Many comments and commentaries had trailed Muhammad Ali’s glorious exit as he began his next journey in the continuum. His larger-than-life life received the most inspiring eulogies and elegies of all time as his actions, activities and activism confirmed his self-acclaimed class as the world’s greatest. His pugilism, his heroism, his poetry, his philosophy, his accurate predictions and even his humanism would pale into the second or third level of his own barometer when compared with the lessons he taught with his life.
I can not now remember what I gained or gathered from my personal interactions with him when I was privileged to be his Guide when he was a guest of the Western state government in 1971 in Ibadan. I was Information/Cultural Officer in the Ministry of Information and Culture. What I do remember is that his persona was a story by itself. If you looked him in the face, what you got was a statement like ‘this guy is a specimen of the best in human creation with a message for the whole of humanity’. Humble, playful, humorous and eloquent, Muhammad Ali electrified his environment with a dazzling and mesmerising presence.
However, it was the lessons that his life preached and taught that would form the core areas of this piece. And identification with one’s personal story may not be out of place. One of my commonest sayings which in fact is the signature of one of my e-mails is “do not submit your happiness to the whims and caprices of others’. Too often and for too long, mankind has been preoccupied with concern about and responses to what others think of them. They allowed others to direct and choose how far fat or thin they should be, how long or short their skirts or trousers should be, how short or tall their shoes should be or how big or small their boobs or buttocks should be. Whether they should marry one wife or ten wives depends largely on what society would say about them. Some people even go to the church or mosque because they do not want their neighbours to think they are irreligious!
Muhammad Ali’s life says it would not have any of those. His given name, imposed on him like on all of us at birth, Cassius Clay was considered a slave name and so Ali chose his own name fully conscious of its meaning and its religious and political relevance. I was registered as Saheed Al-Azeez [Ijebunized as Seidi Lasisi] when I began my journey in the Primary school. But by the time I got to Secondary School at age 13, [3 years after I had graduated from the Quranic school], I told my father of blessed memory that I would rather go with my Yoruba names instead of Arab names, so I took the names my two grandfathers gave me at birth Adetola and Babatunde and capped them with my great grandfather’s name Adeniyi, thus affirming my real identity and Yorubaness.
Before his time, a huge majority of the people of African descent who were de facto US citizens including the African aborigines who were natives of the Americas before Europeans got there to steal their land were treated as ‘nobodies’. Muhammad Ali by his lifestyle and body language refused to be treated as nobody and totally rejected the inferiority tag stuck to his chocolate-brown skinned fellow Americans. It was not just in words or by words. It was just not on stage or on stage. Ali gave ‘somebodiness’ to his person and to his race by the totality of his personality. He commanded by everything imaginable that the African, like all other human beings on the surface of the Earth, deserve the same quality of respect and reckoning.
Even the state could not ram unlawful laws down his throat. The state is given powers by the people to regulate the conduct of a given society as would benefit the generality of the people. Ali says if that state wants to ruin your life or destroy the people by its wrongheadedness, you should stoutly say ‘No!’ regardless of the consequences. Yes, damn the consequences. That is Ali’s way. So, when the war mongering government of his country called him to get drafted into Vietnamese war, Ali refused knowing fully well that the consequences would be severe. He said he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese! Why should he be sent to bomb them? This was another huge lesson Ali taught the world and refused the US the pleasure of choosing for him who and who should be his enemies.
He was a man of faith. His was not a religion chosen by his parents, or a copycat from neighbours, or just a desire to join the Joneses because brainwashing has made it fashionable, it was a faith that he chose after sober reflection and what he believed would best define him as a free-born. His faith taught him peace and he made the pursuance of peace the cornerstone of his worldview.
Celebrities and highly successful people all over the world tend to look down on the so-called downtrodden and the deprived. Ali says every human being is equal before their Creator and therefore refused to allow power, position, affluence, influence and worldwide popularity to sway him to the whims and caprices of the equally blessed. He chose instead to stay with the poor and the lowly and in them and with them he found ready, comfortable and enduring identification.
Ali chose his career. Fate had a hand in it though, because if his bicycle had not been stolen may be fate would have made him pursue a different career course. But having identified boxing as a suitable career for himself he put his energy, mind and soul into it. And even when he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing, he came back to it the moment the Supreme Court squashed all the draconian impediments. He proved to the world that he knew what was best suited for him and lived by it.
Ali did not wait for anybody to appoint him global ambassador, he did not wait for anybody to acclaim him ‘the greatest’, he did not wait for anybody’s endorsement to call himself ‘beautiful’, he always knew who he was and what he wanted the world to know him or call him by. He did not wait for anyone to define him, he defined himself and challenged anyone to think otherwise of his identity.
Muhammad Ali loved his children and gave them the best guidance any decent father would give their child. His children’s various testimonies confirmed that. What he also did was to imbibe the culture of independence and self-confidence in each of his children and taught them to stand for whatever they believed in and held dear. In all of these, he was not aping the warped values of fellow American elites who preferred spoiling their children until they got rotten and suicidal.
There is no word adequate enough, big enough, great enough, beautiful enough or encompassing enough to describe the virtues, the values, and the humaneness of Muhammad Ali. His life was an incredibly uniquely scripted book which he envisioned by himself, designed by himself, scripted by himself and threw open on the shelf of all mankind for everyone to learn from. By being himself, and remaining himself even in the face of all the unkind buffetings of his later life, vagaries that can confront any being, Ali taught the world that man, any man worth his salt should be his own man and insist on being what he should be called as self-defined and not what anybody else would rather want him to be.
Ali, in physical life or life eternal, you remain the greatest of all time!
The pen is the tongue of the hand,the silent utterer of words for the eyes…Henry Beecher