|Muhammad Ali: Exemplar to the World|
Muhammed Ali was more than an outstanding athlete: he was a catalyst for social change, a model for positive imitation, an inspiration to generations of people of all races worldwide. John Walter and Malinda Iida esplore his influence through the voices of a wide range of commentators,and conclude that he positively influenced individuals and communities around the world, more than any other person in recent history.
By Dr. John C. Walter, Professor, The University of Washington, Seattle, and Malina Iida
Muhammad Ali retired from boxing in 1981, yet he appears to be even busier now than when he was fighting. The November 1998 Sports Illustrated magazine published a full page cartoon depicting his activities the previous year, during which he traveled to such diverse places as New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Australia, Morocco and Cuba. Despite his disability, Ali seemed to be, as the Beatles say, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” while earning $55 million in 2006. Here is a man suffering from Parkinson’s Syndrome, no longer able to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” yet under the guidance and protection of his new wife Lonnie, Ali seems to be fulfilling more obligations than previous to retirement. And his cultural influence is still being celebrated. December 10, 2006, ESPN broadcasted “Ali Rap” and “Ali’s Dozen,” programs emceed by noted rapper and music producer Chuck D. It involved Ali’s sayings, set to music, and recited by all manner of celebrities. Participants ranged from James Earl Jones to the staid Charles Gibson of CBS. Gibson seemed happy not to be reading the Evening News. The noted actor James Earl Jones looked especially moved by Ali’s words, and Sidney Poitier appeared as fierce and combative as if he were speaking his own words of pride and defiance.
The second program, “Ali’s Dozen,” highlighted twelve fights deemed by the champion himself to have been his greatest. Ali won all except one, against Joe Frazier, and even then it was a loss that many considered a moral victory. He seemed to be fighting for all American progressives and critics of the Vietnam War when he fought Frazier, supposedly the darling of white conservatives. It is extraordinarily remarkable that after all these years the man continues to command the respect of people all over the world. People seem ready to forget his earlier flaws because they were of small moment, and because the man’s integrity, courage, and genuine goodness set an example for his generation and its successors.
Many attempts have been made to capture the quintessential essence of the man. Such efforts have shed light on his varied attributes that, taken together, reveal a unique personality not only in the annals of sports, but also in the history of the peoples of the world. No one has yet, however, attempted to show how Muhammad Ali directly and positively affected the lives of peoples and communities across the globe. This paper briefly presents bits of evidence from a number of individuals and leaders who have testified to this one man’s amazing lifelong example, which profoundly changed their lives and their communities for the better.
It is March, 1962. That year, Cassius Marcellus Clay is classified as 1-A – that is, qualified for service in the U.S. Army. Then in February 1964, he won the heavyweight title from the “Bear,” Sonny Liston, and in March he was found not qualified for the Armed Forces. But soon after he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, the acid of racial and religious prejudice began to fume! Racist and conservative outrage “burned and bubbled”. Knowledgeable African Americans predicted dire consequences for Clay, now Ali. Lo and behold, in February 1966, Ali was again eligible for the draft. Badgered by the media, Ali declared, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” The acid boiled over, and Ali was now in for “double double, toil and trouble.” Soon, all the boxing commissions in the United States banned Ali from fighting in their jurisdictions. Even the United Kingdom fell in line and followed suit. He won his last fight against Zora Folley by a T.K.O. in the seventh round before he began his pilgrimage into the wilderness. Allowed to fight again in late 1970, he returned victorious with a three-round knockout of Jerry Quarry, a contending heavyweight. Seen now in many quarters as John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness against the Vietnam War, racist oppression of Black people, and the persecution of young white individuals, people watched the progress of his case for refusing to be drafted as it wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 20, 1971, the Court reversed Ali’s conviction, and he was now, once again, a free man.
