A week ago Sunday, Rahman Ali, the brother of the man known as “The Greatest of All-Time,” shocked the world by stating that his brother is dying. “’He’s in a bad way. He’s very sick,” Ali told the Sun. “It could be months, it could be days. I don’t know if he’ll last the summer. He’s in God’s hands.”
Rahman Ali’s brother, Muhammad Ali, changed the world with his swagger and uncompromising ferocity, and became a symbol of his time. Vilified and celebrated, he is among the best-known athletes in history — winning Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Century” crown with only Michael Jordan appearing on the magazine’s cover more, the BBC’s “Sports Personality of the Century” and ranking first among 20th century heavyweight boxers with the Associated Press — and among the most recognized persona in popular culture.
The first and the only three-time lineal undisputed World Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. Parkinson’s disease, known as parkinsonism, is a neurological syndrome caused by a number of causes — including toxins (typically, as a side effect of certain medications), metabolic diseases and concussive damage to cerebral tissue — and results in neurodegeneration. Ali was last seen at the 2012 London Games’ Opening Ceremony. Appearing thin and frail. he was helped across the stage by his wife Lonnie.
Reports about the Champ’s impending death, first reported by The Sun and The Daily Mail, have caused such a global stir that the office of Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia called Ali’s wife several time to inquire on Ali’s health. Ali’s daughter, Rasheda Ali-Walsh, told USA Today that the reports are not true. “It’s a rumor. I just talked to him today and he’s fine.” A picture of Ali in a Ravens jersey watching the Super Bowl was distributed over Twitter.
In response to her husband’s health inquiries, Lonnie Ali told USA Today: “All I can tell you is that Muhammad is rooting for the Ravens and Muhammad was completely (taken) with Beyonce … His eyes and mouth were wide open, so he’s fine.”
Despite the familial bickering, the scare of possibly losing the Champ forced the world to reexamine what exactly he means to it. To some, he was a shameless braggart, self-promoter and egotist. To others, he was a role model, a source of inspiration and a trailblazer. Yet others see him as a scoundrel, a revolutionary and a corruptive force.
The truth is that he is all of these things.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Ky. on Jan. 17, 1942. The oldest of two boys (his brother Rahman, two years younger than Muhammad, was born Rudolph Clay), Ali was named after his father, who was named after the 19th century abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, “the Lion of White Hall.” Ali’s father was a billboard painter and his mother was a maid. Ali and his brother was allowed to be brought up in their mother’s Baptist faith, despite their father being Methodist.
Ali was first encouraged to enter the ring when Joe E. Martin, a Louisville police officer, comforted the young Ali after his prized bicycle was stolen. Ali, in tears, demanded a statewide hunt for his bike and boasted about what he would do to the thief, only to admit he didn’t know how to fight. Despite this, Ali was determined to fight the thief anyway. Encouraged by the young man’s fire, Martin trained Ali and presented the boy in his Tomorrow’s Champions show.
Ali’s amateur career lasted six years and 108 fights, with 100 victories, one loss, national titles with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the Golden Gloves and the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in Boxing at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. Ali claimed that he threw the medal into the Ohio River in disgust after being refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant. Ali would receive a replacement medal at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
Christine, the widow of Ali’s first trainer Martin, said of her experiences with Ali: “Cassius was a very easy-to-get-along-with fellow. Very easy to handle. Very polite. Whatever you asked him to do, that’s what he’d do. His mother, that’s why. She was a wonderful person.”
She continued: “On trips, most of the boys were out looking around, seeing what they could get into, whistling at pretty girls. But Cassius didn’t believe in that. He carried his Bible everywhere he went, and while the other boys were out looking around, he was sitting and reading his Bible.”
After turning professional at age 18, Ali went on a 19-fight winning streak, with no fight lasting past the seventh round. His next fight with Sonny “the Bear” Liston — a former street thug with a criminal record and a nasty habit of seriously injuring his opponents and for using a chemical irritant to blind them, as attested by Bert Sugar — for the WBA/WBC Heavyweight Championship proved to be one of the most controversial in the history of the sport.
Prior to the fight, Ali’s slanderous speak made him a dubious underdog, especially to White America. “After the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug,” Ali boasted. “Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him … if Sonny Liston whups me, I’ll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he’s the greatest and catch the next jet out of the country.”
During the fight, per his habit, Liston managed to spread the irritant (most likely, Monsel’s solution — a topical ointment to seal cuts) to Ali’s eyes during a head punch in the fourth round. Despite the strength difference to Liston’s favor, Ali was clearly in better shape and was able to easily avoid Liston. Vying time until sweat and tears were able to dilute the irritant in the fifth round, Ali delivered a masterful storm of punches. Liston returned to his corner, complained of his shoulder and refused to answer the seventh round bell, giving Ali the technical knockout and the youngest boxing championship in history at the age of 22 (Mike Tyson would replace Ali as the youngest champion in 1986).
