ali I came to know,” was not just “as skilled a poet on the mic as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us.”

“He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t,” Obama said.