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It was the end of an era in sports when Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of seventy four last week. His passing brings an illustrious career to a conclusion. The former heavyweight boxing champion retired from the sport years ago, but that did not take away the charisma that has always been linked with him. There was always the magic which defined his personality, which made him a household word in every corner of the globe. Since his appearance at the 1960 Olympics and especially after his defeat of Sonny Liston in early 1964, Ali (or the former Cassius Clay) had been a byword for glamour in the world of boxing. He brought into the sport qualities one generally associates with things aesthetic in nature. In his own words, he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee when facing his opponents in the ring. It was a statement that would serve as a defining principle for Ali down the years.
In a larger sense, though, Muhammad Ali was to be transformed into a figure beyond sports, indeed higher than sports. Any other sportsman would have quietly walked away into the sunset once his career came to an end. It was different with Muhammad Ali. He remained a point of reference for people not only in his country but also in such diverse regions as Asia, Africa and Latin America, as any observation of his career will demonstrate. His services were solicited by presidents in handling difficult circumstances abroad. Ali played his diplomatic role well. Again, social causes, especially in the poorer regions of the world, were a priority for him. His star status came in handy.
In the times when he was heavyweight champion or even in the depressing moments when he lost — the wins far outnumbered the defeats — Ali was always a personification of social causes. It was, in hindsight, a natural follow-up to his earlier image as a fighter who challenged the political establishment, especially if he felt the establishment was taking recourse to things manifestly wrong. His refusal to be drafted into the US military because of his opposition to the Vietnam War led to his suspension by the World Boxing Association, a penalty which lasted three years. His conversion to Islam under the influence of Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam denomination soon after he seized the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in early 1964 was a sign that he was carving a definitive future for himself as an individual.
The truth cannot be ignored: Muhammad Ali was a sportsman who brought stardom to boxing. His style in the ring was as much an innovation as it was a tactic aimed at leaving his rivals confused. He danced around his increasingly tired and exasperated opponent before delivering the decisive blow. That was his art. That was his magic.
Muhammad Ali defined our times. In the brilliance of his personality, there were the sparks that lighted up our lives. With his passing, the world is much poorer than it used to be.