By Dr. Shaik Ubaid
The greatest died. Muhammad Ali finally lost his last and the longest fight of his life against Parkinson’s Disease. Some say that it was not the typical Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease but was Dementia pugilistica or boxer’s dementia. Dr. Stanley Fahn, a movement disorders expert from Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, the main campus of my hospital system, had diagnosed him with the umbrella term of Parkinsonism in 1984. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, two greats of boxing who had preceded Ali by just a decade, died of suspected boxing related neurological degeneration. I had noticed the slurring in Fraizier’s speech a long time before he died.
I, who loved boxing once because of Ali, have started to hate it after I became a neurologist. It should be banned for it is such a cruel and inhumane sport. People say that without boxing there would be no Ali
Believe me there would have been an Ali, the Ali. Ali was born to be the greatest; boxing did not make him great he made boxing popular. He himself claimed to be the savior of boxing more than once.
Ali had all the ingredients to be great. He had the sharpest intellect, not just the sharpest tongue. He had a heart made of part titanium and part marshmallow. Joe Frazier said that his punches in Manila would have made walls of cities to fall but they only took Ali closest to death as Ali admitted. Foreman who felled Frazier six times in two rounds threw the best at Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire (Now known again with the old name of Congo) and today he was telling the CNN host that Ali would absorb those punches doing the “rope a dope” and then whisper in his ears, “That’s all you got George”. Foreman realized that yes that’s all he had, he who brought down Norton, the same Norton who had broken Ali’s jaw and claimed that he won the next fight with Ali too, had not lasted against Foreman. Ali told the pundits and the skeptics before the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire that Foreman was a mummy and just as he had beaten the odds against the dreaded Liston in 1964, he would prove the pundits wrong. In 1964 he was still known as Cassius Clay and the media called him derogatively as the “Louisville Lip” and not yet as the “Greatest” or as the “Champ”. He had the heart of titanium that a lion or a tiger would envy but embedded in that titanium were soft strands that would melt at the suffering of the poor, the exploited and the occupied. The poor black masses in the US and Africa , the people of Palestine, South Africa and Algeria struggling against occupation, all tugged at his heart and he donated generously. His retinue of mostly carpet baggers too exploited his generosity.
Later people found out that he also had steel mandibles. His chin and jaw took the best from the great boxers of the golden period of the heavy weight boxing from 1971 to 81.
He had the confidence that no one else had shown in the world of sports before or since and that is why he bragged. A warmonger president like George Bush admitted that Ali was right when he was honoring the inspirer-in-chief of the anti-war movement-Ali. Ali had said “It is not bragging when you can back it up,” reminded George the 2nd. Only Ali could call Bush crazy at his face as he did that evening
Ali was not just the first champion to win the heavy weight crown three times. Ali was the first rapper, the first celebrity conscientious objector, the first Black athlete to talk back at the racist White America unlike Joe Louis the greatest boxer before Ali and Jackie Robinson, the black base ball legend, who dared not talk back. Yes Ali would have been the greatest even if he had not boxed.
Ali had almost mastered time itself. He was ahead of his times outside the ring when he opposed the Vietnam War when doing so was extremely unpopular and dangerous. Inside the ring, he was the master of timing. He was not the hardest of punchers like Liston, Foreman, Shavers or even Norton and Fraiser, even though he possessed that dreaded right cross. But he had speed and timing.
That sweet timing was seen in his demise too. Ali was humble. His bragging was a show; He told many times that God is the Greatest and not he. God tested him with a terrible disease. He lost his gift of gab not just his left jab. The prime example of male beauty with that handsome face and that “perfectly proportioned sexy” body as his physician, Ferdie Pacheco once described, was turned into a sad figure-hunched (simian posture or ape like posture of Parkinson’s patients). The fastest legs in the universe who would make people gasp when he did the Ali shuffle could only walk in the “shuffling gait” of parkinsonism. Yet Ali never complained. Great men would have complained to God and to fellow men, but not Ali. For, he was indeed the greatest. He said that God was using him to teach humility to human beings and to make people aware of Parkinson’s Disease.
God is using him in his death too. That was the thought that consoled me. I had left Long Island at 1030 PM after meeting my parents. The top of the radio news came as a shock that Ali might be dying. His family has rushed to his bedside. He had given the world scares a few times in the last couple of years. “But this time it looks different, it looks more serious,” said the newsreader on the radio.
The hour and a half drive to upstate was a hard one. Time and again my eyes would tear up adding to the diminished visibility due to the fog that was settling in on the Hudson valley. I had been meaning to visit Ali, along with my close friend, Sohail Ahmed, another neurologist. I wanted to meet him to apologize. All through the long drive I kept thinking of this untendered apology along with all the episodes of his life that I had read about or watched on TV and YouTube.
I always wanted to ask him if he had considered deep brain stimulation. That was in early 2000 when Ali was still physically strong. I was asked to start the deep brain stimulation program for people with advance Parkinson ’s Disease and other tremors, at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, by the Cornell Medical School. I did so in 2001. I always wanted to meet Ali and ask him if he had considered DBS.
Eleven days after joining Cornell as an assistant professor, I watched the Twin Towers come down and my media relations work for the Muslim community had to be revived to fight those who were using this terrorist attack to demonize all Muslims. Five months later a pogrom was unleashed in the Indian state of Gujarat being ruled by Narendra Modi. His supporters were threatening to repeat the “Gujarat experiment” in other states of India. They were sure that in the post 9/11 era, the world will not care. We launched Indian Muslim Alert Network and then Indian Muslim Council-USA to get justice for the victims of the pogrom and to prevent more from being perpetrated. I could not carry out the responsibilities of a faculty member at an Ivy League university as well as the President of IMC-USA. I moved to a lesser demanding job at a community hospital. That wish of going to meet Ali kept getting postponed. Time flew by and in a few years, Ali had become too frail for the DBS.
