“Cassius Clay has defeated Sonny Liston,” Daddy announced as he walked into the living room, holding the Pakistan Times. My sister and I were sitting on the rug, doing I don’t remember what. But I do remember looking up, feeling the incredulity in his voice, and wondering what the fuss was about. I was 12, and this was the city of Quetta in northwest Pakistan. We remained sitting, and Daddy remained standing, as we obediently listened to him explain to us who Sonny Liston was, who this Cassius Clay was, what in the world is ‘heavy weight’, and what is the big deal of one boxer winning over another. After all, someone’s got to win. We nodded politely, and when Daddy left, presumably to share his excitement with Mummy, we went back to doing whatever it was we were doing. Perhaps we were talking about the Beatle’s latest album I want to hold your hand, or that India had backed out of holding a plebiscite in Kashmir.
The next morning, another announcement: “Cassius Clay has become a Muslim!” Daddy had this look of wonder. Actually he said it in Urdu –Cassius Clay mussalman bun gaya hai. He was holding the Pakistan Times, and 52 years later, I still remember the animated look on his face. Now that was news for us little girls. I remember rushing over to look at the newspaper. For the first time, we were paying attention to this boxing trivia—no longer trivia. “He has changed his name to Mohammad Ali,” Daddy said, as we creened over to take a look at this man, standing with his arms shot up—reaching for the crescent.
There are some feelings one can recall with astounding clarity, no matter how very long ago, and no matter when. An American, right after winning something big, had embraced Islam. Wow! What had inclined him towards this shift? Who was this man? I wanted to know more.
Everybody did. Next day in school all the girls were talking about him. I was in an all-girls school. Mohammad Ali was our hero. Pakistanis adored him. In the years that followed, we girls were furious over what America was doing to him.
“They want him to go to Viet Nam and die.”
“Now they want to lock him up in jail.”
“How dare they take away his title.”
“Just because he is a Muslim.”
Years later, I would watch him win back his title, and win the hearts of my fellow Americans. When I watched him light the Olympic torch with hands that trembled, I cried for my hero.
It all came back to me yesterday, when I absorbed the news the morning after. Pages and pages of the New York Times displayed images and tributes to Ali. It came back to me as I heard speaker after speaker pay tribute to Ali at the ISNA conference in New Jersey (Islamic Society of North America). And I heard something I had never heard before. The morning speaker, Dalia Mogahed, cast aside her prepared speech and spoke instead about Ali. Where she found the time to craft a new speech first thing in the morning, I have no idea. Here is what she had to say:
After winning the gold medal in boxing for the U.S. in the Rome Olympics, he was denied service at a White Only restaurant. He threw his medal in the Ohio river.
[It gets worse. Then something happens]
During his fight against Sonny Liston, somewhere in the 5th round, Ali felt blinded. He couldn’t see. His eyes were burning. What had happened? Some say that Sonny would use ointment on his gloves, which blinded his opponents. http://sportsworld.nbcsports.com/remembering-muhammad-ali/ Whatever the case, Ali couldn’t see. But he continued to fight, seeing Sonny in a blur, sweat dripping, tears flowing. As the fight continued, the sweat and tears rinsed out his eyes. At age 22, he became the youngest to win the heavy weight championship.
Yesterday, God took back His champion.
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