MUHAMMAD ALI: 1942-2016
By Jerry Brownstein
Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time... but his incredible life was central to societal changes that far transcended the boxing ring. His agile mind, buoyant personality, brash self-confidence and the courage to stand up for his convictions created a magnetism that sports alone could not contain. One biographer described him this way: “He was a self-invented character of such physical wit, political defiance, global fame, and sheer originality that no novelist you might name would dare to conceive him.”
Ali was born as Cassius Clay in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky – a city that like most of the American South was racially segregated. It practiced a shameful form of American apartheid known as ‘Jim Crow’ in which most of the stores, restaurants, hotels, businesses, etc. had signs that said ‘whites only’. The pain of living as the victim of this institutional racism would surface later in his life, but as a teenager Cassius was drawn to boxing. He was a natural, and in 1960, at the age of 18, he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He was instantly a star with his big smile, fast style and quick wit.
"A 20th Century icon"
Shortly after returning home he began his professional boxing career, and he immediately turned the sport on its head. Boxing had always been a sport of stolid violence, and heavyweight box- ers were particularly slow and plodding... but Clay was something else. His boxing style fused speed, agility and power in a way that had never been imagined possible for a heavyweight. His graceful movement around the ring looked more like dancing than boxing, and he frustrated his opponents with lightning reflexes that made it almost impossible to hit him. His hand speed was awesome – raining blows from all angles in rapid combinations that eventually left the other guy dazed, confused and more often than not unconscious.
But as dynamic as he was in the ring, he was even more entertaining and unique outside of it. He was brash, quick-witted, clever and outrageous. From the very beginning he declared, “I am the Greatest”, and “Look at me I’m so pretty!” He always came up with inventive poetry that predicted how he would win his fights. “There’s no chance for Moore and he will fall in four”... and sure enough Mr. Moore was knocked out in the fourth round. He did this for all of his fights and most the public loved it... but others hated it. It was the early 60’s and US society was in the beginning of a wrenching transformation with generational fault lines. Young people identified with this exciting new character who laughed at old traditions and had the courage to speak his mind. Older more conservative people were offended by this audacious young black man whose mouth was as fast as his fists. He was the ‘Generation Gap’ personified.
Meanwhile he continued to win all of his bouts and in 1964 Clay was given the chance to fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Unfortunately the man he was to fight, champion Sonny Liston, was seen to be an indestructible force of nature, and most people felt that he would crush the young man from Louisville. But Cassius had a plan, and throughout the build-up to the fight he taunted the bigger stronger Liston with statements like this: “Sonny’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!” “Liston won’t be able to hit me because I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!” “I’m going to shock the world!” ... and he did.
At the start of the fight Liston came out of his corner determined to shut this kid up, but Clay danced and ducked and the ‘big ugly bear’ could not lay a glove on him. After a couple of rounds Liston started to tire and Clay began to pound him with rapid-fire punches. By the seventh round Liston was finished – bloodied, exhausted and thoroughly embarrassed. The fight was over and 21 year old Cassius Clay had indeed shocked the world to become the Heavyweight Champion. He leaped onto the ropes and yelled down at the ‘experts’ in the press who had predicted his demise: “I told you I was the greatest!”
He was on top of the world... but that lasted for less than 24 hours. The day after the fight he announced that he would no longer be known by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay, but by his new name of Muhammad Ali. He had become very close to Malcolm X and as a result had joined the Nation of Islam – an American organization that defends black pride and is affiliated with the Muslim religion. 1964 was a tumultuous time in US race relations, and the Nation of Islam was looked upon by most people with fear and suspicion. Even many of Ali’s young fans initially had a hard time accepting this change, but they soon came around as society was rapidly evolving in those heady days of the 60’s. Not so for the older generation who were already put off by Ali’s style, and now felt even more threatened.
The controversy surrounding Ali’s new name and religion did not affect his success in the boxing ring. Over the next few years he knocked out every top heavyweight in the world... with ease. This was the Ali that boxing purists remember – a heavyweight like no other. He was destined to be the champion for many years to come... but it was not to be.
America was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and all young men were called to serve in the military. Ali was drafted in 1967, but he refused to join saying: “Why should I go 10,000 miles from home to kill people in Vietnam who ain’t never done nothing to me. Meanwhile black people right here in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights. I ain’t going... and if that means I go to jail then so what... my people have been in jail for 400 years.” Ali remembered his childhood in the racist American South... and he had the courage to stand up for his convictions... but he would pay a heavy price for it.
He did not go to jail because his case was appealed, but all of the boxing commissions took away his license to fight. This was the revenge of the old guard conservatives who still resented this undefeated young man who stood up to them and flaunted their traditions. For almost four years – the very heart of his physical prime – Ali was not allowed to fight. Finally in 1971 the US Supreme Court dismissed his case, but having missed his best years he was not nearly the same fighter he had been. He fought for the title in 1971 but lost a close decision, and it looked like his days as a champion had come to an end. But three years later he got another shot at it and in a huge upset he knocked out the heavily favoured young champ George Foreman in what he called ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. Despite his diminished skills and aging body, Ali was still able to hold onto the title for another five years before retiring in 1979.
In retirement he evolved into a living symbol of peace and courage who was loved by all. Ali was a roving ambassador for the UN and despite the onset of Parkinson’s disease he was able to light the ceremonial flame at the Olympics in 1996. As the disease progressed he became more and more disabled, but you could still see the gleam in his eyes and feel the power of his presence. Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. He had risen from obscurity to become arguably the most famous person on the planet. He was both a symbol and an inspiration for many of the great changes in our ways of thinking and being that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Ali was not only a supreme athlete; he was a master of playful rhyming and comic derision; a stirring example of racial pride; a figure of immense personal courage and self-respect... an Icon. •