Muhammad Ali, Who Stood Tall When His World Expected Him to Bow

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Once he lost his legacy to counteract the day’s dominant forces, he became a figure fit for appropriation, easy fodder for quotes and images on t-shirts and posters.

'Cat's Cradle' (Muhammad Ali) by Henry C. Casselli, Jr., oil on canvas, 1981. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

‘Cat’s Cradle’ (Muhammad Ali) by Henry C. Casselli, Jr., oil on canvas, 1981. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

He took a few cups of love.
He took one table spoon of patience.
One table spoon… tea-spoon of generosity.
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter.
One pinch of concern.
And then he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith.
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime.
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.

This is how Muhammad Ali wanted to be remembered when he spoke to Sir David Frost in a 1974 BBC interview. He was days away from one of the biggest fights of his career, against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. The Rumble in the Jungle, they called it. Ali was in top form as he rambled on about everything that had come to define him; he carried that form into the fight and knocked Foreman out in the eighth round. Speaking ahead of the contest, Ali was a calm soothsayer as he predicted a knockout win for himself.

Ali passed away on June 3 at the age of 74, at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. A family spokeswoman said he had succumbed to septic shock.

If anything could capture Ali at his peak, the interview did a good job of it in about half an hour. It had moments that conveyed all that you needed to know about him. The boxer, the radical man, the ambassador for Nation of Islam (NOI), the entertainer, the poet who could ad-lib his verses. Sceptics would doubt his claim of being guided by a supreme being, Allah, but it seemed he was in hold of a spirit stronger than him. Ali spoke with the exuberance and resoluteness of a person who believed his path was the only one to truth. There were instances where he seemed on the brink of madness as he got up from his chair and punched at thin air menacingly; this, however, could not be further from the truth.

Ali knew what he was doing. He was not just playing to the gallery, although his act did entertain the small crowd. Ali’s show was about a black man rising with no intention of finding his way back. By the time of the historic fight, Ali had already established himself as a symbol of Black Power. His refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War in spite of the severe punishment  that came his way – his boxing title was taken away – had endeared him to what he called “his people.”

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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? No, I am not going ten thousand miles form home to help murder and burn another poor national simply to continue the domination of what slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. … If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.

– ‘Muhammad Ali Speaks Out Against the Vietnam War‘, from Voices of a People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Amove.

Ali had chosen his path after meeting Elijah Muhammad, the leader of NOI. He became convinced that his Christian faith had let him down. To sever his ties with Christianity, he changed his “slave name” Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. The choice of the new name was explained away literally: “Muhammad means worthy of all praises, Ali means the most high.”

Ali chose Islam since he thought that Elijah Muhammad was the only person who could lead black people to realise the dream of self-determination. As he learnt more about the centuries-old subjugation of his fellow brothers and sisters, Ali developed an intensely rebellious predisposition. ‘‘I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant, the nigger the white folks didn’t like,” he famously said in 1970.

However, Ali’s links with the NOI and his subsequent rejection of the Vietnam War brought vitriol upon him. He was roundly criticised in public for his views and portrayed as a loose cannon who had lost his way. Ali’s words and actions bewildered large sections of American society, mostly white, who had never encountered political views, let alone radical opposition to the status quo, in a sportsperson. He inspired others –  Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised a defiant Black Power salute at the medals ceremony of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, for example – and they too had to face a vicious backlash.

Boxing’s troubling history further informed Ali’s life. Black slaves had been hired as prizefighters by their rich white owners for decades. The symbolic meaning of black men beating each other to make a white man richer was not lost on Ali. The sense of discrimination made him believe in a separatist ideal that saw little room for integration between the races, as he categorically said in that interview to Sir Frost.

Repulsed by his political views, the media ran a vicious campaign that sought to defile Ali’s reputation. The days leading up to his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston, and the ones after, were dominated by discussions over his links to the NOI. Ali’s resounding win over Liston to gain the world heavyweight title was overshadowed by his name change and rejection of Christianity.

