by Simon Whittle, Scottish Socialist Voice deputy editor • If John Lennon was bigger than Jesus, then Muhammad Ali was bigger than God. He transcended 1960s racist America to become the world’s most recognisable human being. A boxer and a peace activist, a poet, a muslim, an entertainer, a self-educated black man and a world renowned educator.
The young Cassius Clay took up boxing after his bike was stolen and he ran up to a policeman, claiming he’d whup the thief if he found him; the cop—also a boxing coach—asked Cassius if he knew how to box?
A few short years later, ‘the Louisville Lip’ Clay brought the light heavyweight gold medal home from the 1960 Rome Olympics. “I know I can eat downtown now,” he told himself, proudly wearing his new medal, sitting himself down in a Louisville restaurant and ordering a coffee and a hot dog—only to be told, “We don’t serve negroes!” Legend has it that he ran outside and threw his medal in the Ohio River.
Clay moved to Miami to train under Angelo Dundee, striving hard for his shot at the heavyweight crown. Staying away from the usual mafia-tainted in-crowd of promoters and agents, Clay grew close to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam; quietly converting in 1963.
The Nation only publicly came out for him when he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 to become world heavyweight champion. Clay, only 22, then renounced his slave name and pronounced himself ‘Cassius X’. Days later, Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad re-renamed him Muhammad Ali.
The ensuing media storm over Ali’s name change—he refused to change it officially, “I’d have to ask a white man, ‘may I call myself Muhammad Ali, boss?’”—put the civil rights movement at the heart of everything Ali did outside the ring.
Even inside the ring, in his 1965 title defence against Floyd Patterson, Ali wailed between punches, “what’s my name? What’s my name?” A pre-bout Patterson had echoed the white media’s fury at the sheer nerve of such a subversive move by a supposed all-American sports hero.
Now a Chicago resident, Ali defended his title successfully six times until 1967 when he was drafted to serve in the US army in Vietnam. On the same day he refused to step forward at the drafting station, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
“No Vietcong never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me,” he said at the time.
On appeal, Ali was ‘free’ but suffered persecution: “I’m not allowed to work in America, I’m not allowed to leave America—home of the brave, land of the free.”
So he did that other thing he was very good at—talking. He lectured US college campuses, closely followed by the mass media, heatedly debating his decision not to go to Vietnam and pointing out the hypocrisy of drafting young black Americans, on one occasion telling an angry white student:
“I’m not gonna help nobody get something my negroes don’t have. If I’m gonna die, I’ll die now, right here fighting you… if I’m gonna die. You my enemy—my enemy’s the white people, not Vietcongs, 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!”
Ali’s draft stance inspired Dr Martin Luther King, who became vocal against the war, telling reporters, “As Muhammad Ali said, we are all victims of the same system of oppression, and even though we may have different religious beliefs, this does not at all bring about a difference in terms of our concerns.”
By this time, the National Security Agency was monitoring Ali’s communications, among other prominent US anti-war activists, as part of Project MINARET. There’s nothing like unity, between (the by-then-assassinated) Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and Ali and the soon-to-be-assassinated Dr King, to strike fear into the heart of the US racist establishment.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton recognised that Ali sacrificed the best years of his career during this period:
“For the heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved the highest level of athletic celebrity, to put all of that on the line—the money, the ability to get endorsements—to sacrifice all of that for a cause, gave a whole sense of legitimacy to the movement and the causes with young people that nothing else could have done.
“He knew he was going to jail and did it anyway. That’s another level of leadership and sacrifice.”
The US Supreme Court unanimously overturned Ali’s conviction in 1971. Back in the ring, Ali suffered his first professional defeat, to Joe Frazier after 15 rounds.
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future…”
– Muhammad Ali
After winning a rematch with Frazier in ’74, Ali won the right to ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ for the title with George Foreman in Zaire.
Trained to take a beating, Ali leaned back on the ropes for much of the fight before knocking Foreman out in the eighth round, dubbing his technique “rope-a-dope”—letting his opponent tire himself out before delivering the decisive blow. The following year, a further Ali-Frazier rematch saw Ali defeat his rival after the 15-round ‘Thrilla in Manila’.
By 1981, Ali’s career had nosedived into publicity bouts with wrestlers, and he finally retired from boxing. His final fights were blamed for the onset of his Parkinson’s disease, a condition that didn’t see him totally quit the limelight, although he had quit the Nation of Islam to become a Sunni Muslim a few years earlier.
Twice Ali intervened in hostage crises, in Lebanon and Iraq in the ’80s and ’90s, and he embarked on goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, delivered tons of medicine to Cuba, brought humanitarian relief to the Ivory Coast, addressed UN committees on apartheid, and made friends of presidents, the Dalai Lama, the Pope and Nelson Mandela.
And, as the world held its breath, a fragile Ali met his public again as he lit the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and America’s love/hate relationship with Ali finally dissolved in a global embrace. To top it off, the Games gave him a replacement gold medal for his 1960 Olympic victory.
The best tribute to such a people’s champion is to continue to stand up, fight and eradicate the racism, poverty and inequality that Muhammad Ali saw as his duty to fight against before, during and beyond his exceptional career.