Ali’s transformation from an athletic idol to a true representative of the struggle for freedom, and a messenger for integrity, began in his years of banishment from boxing. He became in these years a symbol for unfettered freedom of speech, a champion of conscience, and in the end, an icon of joy in the struggle for liberty. Changing opinions of the man were noted when in 1970 an opinion poll of American GIs fighting in Vietnam revealed that they viewed Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali as their heroes. Mike Marqusee remarked on this occasion that “when a draft dodger is the number one hero of your front-line troops, something has gone seriously wrong in the war effort.” Some thirty years later the International Olympic Committee conducted a poll which showed Ali as one of the top five athletic leaders of the century. Among the others were such athletic luminaries as the great soccer player Edson Arantes Nascimento (otherwise known as Pele) of Brazil and Carl Lewis of the United States, possibly the greatest track and field athlete in the history of the world.
Ali’s road to recovering his crown was not easy. He found it at times a deep and dismaying physical ordeal, at times testing the limits of human endurance. But in those times he excelled, though not without grievous pain. In all these tribulations, he fought on to the outer limits of his endurance, setting an example for all humans engaged in the physical and moral struggle for a better world. Even today, though already an icon in the history of the struggle for freedom, he continues his quest, still an exemplar for all seeking a better world.
Many people have written that Ali at times behaved as if he were a child. His sheer joy in entertaining children, and the unusual trusting happiness they display in his presence is remarkable. Thomas Hauser, in his book Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, tells the story of Don Elbaum, a Toronto entrepreneur who set up Ali to train in Sully’s gym in preparation for his fight with George Chuvalo. Because people wanted to see Ali train, Elbaum charged $5 per person, taking in about $2000 per day, which he split 50/50 with Ali. But Elbaum says Ali gave away all the money to children.
To some, this might sound like a minor matter, but this was 1966. Those children could be in their late forties to mid-fifties by now, and Muhammad Ali is still alive, an icon among most peoples of the world. One can only imagine what those former kids feel every time they read about him or watch retrospectives on television. They are now most likely embellishing the stories of their encounter with this legendary figure for their children.
Tunney Hunsacker was Ali’s first professional opponent in 1960. Years later Mrs. Hunsacker recalls that in 1992, Ali, visiting the Hunsackers in West Virginia, noticed a bus filled with disabled children. He promptly boarded the bus and tried to sign autographs for everyone. Stephen Brunt in his book, Facing Ali, quotes Mrs. Hunsacker: “He tried to sign for everyone that wanted an autograph. It was hard for him because he does have the Parkinson’s. But he just enjoyed his day immensely. He didn’t want to leave. And of course people around here are still talking about it.”
Muhammad Ali himself recalls an encounter with Jimmy, a young boy suffering from leukemia, who wanted to meet him before his epic fight with George Foreman in 1974. Before the boy left, Ali had a photograph taken of himself and Jimmy which he enlarged later and sent to the kid, with the inscription: “You’re going to beat cancer. I’m going to beat George. Love, Your friend, Muhammad Ali.” Two weeks later Ali learned that Jimmy was in a hospital and not expected to live. Within three hours Ali was at the boy’s bedside.
A week later the boy died, and the father invited Ali to the funeral. Unable to attend, he sent Gene, his assistant. “When Gene returned from the funeral, he told [Ali] that there had been an open casket and that the autographed picture was beside Jimmy’s head.”
Davis Miller recounts how he went to his son Isaac’s school in 1992. He asked the first-grade class if they had ever heard of Muhammad Ali, and all twenty-three of them raised their hands. After he played a videocassette that included highlights from Ali’s career, the children shouted, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” And for days after, his son “reminds his classmates that they have seen a man named Muhammad Ali who could actually fly.”
Robert Lipsyte’s story of an occasion when Ali spoke at a Miami junior high school in 1975 illuminates Ali’s concern for the welfare of children. At this awards ceremony, “There would be no money, no dinner, no publicity, not even a dais of local politicians to pat his head and promise to quash all his future speeding tickets. Just an auditorium of young athletes, white, black, and Hispanic, their families and girl friends, and a table of inexpensive medals and trophies.”
