From the anguish of watching a dream crumble before his eyes, to the realization of wanting to do whatever it takes to put the pieces back together, the last three years have taken Muhammad Ali every which way and back.
The ride has been long, and not without its bumps, but now Ali is out the other side, the real fighting begins and he’s relishing it. For the 30 minutes we spend talking, Ali only gets more buoyant as the conversation turns to his boxing career and to his dream of becoming a world champion.
But before he had even laced up a pair of gloves, or even set foot in a gym, something happened that seemingly would have put that dream out of the question. When Ali was just four, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes – a serious lifelong condition that causes his blood glucose levels to rise and requires daily monitoring.
Muhammad Ali fought three years for his boxing license as it was rejected due to his diabetes despite the severity of his condition, Ali never allowed it to hamper his love for competing growing up. ‘As a kid, it didn’t hold me back. I wouldn’t let it,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I always played sport, I played football, I took part in karate for a very long time, I’ve always been involved in sports because it actually helps control my condition.’I’ve always believed that in sports you have got to be disciplined.
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Whenever I know I have sparring I always get an early night to make sure I’m not tired so I can perform as well as possible. In a nutshell, sport taught me discipline and if you’re diabetic you have got to be disciplined, too.
‘Because you have to monitor your sugar levels at the right time, consume the right foods and have the correct rest. It is a lifestyle that benefits me as a boxer and my condition, so the balance works well.
‘With a name like his you would have thought boxing was his forecalling, but it was actually more of an afterthought. Karate was Ali’s first passion in life before he developed a penchant for the sweet science in his early adolescent years. From that point onwards, it was gloves and gumshields instead of Karategis. But his love for the sport has not always been reciprocated. In fact, boxing was half the problem. ‘When I was 15 I had trouble getting my amateur license because of my diabetes,’ Ali explains. ‘It took me two years to get my license after fighting for it. They had no real reason for not giving me it, it was simply because I was diabetic.
Ali is now preparing to make his professional debut after winning the battle for his license’I got my license at the age of 17 and have not looked back since. I have always been serious about boxing since then because you can’t play boxing, or you’ll end up getting hurt.’
Ali went on to have an impressive amateur career, notably winning the Haringey Box Cup in 2013, but his biggest fight was yet to come. In 2015, he planned to turn professional and had a date fixed to make his debut. The news spread like wildfire in his hometown of Rochdale. Ali was given local-boy-done-good status before he had even done anything. His debut was the talk of the town, but it all went quiet 10 days out from the fight when Ali received a phone call from his manager.’It was absolutely devastating,’ Ali remembers.
‘I was days away from making my professional debut and my hometown of Rochdale had got behind me, everybody was buying tickets and it was like an uproar within the town, everyone was looking forward to my professional debut. I remember driving home after my final sparring session when I got the call.
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‘My manager phoned me and said: ‘Ali, have the board got something mixed up here, or are you diabetic?’ I said: ‘Yes I’m diabetic but what’s that got to do with anything? I passed my medicals last week.’ He said: ‘Well the board are declining your license.”I just thought: ‘No way, this can’t be happening again’, but it was, they had rejected my license. He said: ‘I’m sorry but we are going to have to postpone your debut.’ It was horrible, I remember driving back to the gym and my trainer himself was absolutely gutted. I was in the shape of my life but they weren’t giving me my license.
The 25-year-old has loved boxing since a teenager and his dream was to make it professional’The funny thing is my coach forgot I was diabetic, other people in the gym didn’t know because I didn’t show any signs. I mentioned it to him but he forgot and I didn’t think it would ever be a problem anyway.
I don’t really suffer from it. It’s a controlled condition and it’s normality for me. When my coach found out again he said: ‘No way are you diabetic!’ I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah I am!’ He just said: ‘Bloody hell, Ali’, and I had been training with him for over two years.’Ali had never allowed his condition to define him, but in the eyes of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) he could not box professionally with diabetes.
He was given no medical explanation and was told they were the rules and that was that. For a brief moment that was where his boxing career ended. Ali gave away £800 worth of boxing gear to local lads and told them to put it to good use.B ut fighting is all Ali has ever known and in moments of solitude, he wondered: what if? Eventually, those speculations evolved into actions.