During the now infamous in-ring interview, Ali proclaimed “I must be ‘The Greatest!’”
The Louisville lip
Prior to Ali’s fight with Liston. Ali petitioned to join the Nation of Islam (NOI) — a syncretic religious movement based on the Five Pillars of the Islamic Faith that promotes the improvement of conditions for African-Americans and which has been accused of being anti-Semitic and black supremacist — only to be rejected, as violence violates the spirit of Islam.
However, after Ali won the championship, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the NOI, had a change of heart. In Ali, he saw a national spokesperson to promote and advance the NOI. The day after the Liston victory, Ali announced his allegiance to the NOI and his name change to Cassius X (the NOI feels that surnames received from bondage are inappropriate and chose to use X as a substitute for the person’s unknown tribal name).
Shortly thereafter, Elijah Muhammad recorded a statement to be played over the radio that Cassius X is to be renamed Muhammad Ali. The name was specifically crafted for its religious symbolism: Muhammad means “one who is worthy of praise” — Ali is the fourth rightly-guided caliph. Few in the boxing community, most notably Howard Cosell, took this seriously; the boxing community continued to refer to the Champ as Cassius Clay.
Cosell had an easier time than most accepting the name because he changed his own from Cohen to Cosell to hide his Jewish ancestry. As Cosell would later explain: no “intelligent proud black in the 1960s” would want to keep a “slave name.”
This name was highly controversial. Besides the fact that Ali’s original name is highly symbolic in regard to civil rights, the name “Clay” symbolized Ali’s connection to his family and his people’s shared past. A rejection of it seemed like a betrayal. A day following the “Cassius X” press conference, Muhammad announced at the annual NOI convention that “Clay whipped a much tougher man and came through the bout unscarred because he has accepted Muhammad as the messenger of Allah.”
The true problem with Ali’s name is that — according to NOI’s doctrine — no one is supposed to receive an original Arabic name until Wallace Fard Muhammad — the founder of the religion — returns from his 1934 “disappearance.” It is thought that Elijah Muhammad did this to wedge the impressionable 22-year-old away from his mentor at the time, Malcolm X.
Ali’s turn to the NOI was seen as an embrace of racial segregation. Shortly after the name change, Harry Markson, president of Madison Square Garden’s boxing program, refused to introduce Ali as Muhammad Ali. “We’ve made so much progress in eliminating color barriers,” said Markson at the time, justifying his decision, “that it’s a pity we’re now facing such a problem, the heavyweight champion of the world preaching a hate religion.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said about Ali that “he became a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against.”
In his 1970 autobiography, co-authored by Dave Anderson, Sugar Ray Robinson recounts a conversation with Ali. Robinson invited the new champ down to Jamaica to serve as a celebrity trainer at a Robinson fight. One night, Robinson and his wife, Millie, were sitting poolside with Ali and his wife, Sonji, when a shooting star passed through the heavens. Upon seeing it, Ali leaped up and shouted, “The white man is destroying the world.”
He explained to Robinson that only Allah and his Messenger, Elijah Muhammad, could save the world from destruction and pleaded with him to join the saved. As an incentive, Ali continued, Elijah Muhammad was prepared to lay $700,000 on him, one dollar from each Muslim in America.
Robinson told a chagrined Ali that he would not join the Nation of Islam for $7 million. “You know your slogan — ‘The white man is a devil, the white devils’ — that’s not right. You can’t live in this world hating people,” Robinson said. He reminded Ali that he was a Christian: “All the Christian religions preach love for your fellow man.”
Hated and loved
Ali — as a mouthpiece of the NOI — made him one of the most controversial figures of his era. Even though he would regret his posture later in life, as a minister of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, Ali became the public face of what most Americans saw as a hate group. Ali’s attitude seemed to waver from civil rights support to outright separatism. Ali once said on integration: “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”
On racial intermarriage, he said: “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters.”
On a separate homeland for Blacks, he said, “Why don’t we get out and build our own nation? White people just don’t want their slaves to be free. That’s the whole thing. Why not let us go and build ourselves a nation? We want a country. We’re 40 million people, but we’ll never be free until we own our own land.”
The African-American community, despite the divisive rhetoric, actually supported Ali’s frustration against the “system” and the embracing of his “blackness.” Social activist Dick Gregory said of Ali: “He lived a lot of lives for a lot of people. And he was able to tell white folks, for us, to ‘Go to hell.’”
This did not mean that Ali’s bluster was generally accepted. The establishment media, liberal White America and public Black figures all came down hard on Ali. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, “I never went along with the pronouncements of Elijah Muhammad that the white man was the devil and that blacks should be striving for separate development; a sort of American apartheid. That never made sense to me. It was a racist ideology and I didn’t like it.”
Boxing legend Joe Louis added, “I’ve always believed that every man is my brother. Clay will earn the public’s hatred because of his connections with the Black Muslims [the NOI].” Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson agreed: “I’ve been told that Clay has every right to follow any religion he chooses and I agree. But, by the same token, I have every right to call the Black Muslims a menace to the United States and a menace to the Negro race. I do not believe God put us here to hate one another. Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race.”
