Muhammad Ali was passed, but his legacy will live on forever. He not only spoke up when few did. He worked constantly for the betterment of black people and the betterment of the human race in general. He was an icon of the black liberation struggle and a magnificent humanitarian activist. To understand his glorious, inspirational life, it is very important to mention where and when he was born. He was born in January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents are Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. and Odessa O’Grady Clay. Back then, Louisville was in the midst of brutal, legalized apartheid and many black people in Louisville suffered racism, discrimination (many black people back then had to work in service oriented jobs), economic deprivation, police brutality, poverty, etc. Urban renewal harmed neighborhoods in Louisville too. Both of his parents loved Muhammad Ali a great deal. His mother was a sweet, spiritual woman and his father was a gifted painter. His younger brother is Rahman Ali. His mother Odessa said that Muhammad Ali was prevented from drinking water because of his color affected him. This incident and others inspired Muhammad Ali to be courageous to stand up against injustice. During his childhood, Muhammad Ali loved to be around people and expressed a great deal of humor. When he was 12 year old, someone stole his bike. His bike was a red and white Schwinn bicycle. It was stolen outside of an annual convention at the Columbian Auditorium. He was angry and he told officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin that he wanted to box. Later, the officer taught him how to box in the gym beneath the auditorium. He was great in his amateur career. The boxing cutman Chuck Bodak later trained him. Muhammad Ali started to do amateur boxing in 1954. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, 2 national Golden Gloves titles, and an Amateur Athletic Union national title. By 1960, it was a new era in his life. Muhammad Ali came into the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He won the gold medal in the Light Heavyweight boxing competition. He was celebrated when he came home into Louisville. After the Olympics, Muhammad Ali was denied the right to eat at an all white lunch counter in downtown Louisville, KY. Afterwards, he had thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River in anger over racial injustice. Later, Muhammad Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. His professional debut came about in October 29, 1960 when he won a six round decision over Tunney Hunsaker.
For his professional career by the end of 1963, Muhammad Ali had a record of 19-0 with 15 wins by knockout. Muhammad Ali even in the early 1960’s was known for his confidence and for his great, witty communication skills. Many people didn’t like him (because of his outspokenness) while the media always covered him. Muhammad Ali bragged about his skills and abilities. He joked about his opponents. Muhammad Ali also displayed a great deal of confidence and he loved being Black. His trainers changed from Archie Moore (who was a great boxer) and to Angelo Dundee. Ali hired Dundee as his trainer and Muhammad Ali was a great friend of Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray Robinson influenced Muhammad Ali in many ways. By late 1963, Muhammad Ali was facing Sonny Liston. Sonny Liston was a brutal fighter, he had ties to the Mafia, and Liston had an intimidating personality. Sonny Liston defeated Floyd Patterson and other boxers brutally and convincingly. Yet, Muhammad Ali was never afraid of Sonny Liston. He would tell the world that he would beat Sonny Liston. Muhammad Ali would tell Sonny Liston to his face that he will defeat him. The boxing journalists in most cases believed that Liston would easily defeat Ali. Yet, they were wrong. Before the fight, Muhammad Ali joined the Black Nationalist and separatist Nation of Islam. The NOI grew, because of the massive white racism which existed in American society. Many black people joined the Nation of Islam to seek a sense of community, unity, and respect in their own community. The NOI was known for its reform programs and teaching programs. To the wider public, the NOI was known for its views on white people. Its leader, during that time, was Elijah Muhammad who called white people "devils." Muhammad Ali felt that the NOI was a family and could inspire black people to make the changes needed to cause justice. Muhammad Ali first heard of the NOI in 1959.
In 1961, Muhammad Ali came into NOI meetings and he met Malcolm X in 1962. Malcolm X was a friend and mentor to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali learned a lot about Blackness, about Africa, and about life from the NOI. Malcolm X was opposed to using nonviolence alone in ending oppression for black people. Malcolm X believed in self defense and self-determination. He unapologetically advanced justice and Malcolm X was crucial in expanding the influence of the Nation of Islam. The economic problems in many black communities, the hypocrisy of a Cold War society, and people tired of injustices also caused the Nation of Islam to flourish. Yes, I don’t agree with the NOI on every issue, but they are right that racism is a serious problem in America, there is nothing wrong with self-determination, and the love of Blackness is very important to embrace.