As his great namesake famously said: ‘The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.’So, he got out bed and got on the phone. He built a new team around him to help construct a case to convince the BBBofC to overturn their decision. He spoke with Sir Steve Redgrave’s consultant, Dr. Ian Gallan, who had helped the Olympic rower win gold at the Sydney Games in 2000 after he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Gallan contacted the board on Ali’s behalf and explained there is no reason why he shouldn’t be able to gain his license. They went back and forth for years. At times it would have felt as though Ali was tasked with rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Progress was slow, but Ali saw a light at the end of the tunnel and in June this year he became the first person in the UK with diabetes to be granted a professional boxing license after a three-year battle.
Ali (second right) with his manager and Dr. Ian Gallen after being granted his license, Ali has seen diabetes care change almost beyond recognition since he was first diagnosed and if it were not for the advancement in technology, his dream may never have been given a chance.
‘The invention of the CGM (continuous glucose monitor) has been a great thing because I don’t always have to prick my finger to check my blood glucose, now I just scan a monitor,’ he says.’I have it near my hip, basically on my buttocks, all I have to do is scan over it and it checks my blood glucose within a second. The board had no idea about it, it’s new technology and that is why I think my license was rejected.
When I had a meeting with the board, they basically had no idea of how to go about monitoring my diabetes, for example during a boxing bout if they needed to check my sugar levels, they couldn’t take my gloves off and prick my finger you know to get my blood, but I showed the board my CGM machine and it didn’t take a second to check my sugar levels and they were amazed.’So now at the end of every round the doctor will just scan my monitor and if I need insulin then they will inject some, and that will happen at the end of every round.
The board just didn’t know about that kind of advanced technology and that it would work so fast. It’s incredible how fast the diabetic technology is moving and it has really helped me.’Despite having to pause his life for boxing for so many years, Ali is not bitter about it all. In fact, he’s the opposite. To him, it has all been worth it. Sometimes you have to take the rain to get the rainbow and Ali is living, breathing proof of that. He is, in some ways, grateful for the experience, too. Looking back, he can admit it will stand him in good stead for other hurdles to come, but he isn’t envisioning any.
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Ali has endured a turbulent three years but cannot wait to get his boxing career started there were, understandably, plenty moments of pessimism in the three years it took Ali to get to where he wanted to be. But along the way, something in him altered. Almost overnight, his outlook changed and the only way was up.
Now, it is all about sustaining that by surrounding himself with the right people and having a winner’s mentality. To him, that is the formula for success in the ring. He regularly reminds himself to ‘Never give up,’ ‘Keep the faith,’ and ‘Live the lifestyle,’ as if they are commandments. He truly believes this way of thinking will help him triumph. They are his mantras now. And who knows? They’ve got him this far; with a professional boxing license and a date – September 15 – penciled in for his debut. At more than one point in Ali’s life that has seemed impossible.
But he isn’t content for his story to end there. Now, at 25, his goal is to inspire people to overcome their adversities and turn their dreams into realities by reaching the pinnacle of the sport.’I could have been on the verge of a British title fight by now, I was really upset at first, but I look at it as a blessing in disguise,’ he says. ‘Everybody respects me as a diabetic, nobody knew at the start, but now Diabetes UK are helping me, I’m a sports ambassador for them and for the International Diabetes Federation. I get to support my condition now so it has worked out good for me. Because I also get to support people who are growing up and suffer from diabetes and I get to show them that they can still accomplish their dream.
Ali has had to pause his life for years for boxing and now wants to make up for lost time’I just want to inspire people and to tell them never to give up on their dreams. Even if it is not diabetes, if it is any condition, just never give up on your dreams because there is always a way around to the other side.
Just control your condition and you will eventually get there. Surround yourself around positive people and never give up.’I always had it in the back of my head that one day I will shine and become a positive role model for people. I live by the slogan of: ‘Never give up, it might not happen today but it can happen tomorrow’, and I will become a world champion by having faith in that. That is my goal, I want to get to the top of the tree.
It would send out a message around the world, it will go global if I did that.’I have my license, I’m making my professional debut now, I’m not looking past September 15, I want to win on the night and shine bright and then we will look further. It’s all onwards and upwards from here.’You sense another long journey could be ahead, but Ali is in the business of making up for lost time and knows exactly where he’s heading. You can follow Muhammad Ali on his professional boxing journey by visiting his website here.
His goal is to become world champion and inspire people to never give up on their dreams