The mainstream tributes for Muhammed Ali are insults in the form of faint praise. Why if I didn’t know better, I would think the ruling class wanted to turn Ali into an avatar for harmless American benevolence or an amiable buffoon.
Ali was benevolent – all evidence points to him being an exceptionally kind and generous man – but he was never harmless. Ali was funny, but he was never a buffoon; he is one of the greatest satirists of my time.
I am sorry for people not old enough to remember Ali when he burst on the scene. He wasn’t just a genius in the ring, beautiful to watch. He shut down the cynical pundits and establishment hit men with a devastating tactic: he told the unvarnished truth, with conviction and wit. He was fearless in and out of the ring.
Even before he beat Sonny Liston for the world championship, he embraced Islam and renounced his birth name in favour of Muhammad Ali. Celebrating victory he used the media spotlight to acknowledge his conscious choice: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
His mainstream eulogizers gloss over or ignore how important Ali’s religion was to his very public and political stands. It was the basis of his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and of his public denunciations of US racism at home and abroad.
It made him a champion beyond the arena, a champion of oppressed people around the world.
It made him a champion to Black Americans, even those who had no intention of following his religious path. It was his fearlessness, standing up for his convictions and going toe to toe with their common enemy that inspired them.
We are all lucky that so much of Ali’s brilliance took place in front of cameras. Like when he confronted a white university student after a speech about his draft resistance: “You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me at home.”
You can listen to his eloquent anti-war speeches. You can hear him slam fatuous critics who try to equate prize fighting and war: “My intention is to box to win a clean fight. but in war the intention is to kill, kill, kill and continue killing innocent people.”
You can laugh along as Ali satirizes white bread Anglo-American Christianity: “Why is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Last Supper all white men? Even the angels.... If the white folks are in heaven too, the black angels were in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey.”
While you can hear the words from his own lips, unless you where there at the time, you can’t appreciate how electrifying it was. No American black man had ever been given - check that – had ever won a platform to speak directly to the US and the whole world, and Ali squeezed every ounce out of the opportunity. He became the single most recognized person in the world. Anyone who doubted his power and reach had only to witness the ecstatic reception he received in Zaire before 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. Every African child knew who Ali was, and felt he was for them.
Not everyone loved him. To the rulers of America he was a threat. He was “uppity”. He was a coward. He was a traitor. They stripped him of his title and stole over three years of his prime, banning him from boxing. He defied them by traveling abroad to fight, and by transforming himself into a powerful public speaker, touring US universities to talk about his opposition to war. As those in power tried to rob him of his platform, and bankrupt him, he rose above them, becoming even more popular and dangerous.
I won’t pretend Ali was perfect. In line with the dictates of the Nation of Islam, early on he refused to get directly involved with the civil rights or black power movements. And yet he remained an inspiration to activists in those movements.
When his friend and mentor Malcolm X broke with the NOI over its isolationist policies, Ali shunned him. Later, after Ali too left the orbit of the NOI’s peculiar brand of Islam, he expressed regret: “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance.”
Some of his highest profile fights were used by dictators to consolidate their rule. The “Rumble in the Jungle”, the 1974 fight in which Ali regained his world title from George Foreman, benefitted Zaire’s corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The powers of western imperialism backed Mobutu in overthrowing and murdering the great African liberation leader Patrice Lumumba. Beside looting his own nation, Mobutu aided the CIA’s attempts to undermine the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Likewise, 1975’s “Thrilla in Manilla” against Joe Frazier was sponsored by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Narcos. Marcos had imposed martial law in 1972, smashing freedoms of the press and opposition, citing threats from Communism and, ironically, Moslem separatism.
Ali was probably naive and poorly informed about the background of these events. Nevertheless they cast shadows on his record. But no one’s record in or out of the ring is perfect: his enduring popularity remained to the end an antidote to Islamophobia and imperialism.
Taken as a whole Ali’s life remains a powerful inspiration for struggle to make a better world. As always it is best to let Ali speak for himself: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”