In America larger than life figures stand alone. Those that loom over time and space are remembered for their greatness, above and away from all other forces.
Muhammad Ali, once a Cassius Clay, is the latest figure to be cloaked by the media in the mythos of godlike phenomenon. Ali, the only boxer to hold a world championship title three times from defeating the existing title-holder, wielded a celebrity-infused cultural power unseen by any athlete since. After passing away on June 3, 2016 many tributes and expressions about his legacy have similarly embellished his role as an anti-war hero, after he was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. A fast-talking ring warrior who could trounce opponents with speed and deception and endear crowds with cunning and magnanimity, Ali redefined the limits of sport, showmanship, and politics.
However, like Nelson Mandela and others who have recently passed away, the acclaim has done him a great disservice.
On one level, this is because the nature of adulation in America reinforces ideas inherent to a highly individualistic consumer society. However, beneath even this subtext, lies the stark reality that the stuff Muhammad Ali was made of was and still is repulsive to the modern political order of the world, an order still strewn in a deeply American shadow.
The ideological basis for Ali’s later life as a goodwill ambassador for an Islam with universal appeal, a guerilla statesman and his self-location in the black liberation struggle, started and crystalized under the tutelage of a man named Malcolm X. Ali was the living persona of Malcolm’s vision; a complex array of interpersonal dynamics, revolutionary fervor of the American Civil Rights movement, and explosive athletic talent created a star-crossed brotherhood between these two men that would come to create the ‘Muhammad Ali’ the world mourns today.
In the book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X two historians explore a rich tapestry of diaries, memos, and FBI files – much of which was previously unavailable – that demonstrate both the extent to which Ali, then Cassisus Clay, was influenced by his mentor, Malcolm X, and the radical black-separatist politics of the Nation of Islam. Eventually Malcolm left the Nation of Islam both for what he perceived as personal betrayal from the organization’s leader and limitations inherent to its philosophy.
As it later became clear that Ali’s talent in the ring was an asset to be coveted by different sides in the later fallout between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s Muslim universalism – one still located in Black Nationalism – tension ruptured their friendship up until Malcolm’s untimely assassination. Ultimately Malcolm’s push toward a global solidarity network with Brown and Black people de-colonizing all over the world, his emphasis on a color-blind brotherhood of Islam, and his insistence on challenging an American (and Eurocentric) zeitgeist that inherently dehumanized black people shaped Ali’s later life after the reclamation of the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1974 and 1978.
Ali remained a member of the Nation of Islam into the mid-1970s, after its leader, Warith Dean Muhammad, oriented the organization toward principles of Sunni Islam. Muhammad’s push for a philosophical shift away from separatism and conceptualizing all people of European decent as evil, beliefs inherent to the Nation of Islam theosophy, was also a direct result of Malcolm X’s efforts. As Warith Dean Muhammad proclaimed in 1976, “What we should see in Malcolm is a turn for the Nation of Islam from fear and isolation to openness, courage.”
The intersection of boxing, a horribly violent blood sport, and race made the then ‘loud-mouthed’ Louisville Lip, a nickname locally awarded to Ali for his bombast rhythmic style of self-promotion and for his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, an arrogant annoyer for white mainstream American society and a liability for the Nation of Islam.
The predominant stereotype of black athletes was that of the physically dominant yet psychologically subservient fighter. Ironically the boxing ring was, at that time, the one place where a black person could return all the violence visited upon black people in America by white society blow by blow to a white body without fear or inhibition. Boxers were, however, to observe a racially subservient position outside the ring.
Ali shattered this status quo with his hip jive and fast-paced rap. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam three years prior to making it public. The organization embraced him after his historic upset where he won the world heavyweight championships in his fight against Sonny Liston in 1964. Ali went beyond the conservative precepts of the Nation of Islam on several occasions, breaking decorum, and speaking about topics the organization preferred be avoided.
This streak of defiance manifested the most when Ali denounced the Vietnam War draft in 1966 as a conscientious objector, long before the anti-war movement was mainstream. Although Malcom X had been assassinated, this type of theatrical improvisation and pontification about politics far away from the Nation of Islam’s core interests was eerily similar to Malcolm X’s speech where he described American President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as ‘the chickens coming home to roost’.
Naturally for Malcolm things weren’t the same after this watershed moment, as the moment in time also shifted radically for Ali. Malcolm was stripped of his status as national spokesman for the Nation of Islam and Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title in 1967.
Ali was charged and sentenced to jail time for avoiding the mandatory military draft, despite his legal claims to conscious objector status. He was stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license everywhere he applied. From 1967 to 1970 Ali was effectively barred from fighting while his case went through the appeals process. Eventually his conviction was overturned by the American Supreme Court in 1971. Ali went on to regain his title in 1974 via another historic upset against George Foreman in a match where boxing was literally redefined via the rope-a-dope strategy.
Throughout his life Ali visited countries such as Nigeria and Bangladesh and he helped negotiate the release of Iraqi held U.S. prisoners during the Iraq-Iran war. He also negotiated on behalf of American prisoners held during the Iranian hostage crisis. He worked as a philanthropist and used his star power, even though he was silenced by sickness; to continually build bridges with different people across the world.
People in the developing world embraced Ali in his charm and show because he embraced them in their humanity. Ali was exposed to people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East first under the tutelage of an increasingly wayward Nation of Islam minister, Malcolm X, and Ali later came to develop his own principled intimacy with a global body that looked similar to what Ali saw in the mirror.
Yet, Ali never was amiss of the circumstances and the people who helped shaped him. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcom I was sorry, that he was right about so many things,” Ali said. “Malcolm X was a great thinker and an even greater friend. I might have never become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm.”
Ali is celebrated today. Dehumanization of black people, state violence, inequality and structural racism remain the Achilles heel of the American narrative, the story of freedom sold to rest of the world. Racialized hatreds are actually increasing as the world polarizes. A refugee crisis threatens the ideological existence of a united Europe, while the U.S. has selected a man that peddles in racist discourse as a presumptive nominee for President. Fears steeped in old stereotypes about the encroaching East and a shady Russian empire loom over international relations between the West and the rest.
Yet Ali’s ideas, forces that quickened his transformation from a small-town son of the Jim Crow South into a world renowned icon are left on the table, even though the man is dead and gone.
These critical ideas, ideas at the intersection of non-White spiritual resistance and political opposition to deeply ingrained apartheid, are still boxing in the ring today. The faces and names are different. Trump, Golden Dawn, the far right racist nationalism seen throughout Europe, but the match is still on.
It looks like Ali is down for the count, ready for his rich legacy to be annexed into the triumphalism of White empire, but in many ways the fight was never about Ali.
Those potent ideas about non-White self-realization, spiritual defiance of Euro-American religion and unity of oppressed peoples the world over remain firmly in place. New warriors will take the fight to the same powers that seek to wipe away Ali and Malcolm X with the force of narrative. Ali reminds us that someone was always in our corner, standing ringside, for new generations of freedom fighters to take up the mantle of resistance to racist empire, its violence, and its feeble attempts to co-opt the legacies of people like Ali, who stand far above it in the annuls of time.