Boxing is one of the oldest combat sports of all time, yet there are many who do not consider it to be Martial Art. Let’s not indulge this snobbery: a person who is trained to box is well-equipped to defend themselves when required, not only in the ring, but in real life situations when self-defence is justified. The skills a boxer learns are used incredibly effectively in MMA. The intensive training focuses as much on mental as on physical skills, as a great fighter fights with their brain before their fists. In boxing, as in life, there are many paradoxes at work. Only intelligent fighters will win, but as Mike Tyson so eloquently put it “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Being hit by a Muhammad Ali or a Mike Tyson is an experience I would pay good money to avoid.
Muhammad Ali understood that success in the ring did not just involve overcoming your opponent. You first had to overcome yourself. He played the long game. He constantly had his eye on his destiny. ‘I hated every minute of training, but I told myself, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ Short term pain for a long-term gain. Any achievement in life demands that sacrifice. While few of us have the raw talent, build or strength to be Heavyweight Champion of the World, think about any skill worth having, and it takes painful practice until any kind of proficiency is reached. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers posits that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a given field. It is an arbitrary number, and there are many variables which influence mastering a skill, including your genetic make-up and natural ability, the age at which you begin, your enthusiasm and mindset, the quality of your practice, the quality and availability of tuition, coaching and feedback. Those with patience and the ability to delay gratification are more likely to persevere with their practice, but it is simply not true that anyone can become an expert in any area by just putting in the time, although achieving mastery without being prepared to dedicate time is unlikely.
Ali stood up for what he believed in. He refused the draft to Vietnam. Why should he fight for a country that did not accord him equal rights? “My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs—and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home?”
Ali’s race and his religion were central to his identity, but he refused to apologise for either. He wasn’t perfect by any means; one of the most difficult aspects of Islam to him was the requirement to abstain from extra-marital sex. Not only was he incredibly attractive to women, he knew it, which is a devastating combination: ‘Ain’t I pretty?’ Women threw themselves at him, and he found it nigh on impossible to resist them.
One of his long-term regrets was his treatment of Malcolm X, who had been instrumental in recruiting him to the Nation of Islam in the first place. Following Malcolm X’s rift with the Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Ali distanced himself from his former friend and mentor, a cause of great regret to him after Malcolm’s assassination. At first, Ali wholly bought into Elijah Muhammad’s radical version of Islam, which preached segregation as fervently as the Ku Klux Klan, referring to white people as ‘white devils’ who had supposedly been created by the evil genius Yacub. Malcolm X increasingly favoured tolerance, understanding, redemption and integration, anathema to the militant followers of Elijah Muhammad, who regarded their leader as a deity. Ali’s religious development followed the same path as Malcolm X’s, in that they both realised that radical belief in black supremacy was as dangerously wrong-headed as white supremacist movements like the KKK. In Ali’s later years, he was far less extreme, and spoke much more about integration and brotherly love than firebrand segregation. He was more in line with Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace Muhammad (later Warith Mohammed), the progressive leader of the renamed American Society of Muslims, who worked towards racial inclusion and inter-faith co-operation. Various factions disagreed with his integrationist stance, one of which was a splinter group led by Louis Farrakhan, who reclaimed the name ‘Nation of Islam’.
Ali’s religion was a source of immense inspiration and consolation to him all throughout his life. When asked how he’d like to be remembered, he said, ‘as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could – financial and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality… and I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.’
At the end of his life, Ali suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a devastating condition that affects the nervous system, stiffening the muscles, slowing down the reflexes and freezing the facial expression. Like so many talented boxers, he stayed in the ring for too long, and it wrecked his body. His doctor, Ferdie Pacheco resigned from Ali’s team because Ali wouldn’t take his advice to quit: ‘See, Ali was unique. Ali and boxing are two different subjects. The only thing that Ali did that was pure boxing was the tragic end, which all boxers have if they’ve been too good and they won’t quit. Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, George Foreman, Larry Homes, Tommy Hearns. They just won’t stop! So their end is tragic. That’s the one thing, the only thing, that makes Ali just another boxer.’
One of the terrible ironies of the condition is that speech and expression are noticeably affected. This struck Ali particularly hard, as his eloquence, his verbal agility and powers of oration were so remarkable when he was in his prime. At the end of his life, Ali had even managed to subdue his colossal ego. He said of his illness that it was ‘God’s way of showing me that I’m just a man like everyone else.’
Muhammad Ali is a dramatic example of a black fighter ruffling the feathers of a white establishment at the beginning of his career and ending up being one of the most loved figures of all time by people of all colours from all walks of life. Martial Arts practice has the same effect: it’s a levelling force, a force against racism, sexism and xenophobia. No matter what the discipline, when one fighter is pitted against another, you are stripped down to your very essence, and the colour of your skin is the very last thing that matters.
‘The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants.’ Gichin Funakoshi, Founder of Shotokan