Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Muhammad Ali – “Boxing and diabetes works a treat for me”

Posted on 12 April 2021 by Dami Adewale

When you are a boxer named Muhammad Ali, one of the first things that comes to mind is a connection to the late great heavyweight champion of the 1960s and 1970s. However, for Muhammad Ali Zahid this is not the case.

There is no boxing history in Zahid’s family and there was no thought of following in the footsteps of Ali, in fact Zahid’s father initially wanted him to stay far away from boxing.

When Zahid, more commonly known as Ali, was five years old he was diagnosed with type one diabetes. A doctor told his parents that Ali had to remain physically active to control his sugar levels, so he took up karate at a young age.

Motivation to Enter the Ring

Before Ali’s first attempt to get into boxing, he needed permission from his parents. When asking his father, Ali was met with the response: “No, no you’re diabetic as it is and it’s a dangerous sport. I don’t want you going down that route”. An interesting position to take considering Ali’s involvement in karate.

Despite this, Ali’s motivation never waned and experiences during his formative years only strengthened his desire to box.

Ali said: “Ricky Hatton fought at MEN arena which is literally a 15 minute drive away from home. We went to watch him against Kostya Tszyu when he fought for the IBF Light Welterweight title and everybody wrote Ricky off.

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“They shut the arena at 12 o’clock midnight, they used the American timing so the fight took place around 2:00, 2:30 in the morning and all of Manchester and Great Britain got behind Ricky Hatton. At that time I said to my dad: “Look, please let me go into boxing, I want people to get behind me” and it was just a strict “No, you can come attend and watch athletes take part.”

That fight had great implications for the boxing scene. An all-out war ending in the 11th round with Tszyu’s corner throwing in the towel. The result meant Hatton claimed the IBF, Ring and lineal titles, reaching the pinnacle of boxing. As a Manchester lad obsessed with the sport, seeing someone from the same place as him reach those heights truly inspired Ali.

Witnessing Amir Khan’s heroics at the Olympics around the same time only spurred Ali on more, until his mother finally allowed him to train. Ali’s father was brought into the equation and approved of Ali’s boxing pursuit as long as he did well in his education.

Yet, after overcoming one challenge, another came at an inopportune stage.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Ali said: “I was supposed to make my debut at 15 as an amateur boxer but being type one diabetic, my boxing license got rejected. I passed all my medicals but the England Boxing board rejected my licence. I continued training hard, stayed focused and after two years I moved to Bury Amateur Boxing Club where Scott Quigg boxed, another world champion, Amir Khan boxed, another world champion, a famous gym.

“Mick Jelley’s the trainer and he watched me train and said: “Look, you’re good enough to become an amateur boxer and I’ll help you get your licence.” I got my amateur boxing licence and the doctors said: “You’re fit enough to box, no problem.” Then England Boxing accepted my medical and I got to box! I won the Harringay Box Cup, the Celtic Box Cup and the University Championships.”

Muhammad Ali in action. Credit: Muhammad Ali

The next step in Ali’s career was to become a professional, but more adversity was on the horizon. In 2015, Ali’s boxing licence was rejected once again. The situation was the same, the doctors had given him the all clear, but this time the England Boxing board was the sticking point.

Ali took matters into his own hands by recruiting a legal team who determined it was discrimination as he was medically fit and approved by doctors. After a three year battle, he got his boxing licence and made his professional debut in September 2018.

When Ali’s pro licence was rejected, it was because the England Boxing board were delving into the unknown. The boxing board had never had a diabetic boxer before who had been granted the professional licence, Ali made history by becoming the first.

Garnering Support for the Cause

Ali used the example of Sir Steve Redgrave to support his case. The retired rower was diagnosed with type two diabetes in 1997 at the age of 35. Whilst competing out in the open sea, a medical helicopter team would fly above Sir Redgrave and other competitors. Yet, if Sir Steve or another rower required medical assistance the helicopter team would have to set the helicopter, get the paramedics, and fly over to the scene.

In Ali’s case, the medical team would be in his corner and it would take them under a minute to provide the support he needed. Through his consultant, Ali sought out the help of Dr Ian Gallen who worked with Sir Steve Redgrave during his career. Dr Gallen was another advocate who echoed the sentiments of Ali’s legal team.

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At the Joseph Parker vs Anthony Joshua fight in March 2018, Ali held a peaceful protest where he gained the support of Joshua’s father. However, the England Boxing board reasoned that they had no way to measure Ali’s sugar levels in between rounds.

Ali said: “If we go back five years ago, you’d prick your finger and then put your blood on to a strip and you can’t unwrap my gloves in a minute. You only get a minute’s rest in between rounds and you can’t unwrap my gloves, take them off and put blood onto a strip it would take far too long.

“There’s the latest technology, the company is sponsoring me as well they’re called FreeStyle Libre and I’ve got like a 2p coin just below my hip, I can put it under my right or my left, I always change it every fortnight because you’ve got to change the sensor.

“If I scan my mobile phone over the sensor, it tells me my sugar levels in under three seconds and it tells you – technology has moved on that much – it tells you if your sugar levels are going up or if they’re going down.”

Current State of Affairs

Ali now trains at the late Oliver Harrison’s boxing gym in Salford. Humphrey Harrison, Oliver’s brother and Ali’s head coach tells him all the time that he can have longevity in the fight game if he keeps his weight down by staying on top of his diet.

Ali said: “Boxing and diabetes works a treat for me, because when I wasn’t boxing and I had the three year break, my sugar levels had gone out of control because I wasn’t physically active. I wasn’t watching what I was consuming because I don’t have to watch my weight now, I’m not competing!

“Now you can see I’m staying hydrated. Prior to this interview I just had broccoli, spinach, chicken fajitas and rice, so I’m consuming good foods and I’m staying within the weight category. I don’t go over by ten pounds out of the welterweight division, this results in me having good sugar levels and keeping my body healthy.”

A Beacon of Hope

As well as signing and making his debut for agency MTK Global in 2019, Ali is also an ambassador for Diabetes UK and the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). A study by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) revealed that people who are diagnosed with chronic health conditions like diabetes are three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those without it. Ali hopes to be an inspiration for all people but especially those with diabetes.

On a talk show after his third fight, leaving his record at 3-0, a caller told Ali to give up boxing because “diabetes is a killer”.

In response, Ali said: “I want to create history by becoming the first diabetic world champion and you’re telling me within my third fight? I’ve not got your mindset; you keep your mindset and your opinion to yourself. I don’t need any negativity, I’m all about being positive and by working hard. I will achieve this and show you that I can become a world champion.”

Training has been hampered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and having diabetes means Ali is high risk. However, Ali has been given the green light to return to training on April 12th. Here’s hoping that he can continue inspiring others to break barriers and achieve great things.

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