Dhaka Tribune Sports (DTS): What is your first memory of Muhammad Ali?
Zafar Sobhan (ZS): Actually, just about my very first memory in life is sitting with my father and brothers at my grandmother’s house and watching the “Thrilla in Manila” on TV. This must have been 1975. It is certainly the first vivid one. I remember that they used to cut away to ads in between rounds and when they came back from the ad after the 14th round, the fight was over! This was because Joe Frazier’s trainer had thrown in the towel before the 15th round started to save his fighter from more damage.
DTS: What caught your eye when you first saw him?
ZS: We all loved Muhammad Ali. Apart from his preternatural talent as a boxer and a showman, he identified with the people of the Third World and was a spokesperson and lodestar for us. In fact, for years as a child I thought that he was a Bangladeshi and remember how shocked I was when my mother gently informed me that actually he was American!
DTS: Did your father’s boxing background also draw you towards Ali?
ZS: My father had been a champion boxer in his schooldays and took his boxing very seriously. So we all did too. We used to watch and follow boxing from a very early age, and I even learned how to box very young as well. While other kids were learning world capitals etc my brothers and I knew the names of all the heavyweight boxing champs starting with John L Sullivan. We all followed boxing as obsessively as we did football and cricket, and still do, to a large extent.
DTS: Do you remember anything about his visit to Bangladesh in 1978?
ZS: Sadly, we weren’t living in Bangladesh in 1978 and so I only was able to hear about it from my friends and family. I was green with envy and disappointment. It was only afterwards that I truly understood what a momentous visit it had been and how it had been very much in character for him. It was a wonderful gesture of Third World solidarity and meant and still means a lot to Bangladeshis. People still remember that visit here and talk about it.
DTS: Why do you think he is the greatest? What stood out for you?
ZS: He was the greatest. Not only was he a supremely talented boxer but his entire life story was an inspiration: How he came out of Lousiville in the deep South and battled racism and prejudice his whole life. How he was a spokesperson for black Americans in their fight for equal rights and dignity. The abuse he suffered growing up and early in his career can scarcely be imagined today. The fear he engendered among large swathes of the white American population and the fervour and love he inspired among the black community and around the world. His outspoken refusal to bow down to white supremacy. His embrace of Islam. His commitment to the down-trodden. His fellow feeling for the impoverished and disadvantaged around the world. And of course, the crowning glory of his life: His refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. His refusal to take part in an unjust war being waged against people of colour. He put his money where his mouth was. He was stripped of his title, banned from boxing, even thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. But he stood by his guns. He did the right thing. What a man.
DTS: What was bigger for you, Ali the boxer, the athlete or the personality?
ZS: I think Muhammad Ali transcended boxing and transcended sport. It was his story, his courage, and his outspokenness that made him who he was. We should never forget Ali the boxer. Without question one of the all-time greats. Very possibly the greatest of them all. But he was so much more than that. And that is where his true greatness lay.
DTS: What does his passing away mean to the world?
ZS: This is a sad day for the world. We have lost one of our greatest sons. There will never be another one like him. But we should continue to take inspiration from his life and take heart from the fact that by the time he passed away the entire world - including those who had once reviled him - acknowledged him as a great man who had been a true leader and moral lodestar. It shows how far we have come as a people. There is a lesson in his life for all of us to take away.