He Shook Up the World
The fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston took place on February 25, 1964 in Miami. Muhammad Ali won in a stunning victory. Muhammad Ali has shown skills, defensive ability, and quick punches to defeat Sonny Liston in a 7th round TKO victory for Muhammad Ali. Following the win, a triumphant Muhammad Ali rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted: "Eat your words!" He added, "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived." He was 22 years old. His words that he shook up the world was very prophetic. Soon after the fight, Muhammad Ali publicly announced that he has joined the Nation of Islam. He rejected Cassius Clay as a slave name and he is said that he is not a slave. This decision was opposed not only by reactionary whites, but by moderate civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins (who would support the bloody, evil Vietnam War until later on after Dr. Martin Luther King was unjustly assassinated. Roy Wilkins also legitimately criticized the Nixon administration for its policies against black Americans during the 1970's). Muhammad Ali's confidence and his words in favor of black self-confidence was revolutionary and inspirational for young black people back then and today. Muhammad Ali also supported the anti-colonial struggle for independence in Africa just like Malcolm X. Malcolm X left the National of Islam in 1964 and Muhammad Ali disagreed with Malcolm X during that time on that decision. Later, Muhammad Ali regretted shunning Malcolm X after he left the NOI. Malcolm X would continue to promote pan-African unity and he desired the UN to try America for crimes against black Americans. Malcolm X would also question capitalism and wanted international solidarity among the oppressed people of the world in order for human beings to confront the Western imperialist, international power structure (which was dominating peoples). Malcolm X would be assassinated by murderers in February of 1965. Muhammad Ali fought Liston in a rematch in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. That fight was controversial since Liston was knocked down by a difficult to see punch. Ali was the winner by knockout. Many people were upset and believed that the fight was rigged (Ali vehemently denied this accusation), but Muhammad Ali moved on. He fought former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on November 22, 1965. Patterson said that he wanted to win the title for Christianity and Ali took offense to that. Floyd Patterson made the following disrespectful remarks about Ali: "This fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims. As a Catholic, I am fighting Clay as a patriotic duty. I am going to return the crown to America." Ali defeated Patterson a 12 round lopsided victory. Muhammad Ali was about to fight Ernie Terrell in March 29, 1966, but technical issues prevented that to happen.
Vietnam and Courage
The United States government promoted the Vietnam War for years. In February 1966, Muhammad Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A from 1-Y, and he indicated that he would refuse to serve, commenting to the press, "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me n_______." This caused many more people to oppose him, especially war hawks who believed in the Vietnam War. Back in 1966, a significant number of Americans supported the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali was soon banned from fighting in some places. He was slandered by the press, far right people, and even by moderates for his courageous stand against an evil, unjust war. He was widely vilified by sports writers, generally among the brainwashed and most superficial members of the journalistic fraternity. Red Smith claimed that the fighter had made himself “as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” Another sports writer-sage, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, termed Ali a “black Benedict Arnold.”
Still, Muhammad Ali stood by his convictions and stood up for what he believed in like a man. Muhammad Ali was a champion and hero who was against war, discrimination, and racism. He viewed the Vietnamese people as victims of the same colonialism as black people were in American society.
