Muhammad Ali: The Butterfly Floats On

Muhammad Ali: The Butterfly Floats On

Tsepiso S Mothibi

Ears open… the elders are discussing boxing, and the name ‘Ali’ is repeated over and over again. Pugilism is the word in fashion and where boxing matches are the news of the day, where no TV screens are exist, where the bioscope comes only occasionally, and only the radioman’s static voice is present on the shortwave daily an account of a boxing match announced on the radio the previous day is the only news the old man can sit and talk about over a calabash of mqombothi and a game of moraba-raba.

The name ‘Ali’ is mentioned a million times as the young man grows into maturity. Shutter click…the young African boy sees the pictures of “The Greatest” boxer who ever lived in the pages of one of a numerous number of biographies published on the life of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr, the young boy who decided to take the law into his own hands and punch the living daylights out of a bully who stole his bicycle, and grew into the greatest pugilist of all time; more popular across the globe than Shakespeare, The Beatles, and all the rock bands combined.

The little black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, never claimed to be famous than Jesus like John Lennon did, he did not need to, the blur of the speed of his fists put him in the rightful place on the pedestal where legends are placed before they are metamorphosed into myths.

Muhammad Ali

Where Achilles failed due to the weak spot in his heel, Muhammad Ali danced in entrancing circles that left his opponents’ heads spinning from the flurry of hooks, uppercuts, and straight shots that left the spectators in packed arenas screaming their voices hoarse and watchers across the globe glued on the small screens. Forhis execution of the fight in the ring is legendary, unsurpassed, and his speeches full of bravado came in a machine-gun rat-a-tat, tat that boasted, goaded and incited opponents to fall into the trap of endless punches that landed faster than a camera can see in slow-motion, faster than the rap artist Eminem can speak, quicker than the strike of a black mamba, so fast that they seemed like an endless blur too quick for his opponents and the spectators to see, and in fact, the only thing those watching could see were the poor opponents falling senseless to the canvas like sacks of potatoes after being knocked out by the man whose punches could indeed “sting like a bee”, the man whose dancing in the ring had the beauty of a butterfly floating on the currents of air in the idyllic Halcyons of ecstasy where all who were watching would be.

One cannot just write about Ali, one does not punctuate sentences like they would when writing about the greatest legend of modern times, for his speeches were reminiscent to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg with the depth of the psalmists, Plato and the prophets of ancient times merged into one figure whose word matched his act, he who put loquacity on a level at par with prestige, magnificence, brilliance, exquisiteness, gorgeousness… the man whose rise to glory matched the blast of an atom bomb’s mushrooming, and whose actions made the understanding of the butterfly effect theory clear to even the dimmest unscientific minds.

Flash forward to the present… Muhammad Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jnr.) passed on aged 74 on the 3rd of June, 2016, and the whole world mourned. In an article published in the Washington Post on the 4th of June, George Foreman (whom he fought in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Kinshasa, Zaire (DRC) in 1974), a former adversary and brother in arms mentions sadly:

     Muhammad Ali 3You dont want to live in a world without Muhammad Ali. Its horrible.

And if a former opponent says this about a man who once punched him to a pulp, then you know that the black boy from Louisville was indeed “The Greatest” as he used to declare in the days when the boxing ring was his home. As said earlier, there is just no prescribed way one can write about a man as great as Muhammad Ali, the only way one can write about him is in reverence; for you cannot write an obituary about a superhero whose name has governed the Guinness Book of Records for over 30 years, who was named the Sportsman of the Century, Sports Personality of the Century by BBC and other houses and institutions of high repute: such heroes never die, they donot go to the grave as we the cannon-fodder of this world’s endless wars do, but rather, they live on and on and on and on until the end of the end of time, finish and klaar!

So, the boy who was urged to learn how to fight before challenging others by reverend police officer Joe Martin will never really die in our die-heart fan hearts, but will live on to be told and retold in endless countless versions that will go on to be printed by various publishing houses of print on various and myriad numbers of media for the world to consume to feed the will to go on and to hold on in the face of a bleak oblivious future that threatens to dim even our brightest dreams to be and to live as God of our forefathers and the universe wish. Muhammad Ali is the greatest man that ever lived in his own right, and now that he has passed on, I believe it right that I should quote briefly of his achievements and life and words.

A brief pictorial biography by Kate Wiant states that Muhammad Ali was married four times:

Wife: SonjiRoi (cocktail waitress, m. 14-Aug-1964, div. 1966) Wife: Belinda Boyd (“Khalilah”, m. 1967, div. 1977) Wife: Veronica Porche (m. 1977, div. 1986) Wife: Yolanda Williams (“Lonnie”, m. 1986)

Muhammad Ali 1

He has seven daughters and two sons. His daughter Laila followed in his footsteps and became a boxer in 1999; she is an undefeated super middleweight boxer. Some speculate that due to the many injuries he endured throughout his career, he developed Parkinson’s disease. He has raised substantial funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Centre in Phoenix, Arizona. His efforts have extended to supporting the Special Olympics and Make a Wish Foundation. He has helped many in need throughout the world, and in 1998, he was elected United Nations Messenger of Peace due to his efforts in developing countries. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005. He also received the President’s Award from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) for his work in public service. He carried the torch for the 1996 Olympics.


In the same class as the iconic Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali was always a pacifist and humanitarian, as is seen by his refusal to enlist in the American army during the Vietnam War which led to his licence being revoked and he was suspended from professional boxing for his refusal because he did not believe in the war. I am sure the work of Ali cannot be covered in brief biographies, and so I find it fitting that I should fill the rest of this piece with his beautiful quotes, the first of which comes from his autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly penned in unison with his daughter:

When I looked in the mirror I was proud of what I saw, but there were many Black people who didn’t want to be Black anymore. Little Black boys and girls had no public role models. We didn’t have any heroes who looked like us. There was no one for us to identify with, and we didn’t know where we fit in. (The Soul of a Butterfly)

 Everything that God created has a purpose. The sun has a purpose. The clouds have a purpose. Rain has a purpose. Trees have a purpose. Animals have a purpose; even the smallest insects, and fish in the sea have a purpose. (The Soul of a Butterfly)

Regardless of how large or small, we were all born to accomplish a certain task. It is the knowledge of that purpose that enables every soul to fulfil itself. One person with knowledge of his life’s purpose is more powerful than ten thousand working without that knowledge. (The Soul of a Butterfly)

Don’t Count the Days; Make the Days Count. (The Soul of a Butterfly)

Muhammad Ali was deeply serious as he was very witty and humorous; some of the lighter vein quotes include these:

I am so bad I make medicine sick


If I wasn’t a boxer, I wouldn’t be famous. If I wasn’t famous, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.


Muhammad Ali could speak , speak far better than many of us can dare to speak, and he knew himself far more than many of us will ever get to know of themselves. I just wish we could follow his example and live our lives to the full, according to the purpose God set out for us, like Muhammad Ali taught. For those as he is, we write no eulogies, compose no threnodies or dirges; for those as he is never die but live on to be shared as folklore around fires to inspire future human genrations into being better humans: float on butterfly, though the pain of your passing stings as would the sting of a bee to me. Float on…



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