Who is Marcellus and why does he matter

Published on: 9 Dec, 2018

We live in era defined by majoritarianism and social-media driven consensus. In such an age we seek inspiration from the one of the greatest warriors of the 20 th Century, Cassius Marcellus Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali.

“I know where I am going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want.”Muhammad Ali

Who is Marcellus?

Marcellus means “little warrior” in Latin but for many of us in India the only Marcellus we know is Cassius Marcellus Clay better known as Muhammad Ali. This man’s career, his beliefs and his actions inside and outside the boxing ring make him an inspiration for middle class professionals like us who are trying to build something greater than ourselves with modest resources. This great boxer’s triumphs were more mental than physical and it is therefore poignant that the only fight he really lost was to Parkinson’s, a degenerative disorder which attacks the mind.

The warrior and his legendary accomplishments

The broad trajectory of Muhammad Ali’s life is well known and memorably captured in David Remnick’s Pullitzer Prize winning 1999 biography “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” (later made into a movie).

Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was born in 1942 in the racially segregated south of the United States in Louisville, Kentucky, and started training as an amateur boxer at the age of 12. In 1960, he won Gold at the Rome Olympics as a light heavyweight. He turned professional immediately and converted to Islam. Three years later, in 1964, in what remains one of the biggest upsets in boxing and one of the greatest fights ever seen, he beat Sonny Liston – a fearsomely powerful boxer – to become the world champion for the first time. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble,” Cassius Clay said in 1964, before his fight with Sonny Liston.

After becoming world champion, Clay could have played the role of a well behaved, good looking black man who curries favour with the establishment in return for sponsorship. Instead, he changed his name to “Muhammad Ali” to leave behind his “slave name” and more importantly align himself to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in America.

Then in 1966, Ali refused to be drafted into the US military, citing his religious beliefs, and opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam. Ali was arrested by the US authorities, found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his titles by the World Boxing Federation. Ali took the authorities to the Supreme Court which overturned his conviction in 1971.

What followed was equally epic. Ali’s records through the 1970s of beating 21 boxers for the world heavyweight title (shared with Joe “Black Bomber” Louis), as well as winning 14 unified title bouts (shared with former welterweight champion José Napoles), were unbeaten for 35 years. Muhammad Ali is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine “Fighter of the Year” six times. Ali was ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.

Two of Ali’s title fights from the 1970s have been turned into books and movies: the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with the until then undefeated George Foreman (a fight which Ali won but got beaten so badly that he urinated blood for two days thereafter) and the 1975 “Thriller in Manilla” with Joe Frazier (the contest’s name is derived from Ali’s rhyming boast that the fight would be “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila”).

The legacy

Long before he became a legend, Ali stood up for causes he believed in knowing full well that he would have to pay a price. “When he refused to fight in Vietnam, saying, “I have no quarrel with the Vietcong”, it was 1966, two years before the first sizeable protests [regarding the Vietnam War]…When he declared his membership of the Nation of Islam [in 1961], he wasn’t just denounced by tattooed bikers and cross- eyed Texans. His album was removed from the shops by Columbia, and the boxing authorities sought to strip him of his title.” (Source:https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/muhammad-ali-is-a-hero-but-notjust-in-the-ring-1132296.html) [brackets are ours]

For refusing to fight in Vietnam, Ali lost five years at the peak of his career. That did not deter him from training hard and going back into the ring in 1972. Well past his peak, Ali repeatedly took on younger, more powerful fighters in high profile title fights, soaked their punches, tired them out and then pulverised them. Both George Foreman (in 1974) and Joe Frazier (in 1975) lost to a man who was mentally stronger than them although they were physically much stronger. If you watch the documentary “When We Were Kings” of the 1974 Ali vs Foreman fight, you will see that Foreman was so powerful that each time he hit the 100 pound punching bag, the trainer holding the bag would wince

Just as important as the cerebral fighting was the generosity that Ali showed in reaching to the underprivileged in Africa and Asia. Well before philanthropy became fashionable, Ali started distributing his fortune to lepers in Asia, Palestinian refugees in the Middle East and Parkinson’s victims the world over. By the time Ali died, he had given away much of his fortune to philanthropic causes.

The lessons from the legend

Even for those of us who might only have a fraction of the courage of this African- American legend, his willingness to stand up for his beliefs is an inspiration. Ali was a was a conscientious objector and gave up virtually everything – his career, his title, most of his income – to stand up for what he believed in, namely, the refusal to kill innocent people from another country just because his Government demanded that he do so. Whilst our challenges might be more prosaic – hinging as they do around our clients, our families and our beliefs around how money should be managed – in our willingness to put everything on the line, we seek to learn from the example set by this fighter

However, Ali’s life also has a resonance for us beyond the narrow confines of our jobs. In a world where majorities are intent upon using the might of the state to assert their dominance on minorities, Ali remains an inspiration. In fact, the African- American athletes who are standing upto Donald Trump at present are taking a leaf out of Ali’s playbook. Mark Steel of The Independent, in an article celebrating Ali being voted “sports personality of the century” wrote: “His persona, his fighting ability and his beliefs dictated each other’s technique. He argued as he boxed, allowing his opponents to exhaust themselves while responding with the occasional perfectly aimed jab before demolishing them in a flawless flurry that was too fast for the eye to follow. And his principles fashioned his boxing. “Stand up white America,” he roared at the prostrate Floyd Patterson, after toppling the man who white America had hoped would win back the title from the Nation of Islam.” (Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/muhammad-ali-is-a-hero-but-notjust-in-the-ring-1132296.html)

“What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life,” Ali said at a news conference in 1984.
Muhammad Ali died on 30 th June 2016. A friend said: “Muhammad had continued to say he was not afraid of death.”

For more on Marcellus visit http://marcellus.in/

Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this email in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services

Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.

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