Of punches and punchlines
How Muhammad Ali's wit and sense of humour inspired generations of comedians
As a stand-up comedian, one person who has inspired me is legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, whose 77th birth anniversary was yesterday. Most people have been in awe of his lightning feet movement and a variety of combinations that led to an impressive record of 56 wins (37 knockouts, 19 decisions), five losses (4 decisions, 1 KO) spanning over four decades on pure numbers, though there have been quite a few boxers with a better record. Sugar Ray Robinson had far more wins and Rocky Marciano never lost a fight. Yet, Muhammad Ali was called the greatest of them all. It's simply because his strongest punches were dished out outside the ring either in the form of an articulate joke or a beautiful poem. He redefined the word 'personality'. As a stand-up comedian, I couldn't help but admire his humour and oratory skills. His punch-lines were brave and entertaining.
In many ways, his comedy skills can be compared with that of the legendary American stand-up comedian George Carlin. Just like him, Ali showed that nothing - not the most sensitive social issues or the most trivial annoyances of everyday life - was off-limits for smart comedy.
A befitting example to cite here would be his encounter with racism (as elaborated in Esquire magazine): The Olympic champion, who wore his gold medal, ordered a meal. Ali narrated, "The diner declined food, saying that they didn't serve Negros. I said, that's okay, I don't eat 'em."
My personal favourite, in another instance, was his reply to a journalist, who asked him, "How fast are you, Ali?" He replied, "I am so fast that last night I turned off the switch of my bedroom and I was in bed before the room was dark." Unmatched wit, truly.
A man who could command a ring with the grace of a ballroom dancer, boasting a body that Michelangelo would have loved, he revolutionised the concept of boxing and even human rights. He rose above the boxing ring to become a bold and charismatic speaker, and his unquestionable humour on social issues only added to that charm. At a time when a sizeable number of sportsmen offered nothing but bland statements to the public, Ali stood out like a lion among goats.
He conjured poems that not only rhymed but were also able to convey strong messages with the finest vocabulary. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" is on the tongue of every child that enters the world of boxing. He was able to make people laugh, cry and ponder in the same breath. His oratory skills were so charming and entertaining that most people would tune in to listen to him talk rather than watch his fight.
He was also one of the best showmen. His feet moved in the ring like he was moonwalking to Billie Jean; he would slide and glide on the boxing canvas. He had the signature feet shuffle that every boxer apes to date. The shuffle was so swift and quick, it kept leaving his opponent guessing if he was moving forward or backwards.
Today, Muhammad Ali has earned several titles - Louisville Lip, the people's champion, an all-time great. I would dare to say that he would have held all these titles even if he hadn't been a boxer. Perhaps he would have become an entertainer and outshone most other artistes. While it's his punches that helped Muhammad Ali rise to fame, he will be remembered for his punchlines. As he once said, "Comedy is a funny way of being serious. My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world."