Many in the media continued to call him Cassius Clay. Ali, in the firm belief that his fights were not against a particular boxer but the unjust system he fought, took his angst to the ring. Ernie Terrell in 1967 was at the wrong end of the angry man’s fury. As he landed blows on his hapless opponent, Ali shouted, “What’s my name?” He later revealed that the question was not meant for Terrell alone.

Muhammad Ali v. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, Houston, Texas, 1967. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, Houston, Texas, 1967. Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ali fed off the excitement and derision he aroused in people. As seen in the 1974 BBC interview, Ali could switch from the height of his anger at the injustice in the world to a witticism that everyone could appreciate. A slight jab to put you down after raining ferocious punches.

As someone wrote once, to be a boxer is to suffer in every conceivable way. Ali’s suffering became pronounced in 1984, three years after he retired. The legendary boxer became a victim of Parkinson’s disease. Since then, while the aura of his presence never went away, the endearing energy and vivacity slowly left him. It was a tragedy. An articulate human being became a pale shadow of his former self. His spirit flickered occasionally but it lay to rest without a shout on Friday.

There was little of the dancing and daring to see that had marked him out. It suits the narrative to claim the sport that gave him everything consumed him as well. However, Ali’s doctors maintained he succumbed to a genetic condition. But he did not fall alone. The rug was gradually removed from under the feet of his legacy.

The enduring image of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games was of a tearful Ali lighting the Olympic Torch. A replacement medal was also awarded to him by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as he no longer had his gold from the 1960 Rome Games. What happened to the original medal is the subject of apocryphal tales that range from the boxer throwing his medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a ‘whites-only’ restaurant to the simple possibility of him losing it. However, his emergence on television sets worldwide gave Ali a new image that stood at odds with how he was perceived by many in the world during his heydays.

Ali was seen at the Atlanta Olympics as a man who spread ideas of love and peace. The conflict that made him was as far away as his boxing career. Ali came to be embraced by the world once he lost his powers that helped him to promote his politics. This was not a consequence Ali was responsible for. Rather, the dominant forces of the day chose to present him in a light that suited their world view.

Although Ali sometimes spoke against the US War on Terror, as he receded from public life his battles were consigned to history books. A man with Parkinson’s disease was not only fighting his internal demons; he had little power over the manipulative forces that encircled him. Hollywood 9/11, a group that guided the entertainment industry’s efforts when the War on Terror was launched, was able to rope Ali in for promoting a message that sought to distance the US government from charges of Islamophobia.

Ali became a figure fit for appropriation. In some ways, his fate was much similar to that of Che Guevara. They came to be easy fodder for quotes and images on t-shirts, cups and posters once they lost their agency to counteract forces they had fought against. The manicured message was emptied of its meaning. While Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were shot, Ali could do or say little. His photos said more but meant little. In some cases, they meant the opposite of what they should. Those souvenirs stood as silent victims of the violence carried out on Ali’s legacy. There was a time when he used to throw the punches.

‘‘A lot of fighters, when they quit no one ever hears of them again. But I’ve gotten bigger since I quit … people from all over the world are writin’ (to/of) me.” Ali has become even bigger now that he has left the world. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which he’s not a globally-known figure. His legacy is a monument that will exist as long as humankind does. Very few sportspersons deserve to be named alongside the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Then again, is it fair to call Muhammad Ali a sportsperson alone?

Boxing was Ali’s platform to spread his ideas worldwide. He stood tall when his world expected him to bow. He made it bend to his demands. Sadly, his world did the same to him. When he lay low, the chance was pounced upon to distort his legacy. His death presents us with a chance to remember him for the man he was. This is what we owe to Muhammad Ali.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.

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    Though Ali is synonymous with boxing, he is also synonymous with black revolt against white supremacy. He is the true human face of America where oppression of all shades continues to this day. This is a fitting tribute.