An icon passed away.
A boxer. A three-time heavyweight champion. A poet. A comedian. A political activist. A humanitarian.
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of boxing. I’ve never understood the appeal of watching two men attempt to beat each other to a pulp. Outside the ring, they would be arrested for the same thing. (Although I am a fan of boxing movies. Raging Bull, Rocky, and Requiem for a Heavyweight depict the brutality of the sport in beautiful images.) However, Muhammad Ali’s powerful and beautiful body was paired with an equally powerful and beautiful mind, and had he not been born into a poor Southern black family in the early 1940s, he quite possibly would not have felt the need to turn to a brutish sport.
Here are my reasons for admiring Ali.
Ali the Entertainer
“My way of joking is to tell the truth,” Ali once said. “That’s the funniest joke in the world.” And he was right. Ali would use humour in a bogus attempt to appear overly confident (he was confident, regardless). In 1962, when he was just 20, Ali had a press conference in the locker room moments before his fight with Archie Moore, the man who for a time had been Ali’s trainer. “Moore in Four Next Champ,” Ali had written on the chalk board. He then screamed at the board to make sure reporters got the point.
Ali would use humour in a bogus attempt to appear overly confident (he was confident, regardless).
Ali always referred to his talent in his ring as a source of humour. “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” Or there was the time he said, “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”
I suspect that Ali viewed himself as an entertainer. Take a look at the press conference with Frazier shortly before their fight in Manila. Ali laughs at his own jokes, even as he’s taunting Frazier. Clearly, were Ali a 20-year-old boxer today, he’d no doubt be promoting himself on social media. After all, Ali always had a spotlight on media, saying that Hollywood made Rocky to counteract Ali as a great black boxer. “America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, and Rocky.”
Ali the Political Idealist
In 1964, Ali won the heavyweight title for the first time and converted to Islam, giving up his given name, saying, “Cassius Clay is a name that white people gave to my slave master. Now that I am free, that I don’t belong anymore to anyone, I gave back their white name. And I chose a beautiful African one.” So in 1966, when the U.S. government decided to draft Ali, perhaps hoping to send him to Vietnam, Ali refused, citing his conscience. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied their civil rights?” He famously asked out loud “Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me…raped and killed my mother and father…” (click here to see the interview.)
His fight with the government proved to be his toughest. And it cost him not only legally but also financially and professionally. He spent four years in the legal system, having been convicted for avoiding the draft in 1967 (the Supreme Court eventually overturned it, so Ali avoided a possible five-year prison term). Yet that wasn’t the most taxing cost. No boxing commission would let Ali fight in the United States for three years. He couldn’t get a visa to fight outside the country. And he was stripped of his heavyweight title.
Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me.
Yet Ali remained busy during these years–his athletic prime–away from the ring. As the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, Ali spoke at universities, even speaking before a crowd of 4,000 at Howard. His bold public stance inspired other civil rights leaders, notably Martin Luther King and Al Sharpton, to speak their anti-war views.
Ali the Humanitarian
Despite using his body in a brutal, violent manner to earn his fortune and fame, Ali proved that he was a compassionate human being. Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur wrote about the time Ali visited a women’s prison and kissed only the unattractive women. “The good-looking ones ain’t got no problem,” Ali is quoted as saying. “But them ugly ones, who’s gonna kiss them? If I kiss them, they got something to talk about the rest of their lives.” (Feminist readers may cringe at the quote, but in a round-about way, Ali, despite his patriarchal overtones, was acting in an enlightened way.)
Then there was the time in 1981 when Ali famously talked a man out of suicide (see the news clip here). Ali spent twenty minutes with him, saying, “I’m your brother, man.”
But there are stories that, and I’m unable to substantiate them, of Ali in his later years, riddled from the Parkinson’s that he likely developed from years in the ring, opening his door to people passing his house in hopes of a glimpse. Some even had dinner or watched tv with him. I like to think these stories are true.
Ali at the End
Everybody’s life comes to an end. When we’re young, we’re beautiful, strong, and out to conquer the world. Ali certainly had all three traits. I could easily post a picture of Ali in his later years, when age and Parkinson’s robbed him of his looks and voice. But I’d rather remember the young Ali, the strong Ali, the principled Ali. He may have chosen a sport I abhor, but he made a difference. In his own way, he changed the world.