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8 June 2016

Muhammad Ali, martial arts, and me: learning to fight both inside and outside the ring

In the face of bullying, attacks on my identity as a Muslim, and mental health issues that developed in my teen years, the desire to conquer couldn’t have been greater.

By Hasan Chowdhury

Fighter. Political activist. Muslim. Poet. And undeniably the greatest of all time. If there was ever a global figure whose courage could capture the spirit of a young boy growing up with rounds of challenges to face, and bottled dreams waiting to be freed, it was Muhammad Ali. 

“I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) exclaimed in a post-fight interview, after his iconic and game-changing toppling of boxer Sonny Liston in 1964. On Friday 3 June, at the well-lived age of 74, Ali died from septic shock at a hospital in Phoenix, having suffered from respiratory problems and Parkinson’s disease.

His death has reminded me what can be achieved from a lifetime of fighting, something I learned from him as a young boy. In the face of bullying, racism, attacks on my identity as a Muslim and mental health issues that had developed in my teen years, the desire to conquer couldn’t have been greater.

Growing up at a time when Ali was almost two decades removed from his final fight in Nassau in 1981, my introduction to the icon came streaming through anecdotes, quotes and videotapes. Tales from my father, who was born and raised in Bangladesh, detailed the almost ritual-like congregations that would amass any time the man would appear in the square ring, making everyone square-eyed as they passionately looked into small, square television sets.

“I done something new for this fight. I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning, I thrown thunder in jail. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” When I heard such lyrical bravado in the tender years of my youth, it was almost impossible not to envision a giant who conquered it all.

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My first introduction to the world of fighting was at the age of six. Having suffered from bullying and social exclusion because of my skin colour, I found myself being thrown into a competitive, chaotic arena of martial arts in order to learn how to defend myself. To say this was a daunting prospect would be an understatement.

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I spent a great deal of time in an environment in which jabs and crosses were at the tips of people’s tongues. But more so than the technicalities of any given martial art, it was Ali who was at the foremost of everyone’s minds. Ali had taken up boxing at a young age to redeem himself from a time when his bicycle was stolen; it had equipped him with the physicality and mental acuity to protect himself. As a man who had appeared to me initially through clips of his monumental victories, there was nothing more empowering than to witness his rise from such humble beginnings.

In my later teenage years, depression started to advance. Anxiety and the overwhelming dread coupled with the disorder led to a great deal of time being spent developing my fighting skills. I fought in the hope that it would offer solace from my mental woes. Much of my time spent in those years was in a sixth form common room, whose central wall just happened to be adorned with a now-famous image of Ali underwater in his orthodox fighting stance.

The photograph was originally published in Life magazine in 1961, and just as it had become the centrepiece of a room full of students aspiring to greatness, it had become the centrepiece of my mind for all the years I had sat in front of it. The internal dialogues I tussled with that affected my mood up to that point had now found something to silence them.

Ali, in all his confidence and calmness, was saying something to me: “I’m not afraid of dying. I have faith.” Here stood a man, showing no signs of wavering or flinching, braced in a position underwater which most could barely hold for a minute. Yet here he was, captured in a moment of time, doing what he believed in – having faith and not being afraid to die.

As the image spoke to me, it reached out too. Knowledge of Ali’s successful attempt at saving the life of a man who was ready to commit suicide in 1981 turned the image into a helping hand, one that would remain extended forever so long as I had the courage to face my obstacles.

The passing of time has brought itself new challenges. Since 9/11, hysteria has surrounded the terrorists who identified themselves as Muslim. The actions of small pockets of extremists – ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the horror induced in Syria by Isis – have unfortunately smeared the religion of Islam, which I follow just as Muhammad Ali did. A vicious cycle of Islamophobia has been perpetuated as a result of distortions created by those whose extreme actions are falsely grounded in tragic misinterpretations of Islamic doctrine.

As extremist catastrophes continue to affect both the message of peace at the heart of Islam and the peace of global order, it is with great assurance that one can turn to Ali too for a necessary response to the minute numbers of terrorists infecting society.

In a statement to NBC news, Ali said:

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.

We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.

Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”

In an interview in 1972, Ali was asked how he’d like people to think of him when he was gone. He responded:

“I’d like for them to say he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern and then he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith and he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime and served it to each and every deserving person he met.”

In light of everything I have learned and experienced through Ali, his recipe of remembrance is one that I will be attempting to spread over a lifetime.