Why Muhammad Ali is a symbol of love

The World
Muhammad Ali funeral
Men hold hands ahead of the jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, for the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 9, 2016.

Adrees Latif/Reuters

I was five years old when Muhammad Ali came to Bombay, which is now Mumbai. He had an exhibition against an Indian boxer. My father, my brother and I were in the outdoor stands along with thousands of others.

When the first bell rang, Ali came out dancing. The Indian boxer, however, didn’t move. He seemed stuck to the corner. Even from the stands, we could see that he was scared.

Some laughed, perhaps because it was such a surprise. But it made sense: Ali’s fists were lethal.

We could also see Ali gesturing and talking. He was so far away, no one knew what he was saying. We didn’t even know if the two boxers spoke a common language.

But Ali’s arms kept encouraging his opponent to come in. Finally, our boxer threw a punch, one so light and distant, it wasn’t clear whether it landed. But Ali went reeling, sprawling onto the canvas as if he’d been hit by a brick. Over and over, he kept falling down from the punches. To heighten the drama, Ali would pull himself up by the ropes. We roared with laughter.

Throughout the exhibition, we saw the footwork that made Ali almost invincible. He’d unleash a flurry of punches to show the speed of his hands, but somehow never knocked over his opponent. Without words, we saw kindness, a sense of mischief and humility.

After the fight, people stood in line to meet him. He sat on a chair in a corner of a room. Normally, you would approach someone who pummels people for a living with caution. (Think Mike Tyson.) But, when it was our turn to meet Ali, I ran to him. He lifted me up and kissed me on the cheek. He was the first American I remember meeting.

As a child, I could see that he was a loving man. But as I grew and learned, it’s the path that he took that makes me marvel at his being.

It was only later that I’d learn that he was a descendant of slaves, that he grew up in a dehumanizing Jim Crow South, that four years of his boxing prime were taken from him because he objected to war and that he’d been pilloried for his faith. He could have been scarred and bitter. Instead he came out shining, responding with humanity and righteousness.

On that day in Bombay, Ali, the world’s greatest fighter, became for me a symbol of love.

Matthai Kuruvila Chakko grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, before moving to the United States as a child. He worked as a reporter and now works to improve local government. He lives in Berkeley, California. ​