Muhammad Ali was the first Black Muslim American I heard of. Before his name entered my immature consciousness, I did not know Americans could be Black or Muslim. (This revelation came to me during a classroom trivia quiz; ‘Muhammad Ali’ was the answer to the question ‘Who is the world heavyweight champion?’) It is hard now, more than forty years later, to adequately describe the presence that Muhammad Ali had in the lives of young boys like me in the 1970s. Ali was the Greatest; there was no disputing it. He went down, and he came back up. He had his jaw broken; he lost his title; he went to jail. But he kept fighting, literally and figuratively. I read his The Greatest as a young boy and quickly memorized its details: his Louisville childhood, his Golden Gloves bouts, his 1960 Olympic gold medal, his throwing the medal into a river in response to Jim Crow experiences at a local restaurant, the going professional, the precocious career, the fights with Sonny Liston, the draft resistance, the surrender of the title, the loss to Ken Norton, the epic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the comebacks. (The Greatest ends with the Zaire fight; a postscript mentions the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier.)
It was a story that once again, introduced me to a side of America I did not know about; it was an awakening and an enlightenment.
I think I dimly understood as I read Ali’s autobiography that I was not reading the story of an ordinary sportsman, that there was no way to make sense of Ali’s life without thinking about the racial politics in which it was embedded. You just could not. ‘Nigger’ is a very common word in The Greatest; you hear it when Cassius Clay wants to be served at a whites-only restaurant; you hear it in the story Ali is told by a black man about how he was castrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the American South; you hear it in the dismay over his conversion to Islam, as he changed his name to ‘Cassius X’ and then, ‘Muhammad Ali’; you hear it in the epithets hurled Ali’s way after he refused to participate in the war crime known as ‘Vietnam’; you hear it in the glee of those cheering for his opponents; you could, if you cocked your ear at the right angle, hear it in the recurring fantasy of the Great White Hope who would show up to whip this upstart black man’s ass and teach him some manners.
Because that’s what Ali didn’t have. He didn’t have manners. He was rude; he spoke about things people didn’t want sportsmen to talk about: racism, apartheid, white supremacy, an immoral foreign policy. He gatecrashed a party in which sports champions, especially black ones, were expected to be polite and deferential and grateful to their white backers for having been lifted out of the poverty that was otherwise their birthright. Ali would not settle for such handouts; he wanted nothing less than a full seat at the table.
Ali was a very good boxer too. He was the lightest heavyweight of all; he had great footwork; he threw a mean jab. He was never famous as a big puncher, but he still knocked out many of his opponents. His most incredible achievement still remains his beating George Foreman in 1974. It is worth remembering that Foreman had knocked out–in very early rounds–Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who had taken Ali the distance in long, brutal, fifteen-round bouts of battering; Ali was expected to lose comprehensively to him. Instead, Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round with a straight right. An astonishing result in an astonishing fight.
There are people today who still imagine that sports can, and should be, divorced from politics. Muhammad Ali married the two; he was a sportsman who was a politician. He fought political battles every time he stepped into a ring and dropped into his fighting crouch; he fought them every time he answered a question at a press conference, knowing that reporters wanted copy that would confirm stereotypes of dumb, hulking, brutes who directed primeval force at their civilized white opponents. Ali walked away from fame and fortune when he was at the height of his powers; he could have simply taken up a cushy military job behind the front lines, visited some troops, performed the modern equivalent of a minstrel show and done his bit to ‘keep the troops happy’ with a few witty lines. He would have come back to safety soon enough, and could have fought every fight from that point on under the banner of ‘American soldier’ or ‘war veteran.’ He could have kissed the collective ass of national self-righteousness, and asked the nation to shower its kind blessings on him; instead he handed out generous helpings of stubborn defiance.
A couple of years after I had arrived in the US, I spent an afternoon drinking with a friend in a bar in New Jersey. As the evening crept up, an old man at the counter went on a rant about Ali, about how he could have been the greatest, but he threw it all away: “all he had to do was to serve in the military just like every other young man in his time did.” Yes, that’s ‘all’ he had to do. And he didn’t. He knew the simplicity and ease of the path not taken; he knew the difficulties of the fork he did choose. It is crucial to the Ali legend that we understand his greatest bravery lay not in his ability to take a beating, to withstand a punch; it lay in his defiance of commonsense and consensus, in his refusal to seek out easy popularity, to swim with the tide.
Ali was a black man in America; that fact alone made him a fighter. He knew that every time he stepped into the ring; and he knew his fights didn’t end when he stepped back out. His participation in that continuing struggle, and his awareness of it, made him the Greatest, once and always.
RIP Muhammad Ali.