Few weeks ago the world boxing community in particular were knocked into unconsciousness literally when the sad and ugly news made the rounds around the world that the boxing legend Muhammad Ali was dead! The ultimate leveller had finally landed a final knock-out punch on Ali from which recovery seemed impossible — yes, he was knocked out cold! The same man that was used to taunting and knocking opponents out cold inside the squared circles in different continents was himself dealt a devastating blow by the grim reaper and he went down six feet below. Ali was buried in a blaze of glory in his hometown of Louisville in the United States of America last week. The self-proclaimed “greatest” boxing champion ever had gone to meet his Creator whom he recognised and acknowledged to be ‘the greatest’ after suffering the Parkinson’s disease.
The story of Muhammad Ali is one that elicits black pride and power. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky in the US the young man was forced into pugilism and activism by fate. As a 12-year old boy Ali soberly went to the police station in town to report that his bicycle had been stolen by a local thief. Instead of doing justice to his case the police officer and boxing coach (Joe E. Martin) he met on duty laughed heartily and directed him to learn how to box in order to beat any thief in the near future. Ali obliged him and went home fuming! He hit the gym and began the gradual process of becoming a professional pugilist in defense of his right and making name and money for himself.Ali made his professional debut on October 29, 1960 winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. From then until the end of 1963 the strongman that flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout! He defeated boxers like Tony Esper, Alonzo Johnson, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Doug Jones, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark and Henry Cooper. Clay also beat his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore in a 1962 match. In each of these fights, Ali vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities; he poetically used his gift of the garb to ‘demolish’ his opponents even before the matches could take place. He would play mind games and sized up his rivals psychologically before getting into the ring to back up his trash talks.
Ali was controversial all through his life. He dumped his religion of birth, Christianity, for the muslim faith drawing the opprobrium of many Americans and followers of Christ worldwide. He consequently dropped the “slave name” of Cassius Marcellus Clay for Muhammed Ali after his conversion to the Nation of Islam. He had refused categorically to go to Vietnam to fight in the foreign war insisting that his religion forbade him from engaging in such combats. He paid dearly for his refusal to ‘defend’ the American national colours as his world boxing heavyweight championship belt was withdrawn from him. Instead of joining the war train in Vietnam Ali waited patiently for three years before recapturing the same title from the then Champion George Foreman in the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ in Kinshasa, former Zaire under the leadership of the late kleptocrat Mobutu Sese-Seko. Apart from the rumble in the African jungle another great fight took place in Manila, the Philippines called the “Thrilla In Manila” involving him and Joe Frazier.
By antagonizing the white establishment in the U.S by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam war Ali was called names and was sidelined for his manifest unpatriotism but he regretted nothing. Ali had married four times in his lifetime bearing children and paying alimony to those ladies he had divorced. Indeed he had some troubled relationships with women who craved for his wealth and fame.
The world sporting community witnessed at first hand the debilitating effects Parkinson’s ailment had on Ali during the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta. Ali was billed to light the Olympics flames and as he struggled to do so perched on top of the podium his trembling hands almost betrayed him but he got it right by defeating the neurological infirmity and lighting up the flames to the ovation of thousands in attendance and millions more watching at homes across the globe on TV.
The late Ali mesmerized the world with his talent and power of the fist and tongue. He was a good grappler, a great sportsman. But he went beyond his professional career to demonstrate his fiery oratory, poetic excellence and activism. He not only fought opponents inside the ring but fought outside same against the American racism and hypocrisy at his time. All these combined produced a charismatic persona loved and admired by millions around the planet. That was why he was mourned like a global superstar and hero that he was.
The Clay-to-Ali name change involving the late American entertainer reminds one of the tale of one African slave called Kunta Kinte. Kinte was born around the 1750s in the Mandinka village of Juffure in the present-day the Gambia. One day in 1767 according to history while Kunta was searching for wood to make a drum for his younger brother four men chased him around and surrounded him and took him captive. Kunta was later drugged or tranquilized and he later woke up to find himself blindfolded, gagged, bound and a prisoner! He and others were put on the slave ship, the so-called Lord Ligonier, for a four-month long voyage to North America. Millions like him (mostly Africans) were victims of this human trafficking across the oceans, a millennial crime against humanity.
Unlike Mohammad Ali who singlehandely changed his official name to demonstrate his attachment to the Islamic faith and scornfully repudiating a ‘slavish heritage’ Kunta Kinte had doggedly rejected the change of his African name to a foreign servile one even when he was being tortured and ordered to pronounce his ‘new’ name. He was forced to say his new name but he kept repeating his traditional African name forcing the slave masters to torture him. He tried to escape on a number of occasions but was caught and brought back to servitude. For daring to escape to freedom in the storied slavery days he had the front half of his right foot cut off! Kunta Kinte remains an African hero who bore his real old name to the grave. Like Ali he rebelled against the slavery establishment in America and like Rosa Parks and others whose determination, fearlessness and defiance paved the way for the egalitarian society existing in the States today he would always be remembered.
Back home in Nigeria recently the news spread like wild fire of the sudden death of the former Super Eagles Captain and Coach, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi reportedly from heart attack in Benin City! Keshi had lost his dear wife and mother of his children late last year and he obviously had not recovered fully from that sad event. Keshi was an internationally-recognised soccer tactician and trainer who had taken his coaching skills to countries like Mali and Togo; he qualified the two West African national teams for the world cup! He assumed his duty as the Super Eagles coach and gave a good account of himself by winning the Nations Cup of 2013. He achieved continental fame as the only second African, living or dead, to have won the Nations Cup as both a Captain and Coach. The first to set the record was the former Egyptian national team Coach Hassan Shehata. Keshi would be remembered for his passion for the job; passion for football and patriotism.
Just days after the official demise of Keshi was announced another former national team coach, Shuaibu Amodu, kicked the bucket in his Benin city home. The late Amodu made name for himself during his days as the coach of the Benue Cement Company (BCC) Lions in Gboko Benue State. From there he rose to become the Super Eagles chief coach and achieved a lot. He did his patriotic part to reposition the Super Eagles in a difficult environment when working under the NFA (or NFF) management meant unsafe contract, political intrigues and wild expectations. Those at the helm of the soccer administration body preferred (and still prefer) foreign coaches to the local ones — a preference that gave them some leverage over some contracts and subsequent kickbacks.
I remember watching a live soccer match inside the Onikan Stadium in Lagos in the eary 90s involving the BCC Lions from Gboko and the defunct Stationery Stores of Lagos. Amodu was the head coach then. That was when the football league in Nigeria was on top of its glory. During that organized period you had great clubs like Rangers International of Enugu, Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri, Julius Berger of Lagos, Ranchers Bees of Kaduna, Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Abiola Babes of Abeokuta and Flash Flamengoes of Benin City etc competing for national honour and glory of the sport. Today the professional football league in Nigeria has transformed itself into a shadow of herself much like Nigeria itself! A disunited nation broken morally, socially, economically and politically by the fault of ours. Things have fallen apart, dear compatriots, and the house is about to fall on everyone’s head!
To Ali, Amodu, Keshi and Kinte we can only say in melancholy : farewell to legends at home and abroad! We shall miss you all. Our black pride and power would, however, always be rekindled by your sporting exploits and distinguished careers. Fare thee well big brothers! May the Supreme Being in His heavenly Kingdom, despite our collective generational ‘sin’ as sons and daughters of Adam, find a place to accommodate your souls!