MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/19 April) – Nobody perhaps can surpass Manny Pacquiao’s feat as the only boxer so far to have become world champion in eight weight divisions. It takes more than luck to move from one weight division to another without affecting one’s performance.
But if I were to choose a world boxing champion whose presence really looms larger than life itself, only one name comes to mind: Muhammad Ali. He may have captured only the heavyweight crown (which he did thrice) – a far cry from Pacquiao’s athletic achievement – but his greatness as a human being goes beyond the four corners of his profession.
Ali’s rise to fame began on September 5, 1960, when he beat Zigzy Pietrzykowski of Poland to win the light-heavyweight boxing gold in the Rome Olympics. Observers never failed to notice his “dancing skills” on the ring, alluding to his footwork, a weapon he honed over the years and which he later complemented with his “lope-a-rope” technique.
Ali, however, never allowed his ego to spill outside the ring even if he possesses not just athletic prowess but also intellectual gift and a keen understanding of events that unfold at home and abroad. Despite his wit and intelligence The Greatest never entertained doing what many Filipino celebrities wrongly thought they are capable of, joining politics for instance. He did not serve as deodorizer for any politician nor find it appropriate to endorse any presidential candidate.
Yet he is political in the nobler sense of the word. Baptized Cassius Clay which means “slave”, he insisted on being called Muhammad Ali. He refused to be enlisted in the US Army to fight the Vietnam War citing religious grounds, although others would say he was influenced by the antiwar sentiment of the 1960s. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison Ali went to South Africa to meet the iconic leader of the anti-Apartheid struggle.
If Ali has embarked on humanitarian missions around the world, it is not because he wanted to land on the evening news or in the papers. He has not limited his involvement to countries where it is relatively safe to travel. In fact, he has gone to places like Cuba and North Korea, both considered by the US as pariah states.
Ali may not have handed cash to people outside his home after a fight. But he played a key role in delivering much-needed food and medicines to countries beset by famine, wars and disasters.
For his humanitarian work and involvement in the civil rights movement, the champion has received citations from the United Nations, Amnesty International and other prestigious organizations. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil award in the US.
Moreover, Ali is not content with quoting lines from sacred books to show off his religiosity. He has written books where he shares his views on the spiritual side of life and living.
Muhammad Ali – athlete, activist, writer, man of faith, and above all, a man for others. Parkinson’s disease could not stop him from fighting the fights that really matter even if at day’s end he won’t be able to take a sip of expensive cognac. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno writes mainly on the environment, human rights and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)