The screen from the small black and white television flickered in front of a hall full of excited primary schoolchildren.
We were given time off classes to watch Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, both undefeated boxing legends. Held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8, 1971, it was dubbed the Fight of the Century.
Opinion was divided, for Ali had a polarising effect. I was among the many who disliked Muhammad Ali. I found him brash, arrogant, loud-mouthed, even disrespectful to his opponents. (Joe Frazier himself found it hard to forgive Ali for some of the hurtful words Ali had used against him.) Moreover, Ali had abandoned his Christian roots and upbringing to join the strident Nation of Islam.
Many of my Muslim schoolmates, however, supported their newfound hero, who had embraced Islam and dropped his old ‘slave’ name of Cassius Clay.
In the end, champion Joe Frazier retained his title by a unanimous decision. I was thrilled.
It was only years later that I realised there was another great fight outside the ring, even greater than Ali’s monumental battles with awe-inspiring boxers like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Ali used his fame to speak out against racial discrimination in the United States, along with other outspoken figures such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King.
But it was Ali’s refusal to be drafted to fight in America’s war with Vietnam that pitted him against the US war machine and establishment — and the result was predictable. He was stripped of his champion’s title, losing almost four years of his prime as a boxer (from 25 to 29) simply because he refused to be part of the slaughter of Vietnamese. This was his ultimate sacrifice for his stand on non-violence.