Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
Like the iconic Neil Lifer photograph of Muhammad Ali standing above Sonny Liston after the infamous phantom punch that knocked down the former champ, (seen in my previous post), there's more to Ali than meets the eye.
News of his death this month caused a world wide outpouring of love and adulation for Ali who in all likelihood, was the most recognized person in the world. Appreciations of the man came from people of all races, creeds and political affiliations, not a little amazing given how polarizing and controversial he was during the first half of his life.
Yet even in death, Ali remains controversial. "I never liked Muhammad Ali" said a friend of mine, whose response I admittedly goaded out of him. "He was a clown with a big mouth, arrogant and disrespectful to his opponents and to his many wives. He broke the law when he resisted the draft, never went to jail for it like he should have, and they forgave him as if nothing happened. Then he got to fight again, became the champion and everybody thought he was the greatest thing in the world." My friend then went on to list all the fighters he thought were better.
Unlike most of the country, my friend never got past the hard feelings many Americans had toward Ali in the sixties. Between the incessant show-boating, his association with the Nation of Islam, and his highly visible role in the Black Power movement, Ali was already a tremendously unpopular personality by 1966 among a significant number of Americans, not all of them white. The last straw for Ali detractors was his refusal to serve the country after being drafted.
Muhammad Ali knew that had he chosen to comply with the United States government and gone into the army when Uncle Sam called, as heavyweight champion of the world and a celebrity of the first magnitude around the world, he would have served miles and miles away from the front line, far out of harm's way. Had he gone into the army and accepted his cushy assignment, he would not have been stripped of his title, denied of his livelihood, prohibited from traveling abroad, arrested, convicted, threatened with imprisonment, and drawn the ire of the vast majority of Americans. Had he complied with the government, he would have been able to return to boxing when his stint in the army was over, barely missing a step, still in the prime of his career. Had Muhammad Ali gone into the army when he was drafted, no one would have thought the lesser of him.
The fact that he defied the government in such a public manner, openly declaring his preference for jail over violating his moral principles, made him a counter-culture hero.
His actions were a watershed moment in the anti-war movement. Shortly after Ali's indictment, massive public demonstrations of the burning of draft cards took place. Ali 's defying the draft and accepting prison if legal efforts failed, sent shock waves through the government who understood that while they could prosecute one man for refusing the draft, there was no way to prosecute tens of thousands of potential draft resisters.
In no time the mood of the nation soured on the Vietnam War when the very symbol of mainstream white America, Walter Cronkite declared to the world on February 27th, 1968:
...it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
In other words, let's cut our losses and get the hell out of Vietnam as quickly as possible, "the most respected man in America" told us.
Shortly after that, President Johnson, knowing if he lost Walter Cronkite, he lost the American people as well, announced he would not seek a second full term in office.
Shortly after that, President Johnson, knowing if he lost Walter Cronkite, he lost the American people as well, announced he would not seek a second full term in office.
Then, a little over one month after Cronkite's assessment of the war, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.
And with that, Muhammad Ali's words found at the top of this post, eloquent as they are powerful, became prophetic. His words and actions transformed him from being merely Ali the sports hero, to Ali the instrument of social change, and ultimately, Ali the social hero.
In his critique of the insipid 2001 bio-pic Ali (which starred Will Smith in the title role) Michael Shelden writes:
The transformation of Ali from a great fighter to a celebrated man of conscience and social purpose has succeeded so well because the actual history of his career has been altered to reflect the kinder, gentler man of today. Unpleasant remarks or facts from the past have been swept away or excused. …Shelden's article was published in the January, 2002 issue of The Telegraph and is titled: Let's not Pretend Ali was Gandhi, The writer is especially critical of Ali's association in the 1960s with Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad whom he claims put all sorts of nasty thoughts into the boxer's head.
A more historically accurate appraisal of Ali would conclude that he was far from heroic outside the ring and was pitifully misused by his masters in the Nation of Islam. For his purposes, Elijah hijacked the impressionable young man's career and filled his head with racist nonsense.
Under the influence of Elijah Mohammad — who preached that blacks should refuse to integrate with "white devils" — Ali made a point of dating only black women and lashed out at men and women who engaged in interracial sex. In an interview with Playboy, he declared: "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman." When the interviewer asked about black women crossing the colour barrier, Ali responded: "Then she dies. Kill her, too."He continues:
It's unlikely that a white athlete who made such remarks would receive the praise that (Director of the film "Ali") Michael Mann heaps on Ali. He says that the fighter "personified racial pride and self-knowledge". The Playboy journalist, who interviewed the boxer, was closer to the mark when he observed of his subject: "You're beginning to sound like a carbon copy of a white racist." …Shelden also blames the Black Muslim organization for using Ali to the point that:
By the time he finally broke free of the old Nation of Islam, in the 1970s, his career was in its last stages. He continued to fight long past his prime, in part to recover the money and time he had lost in his misadventures with the Black Muslims.You can read into that Sheden's belief that the Black Muslims were directly responsible for Ali's descent into Parkinson's Disease, likely caused by too many blows to the head, especially in his later fights.
