One of the unique qualities of human beings it seems to me is the degree to which our whole lives can be influenced, affected and shaped by fellow humans that we never meet. We can even have relationships of a sort with people we’ve only ever seen on a T.V. screen or who we only know through the books they’ve written.
Muhammad Ali will always be a huge inspiration to me, I feel privileged to have shared this planet with him, to have followed his career as the greatest sportsperson of his century and to have been a witness to his extraordinary courage and integrity outside the boxing ring. I truly loved him.
He was not the first young black man from a poor neighbourhood to see sport, and boxing in particular, as a way out but he was single-handedly responsible for completely transforming the position of black athletes. Before Ali almost every world heavyweight title fight took place in the United States, taking advantage of the newly invented cable television Ali fought in Zaire, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as several European cities, making heavyweight boxing a truly world-wide phenomenon and taking the sport to the people. As a consequence, the purse young boxers could demand increased. African American sports super-stars like the tennis player Arthur Ashe and basketball’s Michael Jordan have acknowledged Ali’s central role in creating the space for them to have the careers they did.
In renouncing his “slave-name” Cassius Clay, in becoming a Muslim, in his relationship with the promoter Don King, in all these things and more Ali was making a statement. He wasn’t going to call white men ‘sir’, wasn’t going to go begging to them for a chance to fight in a ring, wasn’t going to worship their God, and he wasn’t going to fight in their wars.
When Muhammad Ali first said “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger” I genuinely don’t believe he understood the implications of what he was saying but, and this is the point, when the implications became only too clear, he stuck to his principles and refused the draft. Ali was made all kinds of offers, there was no way he would have seen active service or been unable to follow his boxing career, but he knew that to accept the draft would have betrayed everything and everyone he believed in and made him ‘the white-man’s poodle’.
Ali gave up the most important thing in his life, being the heavyweight champion of the world, not to mention who knows how many millions of dollars, in order to make a stand. For a long time it looked as though he would serve a prison sentence and never box again. But it wasn’t just Ali who missed out, when his licence was revoked he was still improving as a boxer, by the time he got it back he was too old. The world will never know just how great The Greatest could have been.
It is important for people who were not alive then to understand that, when Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, he was widely vilified even by people who’d previously been his fans. His stand was in no small way responsible for the shift in public opinion within the United States against the war that would eventually keep him out of jail, get him his boxing licence back and lead to America’s military withdrawal from South-East Asia.
Throughout his life Muhammad Ali has championed the rights of the underdog and the oppressed. In 1967 Rubin (The Hurricane) Carter, a middleweight contender, was found guilty of a triple homicide despite witnesses putting him in a different state. Ali put himself forward to lead the campaign for his release. At a 1976 benefit concert organised by Bob Dylan Ali said “you people have the right connections and the right complexions to get this man out of jail”. He was right, after 9 years of Ali getting nowhere white middle-class America was now on-side and Rubin Carter was released.
There is a story in Thomas Hauser’s biography of Ali from the time he was a supporter of the Nation of Islam and accused of anti-Semitism. He was being shown around a care home that looked after holocaust victims. During the visit he became aware that the centre was going to have to close due to lack of funds. “What difference would $100 000 make?” he said and got out his cheque book.
Even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease Muhammad Ali kept up a punishing schedule of charity and ‘political’ events. He worked as a peace envoy for the United Nations, holding secret meetings with Saddam Hussein that led to the release of hundreds of American hostages just before the Iraq war. When he lit the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games of 1996, shaking uncontrollably, I wept. Was this the bravest thing he’d ever done? The Greatest saying it’s O.K. to be disabled, just as he’d previously said it was O.K. to be poor, black and Muslim. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished was his message to the two billion people watching.
From a socialist perspective of course it is a tragedy that Ali never entirely embraced class politics. In a speech shortly before his death Martin Luther King said “I’m coming to the conclusion that what America needs is democratic socialism” – maybe that is why he was shot. In any event, had he lived and followed up on that thought, had Malcolm X lived, had Muhammad Ali, who knew both men, been involved in such a movement, who knows what the history of the world would have been?
Nevertheless, Ali has been a role model, a spokesperson and a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere, we will all miss him.