Muhammad Ali: A Champion of His People

Raeesa Ashique - 2N Electrical
Posted on: June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali, boxing legend and political, social, and religious activist, passed away late last Friday at age 74 from septic shock. He had been suffering from a respiratory illness, and was admitted to hospital the previous day. Fellow athletes, political figures, civil rights leaders, and many others are joining the general public in paying tribute to “The Greatest”. Among them, US President Barack Obama has said “He shook up the world, and the world is better for it.” Former US President Bill Clinton, Bryan Gumbel, Billy Crystal, and Ali’s wife Lonnie will be giving eulogies at the interfaith funeral service in his hometown of Louisville this Friday.

Ali’s professional career of twenty-one years resulted in 56 wins out of 61 fights, including 37 knockouts. He won one Olympic gold medal and captured the title of heavyweight world champion on three separate occasions. However, he is known for more than his long list of honours and accolades: the public loves him for his wit, outspokenness, and impromptu poetry, as well as unique fighting style and strength of character. Ali was truly a champion of the athletic and political world: a champion of his people.

The Making of a Legend

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His journey began at age twelve when his bike was stolen at a local fair. He reported the crime to policeman Joe Martin, angrily threatening to “whup” that thief if he ever found him, and was advised to learn how to fight before he started making threats. Clay was a determined and dedicated student when he joined the boxing gym, and Martin coached him to six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and two national Amateur Athletic Union titles over the next six years.

At age eighteen, Clay qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but almost backed out because of a fear of flying. The parachute he bought to wear on the plane proved a great investment, as Clay defeated the 1956 bronze medallist to win gold.

The Legend

After the Olympics, Clay’s professional career was born. He set out to become the greatest, and was known to brag and trash talk his opponents. He fought with the agility of a lightweight, describing his style in the famous couplet “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” He made boxing an art.

Clay “shook up the world” by claiming his first heavyweight world champion title in 1964 with a win over undefeated Sonny Liston, whom he referred to as “the big ugly bear”, despite the public’s lack of faith in his ability.

Shortly after, he announced his affiliation with the Nation of Islam (NOI), and his new name: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali.”

Ali was drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1967, but made the extremely controversial decision to refuse because “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Besides, helping the American government oppress another race of people clashed with his beliefs. This objection led him to be stripped of his world title, boxing license, and passport, convicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. This interrupted a key period in his career, from age 25 to almost 29.

Ali was not particularly well-liked at this time, and the public’s negative opinion increased by his refusal to serve his country. During exile Ali toured colleges and spoke on faith, racism, and his objection to the Vietnam War. Although he preached racial segregation in line with NOI doctrine that white people are “the devil”, the conscientious decision not to compromise his beliefs helped him to grow and develop as a person. When he returned, it was to a much higher pedestal in the public’s eye.

After three years the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ruling, and Ali returned to ring the following year, but a toll had been taken on his skills. In 1971, Ali was dealt his first professional loss by Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion, in the “Fight of the Century” that was watched by millions around the world.

Ali sought to reclaim his title in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. George Foreman, the new world champion, was favoured to win, but Ali beat the odds to take back the world title at age 32 in an eighth round knockout.

By this point, Ali had a tied record against Frazier, and beat him in their third fight in the “Thrilla in Manila” in the Phillipines in 1975.

He defended his title six more times in the next couple years, before losing to Leon Spinks in 1978, but won it back for the third time in a rematch later the same year at age 36.

He finally lost his title in 1980 to Larry Holmes, who commented, “I’m prouder of sparring with Ali when he was young than I am of beating him when he was old.” After a final loss to Canadian Trevor Berbick in 1981, Ali retired at age 40.

Religion

Ali thought he had found his place when he was recruited by Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious group led by Elijah Muhammad which labels white people as the devil, and whose teachings oppose orthodox Islamic values. Soon after, Malcolm X began questioning his own beliefs and affiliation with NOI after being exposed to white Muslims on his pilgrimage to Mecca, and converted to Sunni Islam. Ali remained with NOI for years before converting to Sunni Islam in 1975, and later said that “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.” After this point, he dramatically changed his tune.

Religion became very important to Ali’s identity and decisions. In 1977, he received a question on British television from a young boy: “I’d like to know what you are going to do when you retire from boxing?” Ali’s answer was deep and inspirational: “Get ready to meet God.” He continued on to voice his conviction that God will one day judge everyone based on his or her actions, and that he wants to be prepared. “God don’t praise me because I beat Joe Frazier… He wants to know how do we treat each other? How do we help each other? So I’m going to dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people.”

“Getting Ready to Meet God”

Ali developed a speech impediment after retiring from boxing, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. His doctor said it was the culmination of too many hits to the head, but Ali staunchly denied that boxing was the cause of his illness. He became a philanthropist and the public face of Parkinson’s, raising millions for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. He also supported the Special Olympics, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and UNICEF, among other organizations.

Ali devoted himself to humanitarian work, and in 1998 was chosen to be the UN Messenger of Peace because of his many appearances in the developing world. He was sent on diplomatic missions by the American government, negotiated for the release of American prisoners held by Saddam Hussein, and brought aid to countries such as North Korea, Afghanistan, and Cuba.

He was given many other honours as well. In 1996, he carried the Olympic torch and lit the cauldron in Atlanta despite his degenerative illness. He was voted Sports Personality of the Century by BBC, and received a similar award from Sports Illustrated. He was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: two of the highest civilian awards, for “exemplary services” to the country. In the 2012 Olympics in London, he was designated as an honoury flag bearer. Too frail to actually carry the flag, Ali stood for part of the ceremony with the support of his wife, Lonnie.

The Legacy

It’s amazing that this man became such a beloved figure and icon at a time when black people lacked civil rights. He experienced discrimination first-hand: he grew up in segregated Kentucky, and even returning home from Rome with an Olympic gold medal proudly around his neck was not reason enough to be served at a whites-only restaurant. This incident caused him to throw his medal into the Ohio River, although he claimed to have lost it. He said he was fighting “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.”

It’s amazing that this man is so universally loved and respected at a time when America fears Muslims. He represents real Islam, saying, “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”  Even Donald Trump –  the same Trump who would ban Muslims from the country – paid tribute to him: “A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!” Is this perhaps a sign that humanity can get past race and religion? That talent, philanthropy, and good character are more important? Or perhaps it’s just another example of Trump’s characteristic lack of logic. Ali was very proud of his religious identity (not to mention, he had the most Muslim name possible): how can you claim to love Muhammad Ali yet hate Muslims?

When asked, Ali said that he would like to be remembered as: “a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right.

“As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him…who stood up for his beliefs…who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.

“And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”