For Lipsyte, this was astonishing, because although there was no significant remuneration, Ali, he said, turned the evening “into a rare event for the young people by never allowing the focus of attention to shift from their achievements to his. He delivered a short speech, a warm speech, then kept up a steady commentary as each athlete came up for his award.” Lipsyte observed that for all this work and entertainment Ali was given a cheap plaque which he accepted as if it were the championship belt. “The hosts were beside themselves with gratitude; the champion had come to the people, had given them a memorable evening, and had done it with graciousness and wit, for free.”
While this would be considered extremely unusual behavior from any other public figure, instances such as this continue to define Ali’s legacy. It is because of this resolute desire to bring happiness to the world’s children that, regardless of where he is on the globe, they are instantly drawn to him, “trying to get a foothold on his lap, clamber[ing] up him as if on a backyard oak.” This unique bond that Ali shares with all children did not escape the attention of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who appointed Ali a UN ambassador to the world to draw attention to the needs of children and in the cause of tolerance and peace.
On the occasion of the announcement of what expects to be the Muhammad Ali Center, in Louisville, Kentucky, Martin Hannan, writing in Scotland on Sunday, quotes Lonnie Ali’s views on the uses of the center, which would assist children to develop into being what they wanted to be, perhaps just like Ali. For Hannan, the objective of the center “would be an almost laughable, crazy ideal if it came from anyone other than Muhammad Ali.”
This seemingly natural affinity for engaging children is noted in almost every article on Ali. Ali Hassas, spokesman for Ali during a visit to Afghanistan, commented that “He is one of those rare people that is welcomed in every corner of the world and really the message for him is about peace and children.”
In August, 1997 Ali visited Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, on the invitation of Sister Sponsa Beltran, where he delivered supplies to young war refugees from Liberia. The magnitude of these food and gifts was so large that it overwhelmed Sister Sponsa, who said “I never actually expected to get such a response.”
Food and medical supplies for children all over the world have always been a personal concern for Muhammad Ali. The literature is replete with a number of these acts of generosity and kindness. It is unclear who insisted on this, but the film “Ali,” raised more than R1-million in South Africa for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
There are numerous accounts of Ali’s profound effects on individuals and on communities. But no one has written as extensively and as profoundly about this as Davis Miller. His book, The Tao of Muhammad Ali, is filled with anecdotes of instances in his own life where he dealt with his problems by drawing on the example set by Ali. On one occasion, in order to relieve extreme physical tension, he emulated Ali by throwing his watch and beeper in the Mississippi River, as Ali had done with his 1960 Olympic gold medal. This act was symbolic of Ali’s famous remark: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be.”
Miller also records instances of Ali’s profound influences on people’s lives other than his own. He writes of Ali in 1991, when an Asian man lifted up his young son on his shoulders so he could see the Champ, explaining in a rolling Southern accent that Muhammad Ali was “the greatest man in the world.” When the man reached Ali, he requested an autograph and explained he and his son had come to see him all the way from Arkansas. By 1991 even rednecks from Arkansas, and doubtless other parts of the South, were on the road to conversion, thus giving credence to Angelo Dundee’s statement that in the end, “Even the people who didn’t like him, liked him.”
At a South Carolina car dealership, Miller recalls:
These were American experiences. In other parts of the world by 1971, the man most Americans still viewed as a pariah enjoyed remarkable esteem. People around the world saw Ali not only as a great champion, but as a good man callously wronged by his own country unappreciative of his qualities—those very qualities for which Americans were told in school to strive. To Ali’s appreciative audiences abroad, Americans were guilty not only of religious and racial bigotry, but of a particular glaring, if not transparent, hypocrisy.
Striving individuals in faraway places revered Ali as an exemplary figure, and strove to emulate him. Henry Akinwande, the British boxer who represented the UK at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, declared that as a youth in Lagos, Nigeria, he and his friends always watched Muhammad Ali’s televised fights. This, he said, “really inspired me to get involved with boxing.”