The 1960's was a revolutionary time. The civil rights movement moved into a new phrase of militancy. The status quo was opposed by many brave people. During the early 1960's, many black students (many of them were from historically Black Colleges and Universities) and black youth in general used demonstrations and civil disobedience against segregated lunch counters, stores, and bus stations throughout the South. By the late 1960's, a new era of the black liberation struggle existed. There has been many laws passed, but many people were rightfully angered at the slow process of the civil rights movement and how economic problems still persisted (especially against black people and the poor). During the summer of 1964, there were a thousand arrests of civil rights activists, 30 buildings bombed and 36 churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. Rebellions happened in 1964 in Rochester, Philadelphia, and Harlem, NYC. The 1965 Watts rebellion was bigger. Much larger rebellions happened in Detroit, Newark, and other cities of America in 1967. The anti-Vietnam war movement expanded during the late 1960's. Big national strikes and battles between American workers and police on picket lines were on the order of the day. There were people of every color (like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, Courtland Cox, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Cynthia Washington, Gloria Richardson, Septima Clark, etc.) standing up for civil rights, economic justice, and the rights of women too back during the 1960's. Internationally, hated dictatorships fell in Greece, Spain and Portugal. The global crisis reached its potentially revolutionary peak in the great French general strike, in which ten million people participated, in May-June 1968. Muhammad Ali traveled to fight George Chuvaolo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, and Karl Mildenberger in Canada and in Europe in 1966. He fought Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome in November 14, 1966 in a record breaking indoor crowd (during that time in November 14, 1966). Muhammad Ali won the fight in three round TKO. Some view Muhammad Ali's fight with Cleveland Williams as his best boxing performance (with an excellent combination of power, speed, and agility). Also, Muhammad Ali defeated Ernie Terrell in Houston on February 6, 1967. Muhammad Ali was disrespected by Ernie Terrell by Terrell calling him "Cassius Clay" when Muhammad Ali said to him not to call him by that name repeatedly. From March 1966, Muhammad Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War. In March 22, 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title after his refusal to be drafted to Army service. Muhammad Ali opposed the Vietnam War, because it was an unjust war that destroyed the lives of the Vietnamese people, it was against his religious beliefs, and he felt that he must fight for justice domestically. Muhammad Ali wanted the world to know that the Vietnamese people never lynched his ancestors, they never put his ancestors in chains via slavery, and they never deprived black people of freedom, justice, and equality in America. Muhammad Ali was right.
Muhammad Ali said in 1967 that:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years.” He also said famously that: "...My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n_______, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what?... How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail!”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an ally and friend of Muhammad Ali too. Both men spoke about housing issues in Louisville, KY in a press conference. Dr. King said that black and brown people face the same system of oppression. Also, Muhammad Ali would inspire Dr. King to take a more militant stand against the Vietnam War. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his famous Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War in April of 1967 and he was in a NYC anti-war demonstration where he gave a speech in front of the United Nations building. Like Muhammad Ali, Dr. King would be criticized by far right people and moderates because of his anti-Vietnam War stance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continued to courageously stand up against war and any injustice.
He was convicted of violating the draft rules on June 20, 1967 and he was sentenced for five years in prison. During this time, he spent great time in Chicago. Yet, Muhammad Ali appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. During his exile (from March 1967 to October 1970), he spoke to crowds of college kids, anti-war activists, and other black civil rights organizations. His family and friends financially supported him and his family. Muhammad Ali was in a 1969 musical play called "Buck White" which exposed how racism against black people was totally evil. The show opened December 2, 1969 at the George Abbott Theatre. Though not known as a singer, Ali is listed as singing virtually every song in the score, including such titles as “We Came in Chains,” Mighty Whitey” and “Get Down.” Muhammad Ali continued to promote black racial consciousness (in the midst of the powerful Black Power Movement) and opposition to the Western genocidal war in Vietnam. Ali's stand against the system of white supremacy should always be respected.
By 1970, Ali was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission thanks to State Senator Lerory R. Johnson. He fought Jerry Quarry in October 26, 1970 in Atlanta. He won after three rounds after Quarry was cut. The exile caused him to lack ring experience for years, but his soul was strengthened by standing up for his convictions. Later, Ali would beat Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December 1970. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8–0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself, as he had been the U.S. Solicitor General at the time of Ali's conviction). By March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali fought Frazier in their first fight held in Garden, which was nicknamed the “Fight of the Century.” For weeks, there was preparation for the fight. Muhammad Ali in some of his words about Joe Frazier went too far (by calling Frazier an "Uncle Tom", etc.). There was excitement and crowds of people came to Madison Square Garden. The match was even for most of the bout until Joe Frazier knocked Ali down in the 11th round with a left hook. Ali immediately got up, but Muhammad Ali lost by decision.
This was the first lost in his professional career. Afterwards, Muhammad Ali fought many opponents. He had a slightly different style than before his exile, but he had an iron strong chin. Ken Norton broke his jaw in another lost. Later, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton would be knocked down by George Foreman. George Foreman was an Olympic champion from Houston, Texas. George Foreman was tall, big, and very strong. He intimidated many opponents.
