My generation by which I mean the generation which came into political and social consciousness in the 1960s was lucky in the sense that we had many real heroes, men and women from whom we drew inspiration, who made us feel that the best was within reach and that God’s mission on earth was achievable by doing good.
They did not come any greater than John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrick Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Kaduna Nzeogwu, Francis Fajuyi and yes, Mohammed Ali (the Greatest boxer of all times.). It was also the age of independence for African states, an age that liberated not just territories but the can-do spirit of the whole world.
It reminded us of the can-do and elevating atmosphere prevalent in the court of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. That Court was known as Camelot. But it was also an unfortunate generation because we watched helplessly as each one of our heroes was assassinated, overthrown, and incarcerated. It was a generation that watched as dreams were aborted. We watched as the dreams of independence turned into the nightmare of massacres, genocide, civil wars and kleptocracy. Now, the last of the Camelot Titans, Mohammed Ali is gone, just gone. I met Ali only once in Lagos during the Shagari period. The United States under Jimmy Carter was trying to organize a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games then due to be held in Moscow. Mohammed Ali was sent by the Carter Administration to lobby African States to join in the boycott.
I was still at the Institute of International Affairs as the Director-General and Professor Ishaya Audu was the Foreign Minister. I turned up in Professor Audu’s office on appointment only to be told to wait a while as an unexpected visitor had shown up. Soon, the door opened and I leapt up as Ali floated out in a boxing posture as he exited the Foreign Minister’s office. Then we shook hands. Professor Audu said jokingly that Ali should seek to persuade me about the Moscow boycott.
That Ali went on diplomatic missions on behalf of the United States showed that even though he was against the Vietnam War and was against racism in the United States, he was not against the United States. He had a presence and a charm that masked the gritty determination of his beliefs. Ali showed a more profound and nuanced opposition to racism in the United States than most of the leaders of the anti-discrimination movements.
The singular act of changing his name from Cassius Clay Jr. to Mohammed Ali sent a more powerful message as a symbolic message than a thousand marches. Ali was probably, actually definitely, not aware of the linkage between Islam and Arab slave trade in Africa. A later awareness of this in his later years might account for his switch from Sunni Islam to Surfism (another variant of Islam).
Ali was a master of the grand gesture, gestures timed for maximum effect. Without a university education, not to talk of any specialization in psychology, he used psychology to devastating effect against his opponents before they even climbed into the ring.
Ali, the master performer, elevated boxing from the basement of the poor to the sitting room of royalty and billionaires. Boxing will miss him; sports will miss him; humanity will miss him.
He survived in spite of the fact that he did not play safe. He took on the American system when in 1964, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Mohammed Ali after joining the Nation of Islam otherwise called the Nation of Islam and when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Those who took on the system especially in 60s and 70s usually paid with their lives as one hero after another got hunted down by the invisible forces that form the underbelly of rapacious and vicious system.
Mohammed Ali survived. The death of our heroes, speaking for my generation, did not kill our dreams. Those who kill often do not realize that dreams cannot be killed. They sow seeds that germinate over time and hopefully serve to inspire another generation.
You said you were the Greatest. So say we all. Your death brings to mind the immortal words of John Donne in his poem “For whom the bell tolls” when he wrote “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee”
Good night Mohammed Ali.
- Professor A. Bolaji Akinyemi,