Growing up in East Belfast my generation’s heroes were either footballers or boxers.
My first sporting memory, at about eleven year old, was getting up about four o’clock in the morning with my Dad to listen to Don Cockell fighting Rocky Marciano for the world heavyweight title.
Boxing is a brutal game and I couldn’t defend it morally or would I want to, but I still love the sport. Some people have great intelligence, others great bravery, some are funny, others are lucky enough to have good looks or to be brilliant sportsmen and some have wonderful charisma.
Muhammad Ali seemed to have all of these qualities, so he was my first special hero. Has any one man in our time inspired so many people to fulfil their potential? Perhaps only Nelson Mandela.
With all these qualities he still made plenty of mistakes joining the racist ‘Nation of Islam’ under Elijah Muhammad who stated “I am doing all I can to make Negroes see that the white race and their religion (Christianity) are their open enemies, and to prove to them that they will never be anything but the devils’ slaves and finally go to hell with them for believing and following them and their kind.”
Ali left the Nation of Islam in 1975, embracing Sunni Islam, and he retained his faith for the rest of his life. He also agreed to the “rumble in the jungle” which Don King brokered with the corrupt and merciless president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko.
However he shook up the world and the world was much the better for it, and his mistakes paled in comparison to the wonderful legacy and historical influence that he left. He first came on the scene when America was racist, segregated and discrimination was rife against anyone with colour.
His cocky bravery had the Donald Trump’s of that time beside themselves with fury. He aligned himself with the Civil Rights movement and declared “as long as black people ain’t free, I ain’t free”.
Chiming loudest of all, perhaps, is his declaration to America during the civil rights struggle: ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be me.’ If he had thrown in his lot with Dr. Martin Luther King. What a combination that would have been?
He also was an inspiration to our own civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland and indeed visited Bristol in the mainland to support a struggle against a racist bus company who refused to employ black or Asian drivers.
Maybe the bravest thing he ever did was to refuse to go and fight in the Vietnam war for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Boxing authorities stripped him of his title in 1967 on the day he was convicted in just 21 minutes for resisting the draft. Now unemployed, but supported by a growing list of celebrities, he entered a three-year legal battle to stay out of prison, and won his appeal when the supreme court overturned the decision 8-0 in June 1971. The gesture cost him an untold amount of money but consolidated his reputation as a man of principle, especially among younger war protesters. Who can forget “I ain’t got no fight with no Vietnamese” or “Ain’t no Viet Cong called me nigger”.
And after being convicted of draft-dodging in 1970, in one of his most famous lines, he said: “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.”
One of his last great lines was “What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life”.
Andy Barr, Bangor