Column: Muhammad Ali, The Passing Of An Icon

June 6, 2016

[Written by Glenn Fubler]

The death of ‘The Greatest’ – Muhammad Ali – on June 3rd marks the passing of an icon.

Sports Illustrated had named him ‘Sportsman of the 20th Century’ and the BBC called him the ‘Sports Personality’ of that Century. His skill as a boxer was without question, however his commitment to principle – taking a stand, regardless of its popularity – points to his true greatness.

Ali had a longstanding relationship with Bermuda from the time he was still known as Cassius Clay. In the 1960s only months after winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World over Sonny Liston, as a 22 year-old, he was lured to Bermuda.

Olive Trott – promoter and owner of the Richardson’s Restaurant in North Village – had met him in Miami, during the Miss Universe Contest of that year.

He was anxious to meet the then- Miss Bermuda and Olive let him know that if he agreed to come to Bermuda for an Exhibition-contest, that she would make the introductions. As a result, he agreed to spar with another fighter from Miami, as the ‘feature’ of a boxing card, put on at the Bermuda Tennis Stadium.

Hundreds of residents packed the Stadium for that historic occasion. I was lucky that my Uncle Bertie Furbert was on the gate that Saturday evening and invited me along. Of course seeing the magic of the ‘Greatest’, as a fourteen-year old, was a memorable experience.

In fact Irving Ingram, a longtime neighbour of Olive’s restaurant, recalls that the ‘Greatest’ returned to the island some years later, as Muhammad Ali to do another exhibition display at the Tennis Stadium and subsequently had a few low-key visits. Irving recalls that Ali warmly referred to Olive Trott as his Bermuda Mother.

It was the change of name in 1965 that served as a milestone for the transformation of this icon. He had become a member of the Nation of Islam as a part of his journey of shedding the impact of growing up in a segregated society reinforced by violence. Ali’s example of self-acceptance and healthy pride, fostered a global shift for people of colour.

However, it was his stand against the draft into the U.S. military that reinforced his iconic status. While there were growing numbers of young American men who were resisting the draft, they were a small minority. The national consensus at the time still supported the war. The forthrightness of Ali’s stand, made his position that much more significant.

When Ali appeared before the induction panel on April 28th, 1967 and refused to cooperate, he was informed that he was committing a felony and was subject to 5 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

On June 20th 1967, Muhammad was convicted in a 20 minute court trial, but was granted bail subject to appeal. Authorities across the US immediately suspended his boxing license and the State Department took his passport, so that he was unable to box for more than three years.

By ‘walking his talk’, Ali turning lemons into lemonade, galvanized a movement across America. Martin Luther King felt empowered to take a strong stand against the Vietnam War, notwithstanding opposition from a number of colleagues amongst the Civil Rights leadership.

A momentum grew and Muhammad was invited by students – both black and white- to speak at universities throughout the U.S., thus facilitating an historic shift in that country.

In June 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of Ali.

While losing some of the key years of his boxing career, Muhammad had gained much more. He went on to regain the title on two occasions – in historic fights. It is arguable that he stayed in boxing too long to the detriment of health.

However, Muhammad Ali’s most significant legacy was his sacrifice of a burgeoning career by taking a stand regardless of its popularity and he will be remembered by many, as “the Greatest”.

- Glenn Fubler

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