BELIZE CITY, Mon. June 6, 2016–The world paused in grief last Friday when the announcement was made that the greatest sportsman to set foot inside the boxing ring, the former three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, had died at the age of 74.
Muhammad Ali died at Honor Health Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center, where he was admitted on Thursday for a respiratory ailment. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease, with which he had been diagnosed and had been battling for 32 years, Bob Gunnel, a family spokesman, said on Friday.
Muhammad Ali was arguably the most famous athlete on planet earth, and his boxing career, which spanned several decades, was nothing short of exciting, colorful and charismatic, as the champ was also a confident man who was not short of lyrical expressions, which emanated from his immense self-confidence.
Muhammad Ali had a voracious appetite for seeing the world and had travelled to many places, including British Honduras (Belize) in July 1965, and many Belizeans remember that historic trip.
Muhammad Ali sort of stumbled on boxing when he was around 12-years-old and a thief had made off with his bicycle. He vowed to a police officer, Joe Martin, who had a boxing gym and was a trainer, that he would “whup” the thief.
Martin told him that he needed to learn to fight first, before he could “whup” anyone. It was from that humble beginning that Cassius Marcellus Clay (Ali’s birth name) began the journey that would later transform his life and turn him into Muhammad Ali, who would declare, “I am the greatest!”
Apart from being the greatest boxer ever, Muhammad Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War in particular and racism in the US, in general, during the turbulent 1960’s, was perhaps the defining moment of his life, because he went to jail for his beliefs rather than being drafted into the United States army to fight in the Vietnam war.
He declared, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong!”
His conscientious objector stance would cost him dearly. He was stripped of his world heavyweight title and was banned from boxing for almost four crucial years in his still young career. His conscientious objector stance would eventually be vindicated with his victory at the United States Supreme Court, which had struck down the decision of the lower court, clearing the way for the re-emergence of “The People’s Champion” in the boxing ring.
Muhammad Ali’s visit to Belize came after he had met Belize’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time, the late Hon. Carl Lindburgh Rogers, at Madison Square Garden along with Roy “Bullet” Craig; the picture of that meeting hangs in Bismarck Sporting Club, located on Queen Charlotte Street, in Yarborough.
A Belizean Muslim by the name of Farrakhan remembers going to the Stanley Field Airport to pick up Muhammad Ali. Two other Muslim brothers, Ismael Omar Shabazz and Ibrahim “Justice” Abdullah, who were two United Black Association (UBAD) officers, went to the airport, Farrakhan recalled.
Farrakhan told Amandala that after they left the airport with Muhammad Ali, they drove straight to the Palace Theater, where he worked out a bit before going to the Fort George Hotel, where he was staying.
Farrakhan said that they left Muhammad Ali at the hotel because he was tired. The following day they went to get him from the hotel, and they all went to the Treasury Building, where Muhammad Ali spoke to a number of people who were gathered out there after Brother Justice had introduced him, Farrakhan recalled.
Muhammad Ali spoke about the boxing business and told his audience that he wanted to travel the whole world.
“Brother Justice, being the head of the Muslims in Belize, was always looking out. We were at the Palace Theater and a lot of people were outside and the brother [Muhammad Ali] told him to let the people in. He was so happy to meet the people,” Farrakhan recalled.
“When I hear that the brother passed, I said well, we all have to pass,” Farrakhan, 85, commented.
A Belizean woman, Andrea Daly Hoxie, remembers meeting the Champ in a most unusual way. She explained on her Facebook page over the weekend how that meeting came about.
“When I was a child growing up in Belize, my Mom and Dad were always being invited to dinner with visiting dignitaries. They would take me along (without asking if I wanted to go), and generally leave me in the lobby of the venue to read my book. (Now everyone will know how I became a bona fide bookworm.) One of my most memorable moments came one evening at what is now The Radisson in Belize.
“At the end of the evening, the distinguished guest walked into the lobby, saw me reading, picked me up and we read to each other for about ten minutes. My mom’s mouth fell open as she was coming to get me. I was chit-chatting with none other than Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali). I would dare to say I had way more conversation with him than most people at the event. He then asked, ‘Whose adorable child is this?’”
“My Mom preened and rushed right over to lay claim to me and my book. I don’t remember the book, but I certainly remember Muhammad Ali. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Another Belizean, Santiago Castillo, Jr., also posted on his Facebook his memory of Muhammad Ali’s visit to Belize.
Castillo writes: “In memory of the GREATEST of all time MUHAMMAD ALI, who passed away yesterday June 3rd 2016, I post a picture taken in Belize 51 years ago in July 1965 at the Palace Theatre. That year my father, Santiago Castillo, who was into promotions, brought Muhammad Ali to Belize for a sparring competition. The 2nd night of the sparring exhibition, Ali told them to open the doors and let everyone in FREE of CHARGE. This was the type of man Ali was. I got his autograph that night when this photo was taken. Sitting up front, starting from the left, is Santi Castillo, 9, with my Nanny. Sitting left of Ali is Mrs. Veronica Tucker, wife of Mr. Clive, who worked for my father, as well as Net Vasquez. To the right of ALI is Dean Lindo and right behind him, my father’s driver for almost 50 years, Joe Carillo. For those of you older than I, you may recognize others in the photo. They tell me it is the Hunter brothers in the back row on the right side. Indeed, ALI was the GREATEST of all time: He was a great human being: Champ, Colorful, Flamboyant, Charismatic, Fast, Pretty, Eloquent, Poetic, Controversial, Compassionate, and of course, GREAT; but not too GREAT to visit us in Belize. RIP, the GREATEST.”
Muhammad Ali’s professional career as a boxer spanned over two decades, during which time he fought 62 fights and won 56. He only lost five fights and out of those 56 wins, 37 of those were knockouts.
Once when he was asked how he would like to be remembered, Muhammad Ali replied, as only Muhammad Ali can: “As a man who never sold out his people; but if that’s too much, then just a good boxer. I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was.”
Many world leaders, sports luminaries, many friends and countless millions of fans mourn his passing – Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, the People’s Champion, loved by the world not only for his legendary, unsurpassed skill in the ring, but also for who he was outside the ring: a charismatic, generous, courageous human being who loved people and stood up for what he thought was right, no matter the cost. The world will miss him. Farewell, Champ!
The eulogy for Muhammad Ali, who will be laid to rest on Friday, will be read by the former US President William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, Bryant Gumble and Bill Crystal.