How boxing helped shape legends Mandela and Ali

John Wight on how two of the most important men in history used the sweet science for self-improvement and advancing their message. 

Nelson Mandela's death resulted in an outpouring of tributes and veneration such as no other political or world figure could inspire, perhaps with the exception of Muhammad Ali. Like Mandela, Ali stood up against racial and social injustice as a young man and thereby transcended the confines of his background to become an international icon. 

What Mandela - or Madiba as he was and is more affectionately known - also had in common with Ali was his love of boxing. For Ali boxing was the platform that enabled him to touch the hearts of millions at home and abroad, both as the heavyweight champion of the world in the ring and a champion in the struggle against racial oppression outside it. 

Mandela, meanwhile, used the sport to build the fitness, discipline, and mental strength he called upon to help him in his monumental struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In his autobiographical work Long Walk To Freedom Mandela's love of the sport shines through. 

"I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it," he wrote. "I was intrigued by how one moved one's body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match." 

He goes on to say: "Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant ... I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training. "I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter." 

Mandela revealed that he was "never an outstanding boxer," but then he didn't have to be in order to use the sport to his advantage. 

"It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle," he added. As a way of taking his mind off his participation in the struggle for the freedom of his people and to replenish his strength, boxing was key in forging the character and honing the determination he needed to prevail against the seemingly insurmountable weight of apartheid. 

In this boxing served not only a physical purpose but, just as importantly, a mental and emotional one. Ali likewise used his experience in the ring to help him overcome his struggles outside it, not least of which the years he spent battling his own government over his refusal to be drafted into the US armed forces to serve in Vietnam. 

Ali said: "Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even." Both Mandela's and Ali's personalities were informed by the injustice which they and their people suffered as Africans in white-dominated societies during the '50s and '60s. 

The boxing gym in such circumstances was a sanctuary, offering a temporary escape and providing the means to hold on to their self-esteem in the process of pushing themselves physically and mentally while forging bonds of human solidarity with their respective sparring partners and gym-mates. 

In his later autobiographical work Conversations With Myself, consisting of letters, interviews, and fragments of his writings, Mandela recounts his fond memories of the gym he trained in while living in Soweto as a young man. 

The gym was called the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre or DOCC and Mandela trained there in the early '50s. In a letter to his daughter Zinzi, written while incarcerated on Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail, he wrote: "The walls of the DOCC are drenched with the sweet memories that will delight me for years." 

His daughter never received the letter, however, as it was confiscated by the prison authorities, but it illustrates the central importance of the gym in the life of this then young revolutionary leader. Just days before Mandela passed away Ali paid tribute to him in an article to mark the upcoming release this Christmas of the movie of his life Long Walk To Freedom. 

"I know something about protest," Ali wrote. "I know well the feelings and questions that run through the mind of those who stand against a system, braving everything for a cause. It is never easy. The personal price is high, but the greatest of people persevere for the greater good. 

"Modern South Africa is built on the back of Mr Mandela's sacrifice. "It still amazes me, even to this day, that a man could give up two and half decades of his life, emerge from prison and forgive his imprisoners." 

Truly, it is something to contemplate, the bond shared by two of history's great icons - men who may have been born and lived thousands of miles apart on different continents yet were brothers in the struggle against oppression and injustice, whose characters were forged to a large extent in the squared circle. 

Perhaps it was just as another great revolutionary, Irishman Thomas McSwiney, said. "Victory is not won by those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most." While boxing has long been considered a metaphor for life - its struggles, defeats and victories - life can likewise be said to be a metaphor for boxing.

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