Muhammad Ali knew he was the greatest before he hoisted his first championship belt. The heavyweight icon from Louisville, Kentucky, born Cassius Clay, rose to prominence at a transformative impasse of American history.
And in the early morning of June 4, 2016, passed away at an impasse just as critical.
Ali’s 74 years of life is far more than a narrative about boxing’s greatest champion. But an unparalleled American life that reveals the nation’s turbulence and tides, domestic struggles and foreign strife.
While raising his fists in the ring against his sport’s most formidable adversaries, Ali never relented to raise his voice against racial segregation and anti-blackness, war and fear of Islam outside of it. That was at a time when all four were at a boiling point in the United States.
The only three-time lineal heavyweight champion in boxing’s history, Ali’s 56 wins and five losses tally is only outshined by his record outside of the ring.
Eyes on the prize
Ali was a dissident well before he embraced Islam. After winning the gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games, the 18-year-old Clay tossed the medal into the river.
Fiercely critiqued for this act, Clay did so in response to being denied service at a “whites only” restaurant.
Before his first pro bout, Ali took on long-reigning heavyweight “Jim Crow” and the racial segregation that denied a gold medallist – who represented the US at the Olympic Games – dignity at home.
This foreshadowed a defiant and courageous commitment to racial justice that expanded as his professional career advanced.
Unlike the athletes that came before him and the sportsmen of today, Ali leveraged his athletic profile to amplify his political voice.
Instead of seeking endorsements, Ali capitalised on his “brand” to condemn institutionalised anti-blackness in the US, white supremacy, and manifest destiny at home and abroad.
Ali offered a model of religious pride for Muslims at a time of heightening Islamophobia, and especially for non-black Muslims, a perpetual reminder that Islamic piety cannot be reconciled with racism.
After knocking out the indomitable Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, and claiming the heavyweight crown at the tender age of 22, Ali again did what at the time was deemed the unthinkable.
With the world’s eyes on the young champion, Ali joined the Nation of Islam at an impasse when the faith, and its two leaders – the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X – were absolutely reviled.
But, the newly named Muhammad Ali was not interested in being a conformist champion. He dodged comparisons with Joe Louis and contemporary Floyd Patterson, and reigned over the heavyweight division and the American imagination with a defiant and revolutionary blackness that helped redefine sport and society.
Fear of a black radical
Ali was a poet. He famously recited verses before his bouts, oftentimes predicting the very round he would dispatch his opponent.
For boxing fanatics – like me – Ali was even more poetic as a pugilist. A heavyweight with the agility of a lightweight, the feet of a ballet dancer, and the reflexes of a cat, Ali redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight. He also redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight champion.
Transcendent, Ali’s brilliance was rooted in his defiance of convention and custom. He paved his own way, inside and especially outside of the ring. His charisma only surpassed by his courage, which was on full display not in prize-fighting – but politics.
During the height of his boxing prime, Ali was drafted to serve in the war in Vietnam. He refused, famously declaring that, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong … No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
Again, Ali dealt a direct blow to the temple of the racist US establishment. He refused to jeopardise his life abroad while black men and women were being persecuted by the state, assaulted by dogs and policemen, denied service at restaurants and entry into colleges, and killed on the streets of the US.
His courage cost him his title, millions of dollars, and more than three years of his fighting prime.
On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction. Just like he defeated Joe Frazier, and the widely believed to be invincible George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in former Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974, Ali prevailed over the US military – when very few even dared to step inside the ring with them.
Rumble, young man, rumble
A black and Muslim radical, at a time when being either came with great risk, Ali not only survived, but flourished … and in the process, lifting the bowed heads of black people, Muslims, the downtrodden and underdogs the world over. He was not only the most famous man in the world, but by a far stretch, its most loved.
He meant so much to so many people, across generational, racial and national boundaries. Ali embodied Black Power before the Black Lives Matter Movement, providing a blueprint for today’s activists protesting for racial justice.
He offered a model of religious pride for Muslims at a time of heightening Islamophobia, and especially for non-black Muslims, a perpetual reminder that Islamic piety cannot be reconciled with racism.
Muhammad Ali is, after all, the most famous Muslim American ever, and indeed, a black man whose commitment to anti-racism led him to Islam.
Ali is known and revered by those who never watched a single round of boxing. He meant so much to me, to billions; dead, alive, and still to be born.
Minutes ago, the world lost one of the greatest men to ever walk its grounds. But Heaven gains its greatest champion. Rumble, young man, rumble – in Heaven as you did on Earth.