Muhammad Ali is dead. His life at the end was severely restricted by the consequences of repeated blows to his head. The debilitating effects of concussions are now a national topic, beyond boxing, even beyond hockey and football. Ali was a shadow of his former self, better known for his daughter’s boxing successes than for anything he could do or say.
He is universally known for his joyous insistence that “I am the greatest,” an outrageous boast that he first made when he was 18, right after winning the gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Typically it was combined with a taunt to a rival boxer, Floyd Patterson: “Hey Floyd — I seen you! Someday I’m gonna whup you! Don’t you forget, I am the greatest!” He repeated that boast after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964.
For a long time he was the greatest. He was undefeated as a professional until Joe Frazier beat him in 1971. He won back the heavyweight championship twice. But in his prime, Ali transcended his sport by insisting loudly that sports, politics and race were inevitably intertwined. He used the outsized personality he created as a boxer to turn the spotlight on racism.
As Cassius Clay, he had felt the lash of American racism as it was still practiced in the postwar South. His mother remembered a time when her little son was refused a drink of water in a store. A decade later, returning to Louisville after winning the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was refused service at a whites-only restaurant.
Although Cassius Marcellus Clay had been an abolitionist politician, who published an anti-slavery newspaper before the Civil War in Lexington, Kentucky, the young Clay changed his name right after defeating Liston, as he joined the Nation of Islam. He had been moving closer to the Black Muslims since meeting Malcolm X in 1962.
Ali became a much more prominent political figure when he was drafted in 1966. He had failed the written induction test earlier, but the needs of the escalating Vietnam War led the Selective Service to lower the standards, and Ali was reclassified 1-A. He refused induction.
His heavyweight title was taken from him, he lost the right to fight in the US, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He had won 29 fights in a row since turning pro in 1960. He did not fight for over three years, between age 25 and 28, prime years for a boxer. Rarely has taking a principled political position caused someone to lose so much.
His opposition to fighting in Vietnam was not only rooted in his religious belief. It was also about race, not just about him, but about all African Americans. In February 1966, he said: “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?” On a campus speaking tour to support himself in 1967, he said to white students, “My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home.” “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me.”
That same year Martin Luther King, Jr., came out against the Vietnam War, and referred to Ali: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all, black and brown and poor, victims of the same system of oppression.” Ali inspired other athletes to connect sport and racism. When Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, one of their demands was “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” Eventually the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, on the grounds that the government had not given any reason for disallowing his claim to be a conscientious objector on the basis of his religion.
These days we hear another outsized personality constantly proclaiming that he is the greatest. Donald Trump was a friend of Ali, but when he advocated banning Muslims from entering the US, Ali responded immediately in a statement entitled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States”. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam.”
Ali devoted years to becoming champion. But he was willing to give up his personal agenda to defend his principles. That was great.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 7, 2016