I fully agree with Thomas Knapp, a senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Centre for Libertarian News Advocacy Journalism that if by anything, the passing of Muhammad Ali bestows even more greatness on the man, knowing that despite all he achieved, everything he went through both in and out the ring, he was mortal just like the rest of us.
The mere mention of his name and the words just trip off the tongue – ‘beauty’, ‘poetry’, ‘elegance’, ‘vision’, ‘defiance’, ‘anger’, ‘justice’, ‘rebellion’, ‘determination’, ‘compassion’, ‘grace’, ‘strength’. Ali owned all of these attributes and then some.
Knapp rhetorically asks “Who could have predicted when a young, gangly, loose-limbed boxer from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Clay took the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, dismissed by the major sportswriters of the day as lacking the ability and power to go on and make any impact as a professional, that he would smash his way into global consciousness like a hurricane unleashed when, just four years later, not only did he win the world heavyweight title at just 22 with a performance against the fearsome Sonny Liston that induces wonder to this day, but did it while refusing to know his place as a black athlete in Jim Crow America?
“Uppity negro” is one of the kinder insults thrown his way” remembers Thomas Knapp and that was in a society in which the lived experience of black people was racial oppression, segregation, and injustice. Prior to that first Liston fight in Miami, Prof Burgess says only those closest to him were aware of the anger, defiance and political and religious consciousness that was bubbling away under the surface of the playful braggadocio and exuberance that so endeared him to the sports pages before he turned.
It was just after that astonishing victory over Liston in which he “shook up the world” that the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, renamed the Black Muslims by reporters and TV broadcasters looking to court controversy.
It was followed by a change of name, first from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, then Muhammad Ali. Overnight this tiny, marginal, fundamentalist religious sect was propelled dragged from the obscurity in which it had existed for years under its diminutive leader, Elijah Muhammad, to the front pages of the nation’s major and not so major newspapers, the subject of TV studio debates, documentaries and establishment hysteria.
Ali, meanwhile, suddenly found himself turned into hate figure, widely and roundly excoriated as befitting a young black athlete who refused to demonstrate the requisite gratitude for having been allowed to rise from his station and be used as living proof that America works.
“I ain’t got a quarrel with them Viet Cong; no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” With those pointed words, Professor Burgess says Muhammad Ali explained his opposition to the US war in Vietnam
After declining three times to step forward for induction into the US Armed Forces in April 1967 in Houston, Texas, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion was arrested, stripped of his title and state boxing licences, and thrown into a three-year legal battle ending with his exoneration (on technical grounds) by the US Supreme Court.
No one ever seriously doubted the physical courage of Muhammed Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and winner of eight Golden Gloves titles; he became the youngest man ever to unseat a reigning heavyweight boxing champion at 22.
Clay, named after a Kentucky planter who became a crusader for the abolition of slavery, converted to Islam and changed his name shortly after that 1964 technical knockout victory over Sonny Liston.
He was fearless in the ring, perhaps forever “the greatest,” as he called himself and came to be called by others. He went on to become professional heavyweight boxing’s only three-time world champion, winning the title in 1964, 1974 and 1978.
But his singular act of moral courage, a prominent black American at the pinnacle of youthful fame, standing firm against an immoral war in the face of disapproval from World War 2’s “Greatest Generation,” head unbowed to forced military service more than a century after his nation put an end to formal chattel slavery, remains by far his greatest legacy.
His stand rang the opening bell on a generation’s resistance to war and conscription and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had hesitated to oppose civil rights supporter Lyndon Baines Johnson on the subject, to come out against the war in Vietnam. Nor did Ali’s peace activism end with his draft resistance.
In 1991, he travelled to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he visited Afghanistan as a “UN Messenger of Peace.” The Ali Centre established the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards in 2013 to honour those who make “significant contributions toward securing peace, social justice, human rights, and/or social capital in their communities and on a global basis.”
Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 and now he’s gone. Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer and he was more than an icon. He was a man with the moral courage to speak truth to power no matter the consequences and no matter the cost to him.
In more simple terms, he was a torchbearer of resistance against injustices perpetrated against fellow human beings .This alone marks him out as a legend.