Muhammad Ali’s life could be summed up in a single statement: freedom is always worth fighting for. As a professional pugilist, he inspired millions. As a political radical, he carried this conviction beyond the ring, fiercely denouncing racism and imperialism. But these two aspects of his life — the athlete and the militant — cannot be separated. His entire boxing career was fully political, and his greatest matches, against Ernie Terrell and George Foreman, saw him waging the struggle against white supremacy, racism, and collaborationism in the boxing ring itself.
Insights of a Warrior
His athletic achievements range from an Olympic gold medal in the light-heavyweight division in the Rome games of 1960 and becoming the world heavyweight champion three times with a repertoire of some of the most amazing matches in boxing history. He was so fast, creative, and tactical that he even influenced the great Bruce Lee, his noteworthy peer in Asian martial arts, world fame, and political commitments. Lee gave Ali the most sincere form of flattery by adding the latter’s style of footwork to Jeet Kune Do, his approach to Gung Fu. Legendary a boxer though he was, Ali will be remembered for the Promethean struggle he fought for dignity and respect not only as a man but also as one belonging to those despised by the country of his birth.
Ali fought, which means he also received his share of punches, despite floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee (this signature-phrase was actually penned by his Afro-Jewish assistant trainer and corner man Drew Bundini Brown). He was one of a kind, though that didn’t mean there weren’t his analogues in other sites of struggle for the liberation of those under the heels of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. I have already mentioned Bruce Lee, who, as an Asian American, no doubt appreciated Ali’s courageous statements of solidarity with East Asians during the U.S. war against Vietnam. In the struggle against Jim Crow, Malcolm X, his friend whom he had sadly later disavowed, stood for the same in words and deed in the realm of what Cornel West calls prophetic protest.
Yet, in terms of specific philosophical location and struggles in and beyond the ring, at least with regard to the basic question of standing up for what is right and the dignity it demands, his affinities were with the legendary, revolutionary philosopher psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. Unlike Ali, however, Fanon’s encounter with the realities of France, his nemesis-home, was not through an Olympic trial but that of the humiliation he suffered while fighting for France in World War II, from which he returned — like Ali who wouldn’t be served in a diner in his hometown — as a twice-decorated hero with continued, questioned status as a human being. Fanon eventually left France, fought for Algerian independence, served as a representative of the struggle throughout southern Africa, and left a powerful set of writings, all marked by the insights of a warrior, challenging us to fight for a healthy humanity. Though not a health professional, Ali shared Fanon’s diagnosis of the situation: better to be angry fighting for freedom than to be a “happy” slave.
What’s in a Name?
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, he was the son of a sign-maker. The symbolism is evident. A sign always points to something other than itself, and, true to form, Ali kept questioning the world in which he lived. He never accepted the standard response to black subordination, exemplified by his father’s pointing to his skin color as the source of the obstacles his son faced. Joining critical Black thought from over the ages, he in effect responded that he wasn’t the problem — it was those who imposed such limitations on him.
Barriers, the precocious lad understood, should be torn down. Like many freedom fighters before him, he resolved to do so in a path from initial literacy to fists of resistance and then to political speech. Politics, after all, is about power, a relationship to which racist societies demand nothing beyond silence from those it dominates. Frederick Douglass, for instance, fought for his freedom first through learning to read, then matching fists with the slave-breaker Reverend Covey before moving to the North and then engaged in abolition activism in which his powers of speech were legendary.
Ali, who in his youth was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., took a similar path through amateur boxing and then on to the Olympics and then professional boxing. His accolades early on included winning the Golden Glove. His determination throughout made it clear that something burned deep within him. He once remarked that he never started counting when doing sit-up exercises until after his abdomen began to hurt. Pain for him was a reminder of what he had to overcome. As I sometimes remind readers, it wasn’t liberation struggles that brought violence into Fanon’s life; as a colonial subject, he was born into violence. So was Ali, who was smart enough to understand that no physical blow matched those offered by the legal system, double-standard society, and constant violence of an ideology of continued degradation in print, the radio waves, cinema, and television. Those forces, even at the spiritual level, made their messages clear: the world was supposedly better without people like him, regardless of their achievement. He had a healthy response: there’s something wrong with that world, not the people it persecuted.
Changing that world meant for Ali a battle on inner as well as outer fronts. He already waged war on the outer, where he knocked down opponents of many kinds, including, to the chagrin of racist audiences, white ones. For the inner, he sought the counsel of the Nation of Islam, which led not only to his conversion but also his birth (for him, a form of being made whole by tearing asunder the effects of enslavement) as Muhammad Ali.
Interestingly enough, the “slave name” he discarded was in honor of Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810 — 1903), a white abolitionist who, among his many claims to fame, fought off assassins who had shot him point blank in the chest in one instance and a group that had stabbed him on another occasion. It was, along with Frederick Douglass, Clay who had insisted that President Lincoln issue a proclamation for the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. South. The reach of a sign is, we should remember, always beyond itself.
Everything about Muhammad Ali was poetic and thus symbolic. His movement from his disavowed slave name (despite its not being from an enslaver) to his anointed one (chosen by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) is about transcending the soil: clay, after all, is an earthly permeable substance, and “Ali” is Arabic for high, or, as he correctly added, “most high.” “Muhammad” means “praiseworthy.” There is no doubt that Muhammad Ali’s life met the challenge of his name. I suspect as well that Clay would understand the importance of Ali’s choice: true freedom requires surpassing even those who fought for our emancipation.
