I never saw Muhammad Ali fight on television, never saw his great fights with Joe Frazier on live tv. We didn't have multiple sports channels in the 1970s to entertain us. But he was permanently embalmed in our collective imagination. Some icons don't need to be seen in flesh and blood. We didn't need to watch Ali box. The ring was only a sideshow, the world was his stage. Ali was not just the best boxer of his generation, he was arguably the greatest sportsperson ever.
Ali himself had no doubt: he WAS the Greatest. With anyone else, it would have been seen as bombast. With Ali it was just a natural extension of his larger than life persona. We latched onto every quote of his with fan boy excitement. He was the Pied Piper who pulled us along on a never ending journey of constant thrills: when Ali said he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee we believed him. When he said, ' if you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologise, ' we were convinced by his talk. He wasn't just a boxer for us, he was an invincible superman.
We could argue that there have been better boxers. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Leonard could all claim to have equally impressive records in the ring. We could claim that a Michael Jordan in basketball, a Don Bradman in cricket, a Roger Federer in tennis are just as iconic. But none of them come close to matching what Ali achieved beyond being a pugilist. With every act of his, he became a symbol of a larger cause, an identity that went beyond just being the heavyweight champion of the world.
Then, whether it be throwing his gold medal into the Ohio river after being denied entry into a whites only restaurant, refusing to join the Vietnam war even if it meant losing his heavyweight title, or converting to Islam, Ali was a rebel without a pause, a sporting revolutionary who broke every rule, and still won. No one could knock him out in the ring. No one could certainly conquer his spirit.
This morning, in a tv show, I likened him to Babasaheb Ambedkar: what Ambedkar meant to Dalits, Ali was to blacks across the world. If Ambedkar converted to Neo Buddhism as a symbol of protest against Brahmincal Hinduism, Ali chose Islam to register his anger at an unequal, racist society. When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, he not only changed his name, but energised an entire generation: Martin Luther King may have led a peaceful resistance to racism, Ali provided the radical edge.
Which is why Ali's death marks not just the passing away of a sporting hero but the departure of another link with an era where anti establishment heroes were truly celebrated, when being a top athlete was not measured by your bank balance but your contribution to society. I remember getting emotional when Ali was invited to light the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I cried again this morning. Ali could do that to grown up men. He made us teary eyed because he always fought the good fight. Our fight.
Post script: In 1991, I got the opportunity of a lifetime to interview Muhammad Ali. He was staying at a Juhu hotel in Mumbai and I reached the venue on a tip off from a friend. When I knocked on the door, the man who opened it wasn't the one who claimed to have the 'most beautiful face in the world'. Ali was suffering from Parkinson's and was barely able to walk and speak. It didn't matter to me. Just being in the presence of Ali was an honour. He was, and always will be, the Greatest!