One word that sums up the life of this extraordinary personality is 'Movement'. From the humble beginnings of his boxing career in Louiseville, through to his strident struggles as an activist, and into the pernicious years suffering from Parkinson's disease, "Movement" has been his voracious companion.
Movement in the Ring
At the age of 12, angered by having had his bicycle stolen, young Cassius Clay took up boxing lessons from the famous Joe Martin. He mastered the art of balance and movement, earning a reputation for being light on his feet. After analysing footage of his fights, we can discern how his agile footwork proved devastatingly deceptive for his opponents, and seductive for his spectators.
His method earned him an Olympic Gold and two world Heavyweight championship titles. His fight with George Foremen in 1974, dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle", was an exhibition of the mature Ali - a tactful brawl between two greats. His 'Rope-a-Dope" method, allowed Foremen to throw exhaustive and wild punches while Ali danced around the ropes. Ali then punished the exhausted Foremen in the 8th round. His famous words "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" continue to reverberate in gyms around the world. Ali's fighting philosophy of constantly being on the move transpired in the Civil Rights arena.
The Civil Rights Movement
Following the Second World War, the fight for Civil Rights was rife in America, calling for an end to the systemic racism in the "land where every man is born equal". Cassius Clay, inspired by the need to help his fellow brethren, took the controversial step of joining the Nation of Islam, and was influenced by leaders like Malcolm X in the fight for freedom, equality and justice. Perhaps the most shocking moment in his life, however, was, his refusal to be draughted into the Vietnam war, on grounds that it was against his religion and conscience. Refusing to step forward at the call of his name, he was arrested, stripped of his titles and exiled from the sport. After four difficult years, he finally won the case in the Supreme Court, inspiring many in the Civil Rights movement. Despite differing opinions on his beliefs, there is no doubt his personal sacrifice was seen as a beacon of hope for the oppressed.
Suffering the Movement Disorder - Parkinson's Disease
We take for granted the ability to move at will. When that faculty is lost - all seems lost. Despite being his intimate companion, the irony of 'Movement' cannot be understated in Ali's later life. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease - an insidious and progressive condition that leaves sufferers imprisoned in their bodies. Characterised by a disabling triad of bradykinesia (slowness of movement), tremor and rigidity, this disease changed the image of Ali. A man who had once moved with such lightness and agility was now a prisoner to this incurable movement disorder. He had several episodes of pneumonia, due to swallowing difficulties frequently encountered in end-stage Parkinson's patients. Despite his condition, Ali continued to champion humanitarian causes and was named BBC's sports personality of the century, and thereby redefining what constitutes the greatness of an athlete.
On 3rd June 2016, Ali was declared dead after suffering a respiratory condition. At his funeral on 10th June, various dignitaries paid their respects, including Bill Clinton, who shared "I think he decided something I hope every young person will decide. I think he decided, very young, to write his own life story"
Movement as Life
In every aspect of Ali's effulgent life - as a boxer, activist, poet, philosopher and patient - he was a mover. Despite his flamboyant, occasionally arrogant and at times radical views, this one characteristic of being a Mover, is how I recall this gigantic personality.
With a life full of peaks and troughs, and in a world still plagued by all forms of inequality, the physical health of individuals suffer. In such circumstances, there is a human tendency to remain static, entitled and wait for better times. When social circumstances take time to change and require the enrollment of many people with competing priorities, frustration and stagnation ensue. At times like these - as an advocate of exercise and a fellow citizen of this world - I believe the most authentic service one can do towards humanity is to #keepmoving.
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