Shelden is right in saying that today, most of us have all but forgotten the messy details of Muhammad Ali's life. Years of sympathy toward his battle with Parkinson's and the heroic way he unabashedly displayed the toll it took on his body, have turned us soft on the man.
What Shelden fails to take into account is that the public's opinion of Ali had already taken a 180 degree turn way back in the 1970s, when every controversial detail of his life was common public knowledge. Unlike George Foreman, Ali didn't have to reinvent himself to pull off that change, it was America who changed, not Ali.
Here is an excerpt from a 1968 interview with William F. Buckley on his program Firing Line. This clip comes at the end of the show where Ali takes questions from the audience:
Buckley would later admit being moved by Ali's very persuasive argument for his efforts in support of freedom, justice and equality for his people, (if not his adherence to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad). If the arch-conservative William F. Buckley could be so moved, it's not surprising that much of America could be as well. It was a different time than the one in which we live today; a time when public discourse mattered, and free, open and honest debate respecting all points of view was not only encouraged, but considered essential to a healthy society.
Michael Shelden's 2002 deconstruction of Muhammad Ali, speaks volumes about the writer and his times, but little about Ali and his. His piece is a perfect example of the way we demand the press today scrutinize every detail of a celebrity's life to find tidbits of evidence proving they are not worthy. Fortunately for all of us, Ali came of age in a time when the public was not willing and eager to tear down a public figure's character at the slightest hint of an inconvenient thought, word or deed.
As a result, America, torn in pieces in the sixties, perhaps even more than it is today, was able to heal the wounds caused by the racial divide and the Vietnam War, at least for a while. And it was Muhammad Ali whose strong, articulate and persuasive voice, along with the power of his huge personality that helped lead the charge.
After his battles with the government were settled, (the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all charges against him in 1971). it was that larger than life persona, the charm along with the bravado, that attracted the public to Ali. When he finally got a shot to regain his title against the great Joe Frazier in 1971, that fight would be appropriately dubbed, The Fight of the Century. Public sentiment was split between the champ Frazier, and the challenger Ali, although it's likely that more whites supported Frazier, and more blacks supported Ali. As was his nature, Ali stirred the pot to boiling over when he called Frazier, who was also black, "the white people's champion." Naturally much of the hyperbole out of his mouth was intended to promote interest in the fight as well as to trap his opponent into a tempest of fury which would ultimately destroy him in the ring as it did Sonny Liston. Unlike Liston, Ali found his match in Frazier. The fight lived up to all the hype, fifteen rounds of back and forth, Frazier's intensity versus Ali's athleticism. In the end it was Frazier's devastating left hook that settled the bout, giving Ali his first professional loss, but putting him back at the center of his profession, and back in the public's eye, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Ali would later fight Joe Frazier two more times, winning both contests, one by decision, the other by a technical knockout.
Recalling those days, I'd say Muhammad Ali truly became the people's champion in 1974 when he regained the championship in Kinshasa, Zaire, (today's Democratic Republic of Congo) by beating George Foreman in the fight that bore the name, "the Rumble in the Jungle". Like the first Liston fight ten years before, Ali was a huge underdog to the intimidating Foreman who had absolutely destroyed Joe Frazier in 1973 to become champ. Unlike Liston, Foreman didn't give away any size advantage to Ali, he was actually one inch taller and had a 3" reach advantage. and was seven years Ali's junior. Once again people thought Ali wouldn't last more than a few rounds with the champ but Ali still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Not able to dance his way out of trouble anymore, Ali early on engaged Foreman in the center of the ring. Knowing he could never outlast the champ in a slugfest, Ali retreated to the ropes where he absorbed all of Foreman's fury while letting the ropes, which had been loosened exactly for that purpose, absorb some of the beating. When he wasn't protecting himself in that fashion, he was grabbing Foreman by the neck (an infraction the referee let him get away with), forcing Foreman to expend energy pushing away to free himself. After letting Foreman tire himself out in this pushing and punching frenzy for several rounds, the still relatively fresh Ali went on the offensive, knocking Foreman out in the eighth round. In doing so Ali became the first heavyweight boxer to regain the championship.
In his prime during a period known as the greatest era in boxing's heavyweight division, Ali beat all of the best boxers of that era, Sonny Liston twice, Joe Frazier twice, and George Foreman once. All three of those men make practically every list of top ten heavyweights of all time. Not surprisingly, Muhammad Ali's name is at the top of those lists.
The score had finally been settled. All the talk, all the bombast, all the preening and bragging had been fulfilled. The great pitcher Dizzy Dean was famous for saying, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." In beating George Foreman, Ali could finally back up everything he said about himself.