The emotional roller coaster continued and images, feelings and thoughts kept churning like a tornado in my mind. But I kept coming back to the timings of Ali’s death.
Ali had started out as a polarizing figure, with only a section of the Blacks rooting for him and most Whites hating him. When he joined the Nation of Islam, after coming under the influence of Malcolm X, and adapted a confrontational stand, many Blacks were upset that he was rocking the boat. When he refused to go to Vietnam and called it an unjust war, the hatred of White America intensified. Watching the war-casualties grow and witnessing the steadfastness of Ali who was willing to go to jail and whose title and passport were unjustly confiscated, the tide of public opinion started to turn in Ali’s favor. Ali, deprived of his livelihood through boxing, had taken to speaking on college campuses. He soon won over the hostile young Whites, who realized that it was not worth dying for in Vietnam.
By the time Ali won his title back in 1974 on that steamy hot night in Zaire, he was not only the darling of the world but was being loved and respected by many White Americans.
He was on a tour to India in 1980 and I was looking forward to seeing the greatest in flesh. BY then he was no longer the champion, having lost to old age, Holmes and even the mediocre Trevor Berbick. But he was still the Champ and was attracting tens of thousands for his exhibition bouts. Just before he came to Hyderabad, he was called back by Carter for a special mission. The champ was now donning the mantle of a statesman too.
Ali was very close to Malcolm X, who brought him into the Nation of Islam. Ali always regretted not supporting Malcolm when he left the Nation to become a “mainstream Muslim.” Malcolm was assassinated before he turned 40 in 1965. After Elijah Muhammad died, his son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, brought most followers of the Nation of Islam to “mainstream Sunni Islam” (as he called himself). Ali continued to fight for the oppressed but no longer considered the Whites as the devils. His popularity grew not only as the greatest boxer but as a moral leader. Jimmy carter invited him to the White House; and when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, Carter sent Ali as his ambassador to the Muslim world to rally support for the Afghan Freedom struggle. I blamed the Russians more than I blamed Carter for not being able to see Ali.
I had to wait another decade and another brutal and genocidal war to meet Ali.
I met him for the first time during my work as a media relations person for the Bosnia Task Force – USA. Ali was part of a small delegation of national Muslim leadership that was visiting the UN. The aim was to rally the UN to intervene in Bosnia to liberate the prisoners of the concentration camps and rape camps, and to end the genocide. I saw the power yielded by Ali. As we walked down the corridors of the UN building, diplomats hurrying up and down would pass us by and a moment later would turn around to take a second look. With mouths open they would then rush to Ali, to shake his hand and ask for his autograph
The thoughts and images kept flashing by and it was midnight when I pulled into my driveway. I took out my phone and my friend Zafar Siddiqui’s post appeared on the facebook that NBC is announcing Ali’s death. I felt a punch in my gut.
To God we belong and to Him we shall Return, I said the Islamic response to the news of death
I told myself that I should not weep. In his death, Ali was going to teach the nation that once hated and later loved and respected him as an icon, forgotten lessons in humanity. For the last six months Donald Trump had brought to the fore the ugly xenophobia and Islamophobia that has been festering, thanks to the campaigns by Evangelical Extremists, the neocons and the Tea Party racists since 2008. Trump was dominating the news cycles and was claiming that he wants to make America Great Again. He wanted to turn the clock back to the times when people like Trump had all the privileges. Blacks were persecuted and poor Whites exploited.
Now the champ was going to trump Trump, “Whup him” as he would say. For the next three days Trump would be relegated to the back pages. I hurried into the house and flipped the TV on. And there it was-all Ali. On MSNBC, CNN, ESPN, BBC. Only Fox was running its “normal schedule”.
Trump would ask where American Muslim heroes are and Ali was saying, “Hey Trump you got any hero greater than me?” Trump had been saying that Muslims don’t belong in the US, they are all foreigners and Ali’s response: “you are dumber than you look.” Trump had been spewing hate as the way to greatness and the news channels were showing Ali’s 1975 speech on love and selflessness at Harvard. Liston did not see the “anchor punch” that hit him from nowhere in his second bout. Ali’s most iconic picture is standing by the downed “Big Ugly Bear”. Ali had again delivered his anchor punch, the second time to knock Trump, “the ugly White Monster” out cold. Trump, the rectal thermometer, that was showing the rising temperature of hate so accurately will reflect the fall in hate temperature for the next 72 hours at the least, I said to myself.
It was only late in the morning that Fox News started to cover Ali significantly. Even then they would get Uncle Toms and House Negros of Malcolm’s speeches, like Ben Carson to give their spin. Ben Carson was being asked” just as Ali became moderate, can we get American Muslims to support moderates today.” I wanted to throw up. Carson, the anti-Ali, with his incoherent speech was mumbling, that it is time that American Muslims denounce ISIS. Duh. American Muslims have been denouncing ISIS even before Carson knew what ISIS was. “It is time Republicans denounce the bigotry of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and John Huckabee,” the images of Ali and his mentor, Malcolm X seemed to be saying.
Thank you Champ for continuing to stand up for justice and for the underdog even in your death. Thank you Malcolm, for giving us Muhammad Ali. Malcolm’s eulogy was historic, the words and the voice of Ossie Davis move me every time I listen to it. It gives me goose bumps to hear Malik Shabbazz being described as “unconquered.. …our living black manhood…our own black shing prince.” “Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes,” Ossie had said about the master. I am hoping that the person delivering the eulogy of the disciple will point out that the world has come to bid farewell to the “unconquered, black manhood, who became the King of the world.”