However, love him or hate him, Ali represented the reality of the American Dream for African-Americans. For Ali, wealth and success painted over — but didn’t alleviate — the realities of racial oppression in America; that, for all his trappings and successes, he was only a Negro in the eyes of many — a second-class citizen. While Ali’s rage was unfocused and manipulated by hidden forces, it was justified. This made him a legend in an era of legends, an icon whom claim to fame was simply being himself at a time others hid from their reflection.
Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. and an expert on Ali, wrote “The Muhammad Ali Reader” (1998) and “Body Language: Writers on Sport” (1998). In conversation with Mint Press, Dr. Early commented on Ali’s significance in American history, “Ali was a child of his times. The 1960s was a time of great turmoil and dissent, great political violence (several public and political figures were assassinated including an American president). Ali was a young man who was seeking to make sense of the times he lived in. He also wanted to be an exemplar to black Americans at the time, a kind of hero to them. I think, in some respects, he spoke for black Americans at the time and in other respects he did not. I think he was greatly admired by black Americans of all political persuasions whether they felt he spoke for them or not. Ali was a huge symbol for blacks of the Vietnam War generation just as Joe Louis was a huge symbol for blacks during World War II.”
In 1964, Ali received a 1-Y classification (not qualified for military service) for the draft, which, in 1966, was reclassified as the military searched for more ready draftees. After his deferment was denied (at the time, Ali was a nationally-known figure, and deferment for such individuals were common; it was suspected that he was drafted because of who he was, and not necessarily because his number came up), the reclassified 1-A (available for the draft) made it clear that he was against the draft when he blurted out “’I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
On April 28, 1967, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector, due to his Islamic prohibition of violence. On June 20 of the same year, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing induction into the armed forces at a time of war. He was stripped of his titles and his boxing license was voided. He would not box again for three years.
In 1971, Clay v. United States vacated his conviction. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular, the legend of Ali started to grow. Today, it is difficult to tell where the legend ends and the man begin.
The legacy and the legend
Ali would go on to make boxing history, winning the undisputed World Heavyweight Championship two more times and amassing a professional record of 56 wins (37 by knockout), 5 losses and no draws. Despite censure from Elijah Muhammad in 1969 — where Muhammad attempted to strip Ali of his NOI name — Ali will stay with the NOI until 1975 when Warith Deen Muhammad, son and heir to Elijah Muhammad, converted to Sunni Islam, abandoned his father’s campaign of hate and disbanded the NOI. Ali followed Warith Deen Muhammad to Sunni Islam and embraced Sufism in 2005.
Ali today is seen as a symbol, a marketable icon. Little consideration is given to the man’s politics or the road he had to travel to get where he is at now. A middle-class Southern Black child — raised by a proud, self-sufficient nuclear family — that was mostly treated well by the White adults in his life, was well-respected and compensated during his amateur and professional careers and was given the benefit of the doubt more often than not does not suggest an inspiring African-American rags-to-riches story.
But that is how history chooses to remember him. In the movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Ransom Stoddard asked Maxwell Scott if he was going to use the real story about Liberty Valance. In response, Scott told Stoddard, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The facts behind Muhammad Ali have long been overtaken by legend.
Alexander Diegel, sports writer and former Bleacher Report columnist, counts himself as an avid boxing fan. “Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time and one of the two greatest boxers. However, he is so much more than that. To me, he transcends all levels of American culture – sports, celebrity, politics, religion — more than anyone who ever lived. He is also one of the most polarizing figures to ever walk the planet, in so many ways. He promoted civil rights, but challenged Frazier’s blackness. He led boxing to its peak, but in a way destroyed it with his battle with Parkinson’s. He was known for the words that came out of his mouth and infinite catch phrases, but by the end of his life could barely speak … I prefer to remember him in his prime — his majestic dance around the ring, the battle of wills against Frazier, the clinic he put on Foreman, the goofing off with Cosell and the infinite amount of one-liners and catch phrases. That is the Ali that should be remembered, revered and celebrated.”
A different perspective can be taken from Daniel Rosenberg, a professor of sports management and sport ethics at Barry University in Miami, Fla. “Much of Ali’s persona — the bellicose bragging — was an act to promote himself and his sport. I believe him to be a reflective individual who recognized his impact as heavyweight champion and used the attention given him to advocate for those things he believed in. He sacrificed a lot for his anti-war position and probably missed out on millions of dollars in endorsements. The same cannot be said for other iconic athletes such as Joe Namath or Michael Jordan who leveraged their fame to enhance their personal wealth. You may not believe in all of Ali’s positions but he stands out as a man of principle who was willing to sacrifice individual wealth for what he believed in.”
Regardless of the take one may have of this complicated man, one thing is commonly agreed on: He will be missed once his time does arrive.
Print This Story