Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Ali Clay (1942-2016)

 Obituary by Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

I remember Mohamed Ali, who died on 3 June, as a five-year-old when my father, Ghana’s and Africa South of the Sahara’s first African president of an independent African nation, introduced me to a man I saw at the time as the giant Mohamed Ali Clay. I held my father’s hand tightly. He was handsome, and he towered over my father. His physique was that of a quintessential athlete. Perhaps as an impressionable child, I was somewhat intimidated by this six-foot-three boxer.

Yet, as had been the case with my father I eventually came to understand that even a physical and intellectual colossus will eventually come to an end. In the case of Mohamed Ali Clay, his final years were marked by debilitating Parkinson’s Disease.

In this day and age, it may seem old-fashioned or anachronistic to describe someone as revolutionary. But Mohamed Ali Clay was out there in the ring vocally deriding his opponents and vaunting his exceptional abilities as the “greatest”.

“I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived,” he thundered after a Sonny Liston fight on 25 February 1964, in Miami Beach in Florida. “Liston even smells like a bear,” he said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Mohamed Ali effortlessly lifted the throng of fans out of their seats.

Soon afterwards when my father invited him to Ghana in 1964, it was his first visit to an African country and his first as a political activist, as opposed to a professional boxer, outside the United States. He yelled at the Ghanaian crowds “who is the greatest?” And they screamed hysterically back, “you are the greatest!” It was a scene I can never forget. The figure in the shadows was my father.

Yet, over the years I saw a different Mohamed Ali emerge, and a more unassuming and unpretentious hero. “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even,” he said.

Mohamed Ali’s international debut was at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. But the match that caught the imagination of Africans around the world was the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1974, against George Foreman. The instantly recognisable guttural voice of Mohamed Ali came roaring from the loudspeakers.

A turning point in Mohamed Ali’s career came with his refusal of the draft during the Vietnam War, when he was imprisoned and became the champion of the underdog all over the world. In 1966, two years after winning the world heavyweight title, Mohamed Ali antagonised the white establishment by refusing to be conscripted in the war. He was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his boxing titles. But he was the world heavyweight champion, and he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978.

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare,” he proclaimed.

The punching power of Mohamed Ali coupled with the blinding speed of “the Greatest” bestowed on him the rare honour of being both a great boxer and a political activist. He was a man of the people and a down-to-earth character who spoke his mind. He was a civil rights activist who rejected the bellicose reaction and dreary and monotonous jargon of the Nation of Islam to racism in the United States and adopted instead the compelling enunciation of Malcolm X.

The elocution of Mohamed Ali and Malcolm X was mesmerising and galvanised millions of Africans and Muslims around the world. The New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote that “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Mohamed Ali was something of a philosopher king. “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years,” he said. He adopted Islam, like Malcolm X, in contradistinction to African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. That choice of religion endeared him to Muslims across the globe.

Headgear is not permitted in professional boxing bouts, and boxers are prohibited from hitting below the belt, or from holding, tripping, pushing, biting, or spitting. Mohamed Ali never did any of these things. Today both Republican Party presidential elections favourite Donald Trump and Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Saunders are vying for the legacy of Mohamed Ali. Yet, the dysfunctional and destructive policy of Trump has led him to propose banning all Muslims from entering the US. “Don’t tell us how much you love Mohamed Ali, and yet you’re going to be prejudiced against Muslims in this country,” Saunders said in a jab against Trump recently.

Former US president Bill Clinton will deliver the eulogy at Mohamed Ali’s funeral, which will take place next Friday in the boxing champion’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. “Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right,” once said Mohamed Ali.

I was astonished when I read in an article by Raphael Cormack that recently appeared in the London Review of Books that a book written by Kwame Nkrumah and dedicated by Nkrumah to Mohamed Ali Clay was discovered in Cairo’s Azbakiya secondhand book market. But as Kevin Gaines outlines in his book American-Africans in Ghana, African-American visitors or residents to Ghana have included Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, George Padmore, C. L. R. James and more.

Frantz Fanon wrote much of The Wretched of the Earth in Ghana, and the year before Ali’s visit W.E. DuBois died and was buried in Accra. The moral of the story is that Pan-Africanism, as articulated by Mohamed Ali Clay and Kwame Nkrumah, sharpens such sentiments in Africa, the Arab world, and among African-Americans.

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