Fiercely competitive from a young age, when boxer Muhammad Ali had his application for a professional licence rejected because of diabetes, he dealt a knockout blow to discrimination in sport.
Balance cover star, Muhammad, talks about overcoming challenges to achieve your dreams.
Has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 20 years
“I don’t suffer from diabetes, I live with diabetes.”
Muhammad Ali’s journey with diabetes
- Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes aged five years old.
- Was a sporty child who grew up playing football and attending karate lessons.
- Became interested in boxing aged 12 and begged his parents to let him take up the sport.
- His father, Zahid, was told by the boxing club that, while his son was able to box, he would have to sit on the sidelines during training.
- Applied for a professional boxing licence in 2015, but had his licence rejected because he has Type 1 diabetes.
- After a three-year campaign with the support of Diabetes UK and Dr Ian Gallen, he received a professional boxing licence.
- Made history when he became the first boxer with Type 1 diabetes to box professionally.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my parents knew absolutely nothing about it. It was something new to our family.
I remember we had a diabetes nurse, Jo, who was so comforting to my mum. She taught her what to do and what not to do. She would visit the house to check up on me and became my mum’s friend. It was like I had someone with me at all times.
My mum made friends with other mums who had diabetic children, and when they got together, they’d speak about diabetes rather than what was going on in the soaps! My mum educated herself about the condition by trial and error.
My first diabetes-related setback came when I was training for my first amateur boxing match and I had my amateur licence rejected because of my diabetes. All my school friends were looking forward to coming and watching my first fight, and I was devastated. I was fit and healthy and didn’t feel like I had a special condition. People kept saying, ‘why can’t you box?’ and I had to keep repeating that it was because of my diabetes. I felt left out and alienated.
Today, I wouldn’t say I suffer from diabetes – it’s been a challenge to me, but I don’t suffer. It’s about educating myself and overcoming the challenges the condition presents. I don’t think of diabetes as an illness. It’s something you’ve got to control. You know what foods you should be eating and how much insulin you have to take to control your sugar levels. People make it out to be a terrible illness but it’s not – it’s down to you and how you control your symptoms.
Friends and family
I was driving to the gym for my final sparring session before my fight when I got a phone call from my boxing manager, who said, ‘Ali have they got something mixed up here? The board are saying you are diabetic and they can’t grant you a licence.’
I was absolutely fuming. I was devastated. I phoned my manager and family friend, Asad Shamim. He said, ‘don’t worry about it, keep training, keep your head down. We’re going to challenge the board.’
Asad got a solicitor and contacted Dr Ian Gallen, a consultant physician and endocrinologist with a specific interest in the management of diabetes in people who want to exercise or compete in sport.
I was given Dr Gallen’s details in 2016, but I thought he wouldn’t be able to help me and that I was done with boxing.
Asad said, ‘what are you playing at? You’re wasting your talent. The only thing that Dr Gallen can say is that you can’t box. You won’t get hurt from him saying that.’
So I went to see Dr Gallon in February 2017, because Asad forced me to. He said, ‘look, it’s creating history. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, open doors for others.’
Then, Asad got in touch with Diabetes UK, who wrote letters to the board saying I was the victim of discrimination and that I was fit to fight.
After everything I’ve overcome, I’m proud of being diabetic. It’s created adversity for me and that has given me that extra bit of fight.
What has helped me most?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family, my manager Asad Shamim, my manager, Alex Matvienko and the support of Diabetes UK.
Asad made me realise that if you hide away, nobody can support you. Having my professional boxing licence rejected was a challenge to overcome, and we did it together – Asad, Dr Gallen and Diabetes UK.
Diabetes and boxing are both about discipline. When you’re boxing, you can’t indulge in the wrong foods, you have to stay hydrated and you have to sleep at the right times. I think boxing and having diabetes is an excellent combination because boxing helps me stay as healthy as possible.
Muhammad Ali’s perspective
“I’m proud of being diabetic. It’s created adversity for me and that has given me that extra bit of fight.”
Become a member
If you've been inspired by Muhammad's story you might be interested in becoming a member to help fund important work such as our helpline. Join today.
How we can help you fight discrimination
Call our helpline for rights-based support across a wide range of issues, including employment, driving, and schools. We also have a range of specialist information packs, which empower you to have your voice heard.
Picture credit: Neale Haynes photography