Sri Lanka Express

Muhammed Ali: A superstar is gone but the light shines on

By Lakshman Ratnapala

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 1970s. He rejected his birth name, Cassius Clay, because he claimed, 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 the showmanship of a publicist 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 his 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 entered the boxing ring again 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, once 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 super 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 uncivilzed into afficionados 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 flame at the Atlanta Olympics. 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. But until he was finally KO'd by this silent opponent, he lived in dignity, lovingly cared for by  family and loved by the world.


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"