One of my greatest childhood memories has to be the day we all got up super early and lined up in front of our television to watch Muhammad Ali fight Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship of the world in Manila. The year was 1975 and for many Muslim majority countries like Iran, Ali was already a great champion.

I never forget the excitement in our living room in Tehran as Ali was declared the winner. We jumped up and down and celebrated the win as though the victory was ours. It is a shame that my father is not alive to tell me, in his own words, why he admired Ali so much when he generally disapproved of both boxing and celebrity worshipping.

I guess, for him, Ali was the loud voice that dared speak out against the white supremacist attitude that assumed blacks and browns of this world were inferior.

Ali was not afraid to be part of the countercurrent in the US that questioned America's hypocrisy as the guardian of democracy and justice in the world.


Iranians, of course, had a first-hand experience of this hypocrisy. In 1953, an American-orchestrated, British-planned coup d'tat, overthrew people's beloved Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and deprived Iran of its only chance for democracy.

Ali bravely used his platform to speak about social justice and politics to a global audience.

We were part of that audience and we listened with intent.

In 1967, Ali famously refused to be drafted to Vietnam. As a result he was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison. He remained free on appeal but was disallowed to box for three years.

Unable to fight, Ali took to speaking at college campuses to explain his refusal to fight in Vietnam. "Why should they ask me to go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n****r."

In 1990, Ali used his popularity in the Middle East to secure the release of 15 American hostages held by Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Gulf War. Defying the odds and the American Government, he travelled to Iraq, despite suffering from Parkinson's disease, and negotiated the release of hostages with Saddam.

Many sports heroes today shy away from politics or taking a stand. Ali was prepared to risk everything he had, including his immense popularity, to stand up for what he believed.

Ali was indeed "The Greatest", not because of the power of his fist but the courage of his convictions. Ali taught many that an essential step in the struggle towards equality and freedom was a total self-belief.

Hana Yasmeen Ali, one of Ali's nine children, remembers him as a loving, dedicated father who would read to her before bed.

"It was not my father's heavyweight championships that made him great; it was not his Olympic success, or his victory over the government," Hana wrote.

"His greatness lies in his ability to keep love in his heart through the upheavals of life. His greatness is in his courage, it's in his strength, and it's in his compassion."

The world is poorer without Ali in it.