But it came at a tremendous cost. One of the saddest things in the world of sports is watching a great champion who does not know when to quit. Ali beat Foreman because of his tremendous ability to take a punch. By using his patented "rope-a-dope" style, the abuse he willingly took from Foreman, from Frazier especially in the classic "Thrilla in Manilla" and perhaps most emphatically from Larry Holmes in 1980, no doubt contributed to the Parkinson's Disease that ravaged his body and would ultimately take his life. He could have and probably should have quit after each of those fights, but didn't. Holmes, Ali's former sparring partner, claimed to have held back in his fight with Ali. Nevertheless, the beating he inflicted upon his hero caused that world champion to break down in tears after the fight that should never have taken place. Medical records released much later revealed that Ali was already in the early stages of Parkinson's at the time of the fight. What's more, Ali had one more fight before he hung up the gloves for good, against Canadian Boxer Trevor Berbick which ended for him in defeat by unanimous decision. That made Ali's final professional record, 56 wins, 37 of them by knockout, and 5 losses.
By the time he retired, Ali exhibited very obvious slurring of the speech and other, less obvious physical symptoms. Public appearances diminished but he never entirely disappeared from the public eye even as his condition worsened, lending his support to numerous causes around the world and sent on diplomatic missions on behalf of the US government, some of which resulted in the release of hostages.
|Photograph by Vince Caligiuri|
As we've seen, great champions are judged by the quality of their adversaries. In boxing. Muhammad Ali faced some of the greatest champions in history. Equal in adversarial quality to Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman all put together was the United States government who attempted to crush the man for doing what he believed was right. His resounding victory in that battle ultimately gave him the respect and credibility to transcend the sporting world which originally brought him to our attention. The scourge of racism was another adversary that he battled first through the influence of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, before he discovered he could do it all on his own simply by telling people about his experiences being the champion of the world yet still occasionally barred from using a public bathroom in his own country. The greatest adversary of all proved to be the illness that consumed him for the last half of his life. Despite that, Muhammad Ali made the most out of the years given to him and the limitations his physical condition placed upon him. He could have easily retreated out of the limelight, leaving people with the memories of the young, handsome, articulate champion, rather than a victim of a debilitating disease. By allowing himself to be seen in his compromised state, he made it perfectly clear that living with diminished capabilities did not mean living a diminished life.
Finally, the latest controversy to the best of my knowledge, surfaced for the first time after Ali's death. Many tributes made the claim that Muhammad Ali "transcended both race and religion." I have to plead ignorance on this one as frankly I don't know what it means to "transcend race or religion." Sportscaster Chris Fox cast some light on that phrase this way in a tweet:
When you saw #Ali you didn't see color you didn't see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter, a Champion you could believe in.Having lived through the sixties and seventies and knowing a thing or two about Ali, the thing that strikes me about that comment is that the writer is either too young to remember him, wasn't paying attention, or has a severe case of historical amnesia. In his day, Muhammad Ali was the very embodiment of the African American Muslim. It's true that he mellowed as he got older, and expanded his sphere of concerns, but his race and religion never took a back seat. The headline of an article by Kara Brown for the online magazine Jezebel tells it like it is: "If You Don't See Blackness, You Didn't See Muhammad Ali."
If by chance you are too young, weren't paying attention, or are suffering from amnesia, and you still believe that Ali transcended race and religion, by all means watch the Buckley/Ali interview. in its entirety.
Here is how Kara Brown concludes her article:
There is no deep and true respect for Muhammad Ali that does not also come with a deep and true respect for his blackness. And to love Muhammad Ali, you must also love his love for his people. Those who attempt to draw attention away from Ali’s blackness—whether deliberately, carelessly, or by delicate omission—do so because they either cannot or choose not to love black people. They can’t understand that Ali’s blackness was integral to what made him great. A white Ali would not have been possible, nor would he have meant nearly as much to the world.With that I agree one hundred percent. However playing the devil's advocate, I'm not entirely convinced that all the white folks who claim Ali transcended race do not love him for his blackness, or understand that his blackness is what made him great. Brown herself brings up the African American poet Maya Angelou who in 2001 wrote that Muhammad Ali "belonged to everyone." She says:
...his impact recognizes no continent, no language, no colour, no ocean. It belongs to us all just as Muhammad Ali belongs to us all.Muhammad Ali is, or at least should be loved and respected by anyone who values equality, justice, and the dignity of all human beings. The same can be said of people such as Lech Wałęsa, Mother Theresa or Aung San Suu Kyi. On the other hand, I've never heard anyone say Wałęsa transcended his race, Mother Theresa her religion, or Aung San Suu Kyi her gender.
Clearly, saying that Muhammad Ali transcended race and religion, is a poor choice of words. What can be said of him is that he is a beloved hero who fought many valiant battles in the name of justice. Through his magnetic personality, his biting sense of humor, his unrelenting self-confidence, his unmatched courage in fighting all the battles he encountered, his dedication to telling the truth, and yes his blackness, his religion and the love of his people, Muhammad Ali brought people all over the world together like no one else could.
If I had to sum up the man in a limited number of words, tweet style, I'd use the words I used to sum up the life of another great hero of mine, Vaclav Havel, who was never accused of transcending the Czech blood that ran through his veins.
Like Havel, Ali was not a saint by a long shot, nonetheless he is a man for all seasons.
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