Zaire in Africa (and Later Years)
Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in the fight nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Like with the Liston fight, many sports commentators viewed Ali as having no chance against Foreman. Some (even Howard Cosell) said that George Foreman was too powerful and just fearless. Muhammad Ali trained in Africa and spoke about him being the Greatest of All Time. Ali told the crowds of people in Africa "Ali Bomaye" in expressing his goal of defeating Foreman. Muhammad Ali punched George Foreman in a way that no fighter punched Foreman prior to that match. He allowed Foreman to tire himself out and Muhammad Ali gave him a multiple punch one-two combination that defeated him. Muhammad Ali and his fans celebrated in Africa and throughout the word. The Thriller in Manila fight in the Philippines was one of the most harsh, brutal fights of Muhammad Ali's career. He fought Joe Frazier for the last time in that fight in 1975. The fight had to be called off, because Joe Frazier's eye was severely injured and Muhammad Ali won. Muhammad Ali said that that fight was the closest he felt to death in a boxing ring. By 1975, Muhammad Ali left the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim. He came into Hajj in 1972 and by 1975, his spiritual views evolved to be more progressive. Many of his closest friends were black and people of numerous colors globally. Additionally, Muhammad Ali supported the right of return of the Palestinian people and he visited refugee amps in southern Lebanon. Muhammad Ali continued to fight people like Ken Norton, Joe Frazier again, and Leon Spinks. He would end his boxing career in 1981. Years later, Muhammad Ali was officially diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. This disease slowed his movements, but his mind was ever strong. For decades, Muhammad Ali has raised money and spoke out in favor of Parkinson disease research. Muhammad Ali fought for humanitarian causes like fighting poverty, promoting literacy, and advancing peace. He negotiated the peaceful departure of American hostages in Iraq during 1991. He helped to light the flame in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics of 1996. He signed autographs and allowed people from many walks of live to visit his home. He supported religious tolerance during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He opposed the reactionary agenda of Donald Trump in 2016 too.
Muhammad Ali received more awards and acknowledgements. Muhammad Ali was named the "greatest sportsman of the 20th century" by Sports Illustrated in 1999. It is ironic that many of the same people who hated Ali are now sending him accolades after his passing. What he wanted to do is to put smiles in people’s faces, to inspire children, and to speak truth to power. He had Parkinson’s disease, but the disease never crippled his spirit. Muhammad Ali during the 21st century went into the hospital multiple times to handle health related issues. The final days of his life was spent with his family and friends. It was an emotional time for them we praise Ali's family and friends for their love & strength. One June 3, 2016, he passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona from complications from a respiratory illness. He was 74 years old and his family was there with him. We all mourn Muhammad Ali's passing. He was another great example of living black manhood. He gave his life for the improvement of the world and he loved his family and his children. His contributions are endless. He bravely stood up to oppose the unjust Vietnam War. He defended the human rights of black people. So, he was not just the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time (as he has beaten previous champions in multiple decades. Muhammad Ali was blessed with amazing reflexes, excellent speed, and a huge determination or will). Muhammad Ali was an outstanding humanitarian who loved to be around people. He helped the sick, allowed his house to house people from many walks of life, and he promoted love and peace worldwide. He defended the oppressed and Muhammad Ali was a heroic black man who believed in human liberty. He continued to speak out in favor of justice in 2016. I send prayers and condolences to Muhammad Ali's friends and family. Many of our legends and heroes are passing away.
Muhammad Ali's life and legacy represents an opportunities for athletes, musicians, lawyers, social activists, and all of us in general to not only speak up against injustices, but to stand up for our core convictions. We live in a class struggle and we desire human liberation to be made into a reality for all. We have murderous, evil drone strikes and assassinations against people in the world (which have been called "kill lists"). Many Wall Street individuals are complicit in financial corruption and they haven't been prosecuted either. There is torture in the world. There is the evil persecution of whistleblowers too. We witness an American city of Flint, Michigan being given poisoned water. We have French people standing up for labor rights. We witness Afro-Columbians and Afro-Brazilians fighting for their human rights. Political courage is rare in our contemporary society. The struggle isn't over, but Muhammad Ali (who was willing to go to jail and lose all of his money for the sake of his principles) taught us to keep our heads up and fight for what is right. All of us should be inspired to be anti-imperialist, to stand for economic justice, to oppose police brutality, to fight for racial justice, to fight for gender justice, to improve the environment, and to make society much better than it is currently. It is certainly clear that we honor this Brother and be inspired to live out our lives in service to our communities.
RIP Brother Muhammad Ali.