Politics in the Ring
The question of Ali’s name occasioned what is no doubt his most remembered, symbolic fight. First, however, consider the proverbial lead up.
Ali was well known for his boasting and fiery rhetoric. What his critics didn’t realize is what many people of color who celebrated him across the world understood. The supposedly requisite need for white recognition is degrading. Ali refused to be patronized. Like Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, whose words irritated and often frightened white audiences, Ali’s challenged antiblack racists who by definition rejected the idea that any person of African descent deserved respect. Even worse, the idea of publicly acknowledging his self-respect meant that his spirit was not crushed and his refusal to let such ever happen. His naysayers didn’t understand that Ali’s use of the pronoun “I” was never really singular in its designation. He knew they rejected him in his individuality, which meant his declaration spread across a people. He was announcing during the Civil Rights Struggle that Blacks were fighting for their right to exist and to flourish. That he won the heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin speaks for itself.
Ali’s jaunts and taunts were unforgiving, however, to those whom Malcolm X called “house Negroes” or “Uncle Toms.” Every racist society has some version of this figure. The French, for instance, have le Bon Nègre. Such figures were guided by a single creed: never, ever, upset whites. They no doubt represented for Ali the threat from within, which by extension applied not only to what he purged from his own soul but also what jeopardized liberation movements for all.
The World Boxing Association (WBA) had stripped Ali of his title when he joined the Nation of Islam (now The World Community of Al-Islam), which the Federal Bureau of Investigations had classified as a hate group and a threat to national security. The opening left Ernie Terrell as the WBA champion. The stage was set for Terrell to represent the House Negro who could please white masters by putting the upstart Ali in his supposed “place.” To make matters worse, the Louisville draft board reclassified Ali to make him eligible for the draft. His famous response, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger,” made him a hero among the downtrodden and those living in what was then called the Third World, in addition to critics of the war, and a more intense object of white hatred. As the fight approached, Terrell kept referring to Ali by his disavowed slave name of Cassius Clay. Bear in mind that these events unfolded during 1966, when the Title IV proposing non-discrimination in housing was defeated in the U.S. Congress; the tides, in other words, were already turning against the gains from 1964. It was no small matter that his former friend, Malcolm X, was assassinated in 1965. State-sanctioned destruction of those who defied colonialism and racism was, as the expression goes, business as usual.
Ali and Terrell had their epic battle on the February 6, 1967. It was a brutal, fifteen-round fight in which Ali, upon landing each punch, added, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom . . . what’s my name?” To perhaps the judge’s, and most certainly the majority white audience’s, chagrin, the decision of Ali’s victory was unanimous.
Ali and his name were victorious, but retaliation came in a familiar pattern as unleashed on those such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson before him; he was stripped again of his titles, with the addition of his boxing license and passport taken away. Unable to leave the country, he spent 1967 to 1970 appealing his conviction for draft evasion despite being a conscientious objector, while finding alternative means of earning an income. His license was reinstated in 1970 and his conviction overturned in 1971. His return to professional boxing led to some of the greatest showdowns, the most memorable of which, in athletic terms, were his loss and then victory against Joe Frazier. His last great, politically symbolic fight, however, was against George Foreman, against whom he used his famous “rope-a-dope” technique of absorbing punches until his opponent was tired out.
Foreman was an Olympic gold medalist at the 1968 Mexico games in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their historic, raised black-gloved covered fists of protest. Foreman countered their defiance by waving the U.S. flag at the moment of his victory. Though a much beloved celebrity today, what many people of color across the globe saw in 1968 was the return of the repulsive, subservient figure against whom liberationists such as Ali fought. Taking place in the then Republic of Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), it was the event in which Ali reclaimed his title as heavyweight champion through defeating an opponent whom audiences of color saw as complicit in the domination of his fellow oppressed peoples. The victory symbolized Africa, and indeed the then Third World, fighting back.
The need to reassert white dominance never abandoned American popular culture. The 1976 film Rocky effectively tapped into the white supremacist dream of the Great White Hope through pitting Rocky Balboa (based on the white boxer Chuck Wepner, who in 1975 almost went fifteen rounds against Ali before losing by a knockout) against the Ali-inspired Apollo Creed. It is no surprise that in cinema, where fantasy rules, so, too, white supremacy found solace. Reviewing Rocky II in 1979 in conversation with critic Roger Ebert, Ali said: “For the black man to come out superior would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
After regaining the heavyweight title in 1974, Ali, at age 32, was already getting old for his profession. Subsequent defeat and retirement a decade later were inevitable, and in terms of his body, the onset of Parkinson disease led to a tragic struggle, with signs of dignity characteristic of the man, for the rest of his life. His two greatest weapons against his subordination, his physical prowess and his gift of speech, were compromised. Ali, however, was never defeated. One could imagine how many thoughts, how many moments of reflexive muscular poise, reminded him of limitations that made him seem his own prisoner. Yet, Ali never lost sight of what was ultimately greater than himself. His faith (which led to his taking the Hajj to Mecca/Makkah in 1972), after all, taught him that being the greatest among men never meant being greater than The Most High, the Greatest of the Greatest. His commitment, then, meant asserting perhaps his greatest virtue — his humanity. One could imagine how, freed from his affliction, he would have spoken in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, against Islamophobia, and for global solidarity against the many forms of degradation besetting the world today.
Last month, on June 10, Ali’s remains returned to Louisville. Though his death returns him to the soil (yes, to clay), we all know in our hearts that we remember him, Ali, because he, as poet Maya Angelou would remind us, continues to rise.