The Australian Aboriginal sprinter Nova Peris-Kneebone, after presenting Ali with a Sydney Olympic torch in 2000, was overcome with tears. Acknowledging the inspiration Ali had given her people, she declared that it was an extreme pleasure to meet someone who had touched so many lives worldwide. Peris-Kneebone explained that, like Ali, standing up for the rights of Black people in America, she used her celebrity to promote Aboriginal health and other issues in Australia. At one press occasion, with Ali standing beside her, she said, “If you believe in something strong enough and you go out and stand for it, people start to take notice,” at which point Ali said, “She’s telling the truth.”
On Ali’s sixtieth birthday, the BBC sponsored a celebration. People from all parts of the world responded with laudatory testimonials. Most responses praised him as a role model. From Namibia, Samuel Shivute called Ali “The most influential and inspirational sportsman ever on this earth. His self pride and self-respect inspired many in different parts of the world to stand by their principles and defend their basic rights.” Ellie Martin echoed similar sentiments from Portugal, describing Ali as a person of much dignity, intelligence, and a role model for people across the globe. Not to be outdone, Seifu Gebremeskel of Brussels, repeated the “role model” mantra, adding that not only was Ali the greatest sportsman, but a philosopher and poet as well. In a very apt phrase, he stated that not only had Ali defeated his boxing opponents, but those also who did not share his stand on peace and tolerance. Imran Ali, an Englishman, began his praise with “Salaam Brother, I was born in the year you beat George Foreman and started following your biography a few years back. I really admire you as a role model and pray to Allah that he blesses you and helps you in all the good causes you are involved in.” Rienzie, calling in from Malaysia, wanted everyone to know that Ali was “The innovator who was more than boxer and a sportsman, he was a man who saw the future, changed thinking, the culture and role of sports in our lives. I love the man and what he stood for.” Greg Lewis from Australia pointed out that since there was such a dearth of role models in the world, Ali was therefore truly worthy of being called a role model, a sentiment shared also by Dave King of the United Kingdom, who remarked that he was only seven when Ali retired, but that he was still his hero and a true champion in all senses of the word. Javed Kureishi of Pakistan wanted to keep things simple, stating that Ali was “Simply the Greatest sportsman of the last century – still an inspiration to us all.”
Most of the tributes spoke in general terms of Ali as a role model, listing his abilities as a fighter, his struggle against oppression, and his stand against the Vietnam War. But a significant number, while extolling Ali generally, made specific references to his stance against racism. For the Australian Peter MacIver, Ali served as a role model for him and “millions of others.” But most important, he said “your actions taught me the importance of racial tolerance. You are one of the few people who have changed the world for the better. Good on ya Champ.” In Nepal, Kirankhadka said “I read about you in school. I read your younger days and your fighting with the racists. Anyway I hope my life will be just as much worthful as yours.” Interestingly, quite a number echoing the racial theme came from contributors in Great Britain. Jimmy Lewis wanted listeners to know that “As a black kid growing up in London you made me proud to be what I am, I have a lot to thank you for. Truly the greatest.” Simon Mundie from the United Kingdom appeared not to be concerned about racism in his own country, but in America. Muhammad Ali, he said, was “the leader of a generation,” and “the biggest challenge to the racist status quo of America at that time.” One person, however, went beyond the concerns of race and the role model mantra, pointing out that Ali was a model for something that no one mentioned in these tributes. Efosa Aruede of Nigeria pointed out that Ali “demonstrated to us all that medical adversity should not force one into despondence.”
Since Ali has been struck with Parkinson’s Syndrome, he has participated in a number of fundraising events in aid of research in Parkinson’s disease. At one such occasion on October 20, 2002 at the SkyDome in Toronto, Canada, Ali was joined by former World Heavyweight Champions Lennox Lewis and Larry Holmes, Canada’s George Chuvalo, and others. On occasions like this, Ali is essentially the main person to guarantee a good gate, and in most cases, time is found for all the other participants to pay tribute to him. After all, he is the one with this syndrome. Very much like the occasion of his sixtieth birthday on BBC, the plaudits and praises mentioned Ali’s unimpeachable status not only as a sports figure, but as an exemplar of courage, dedication and generosity.
This occasion differed significantly from the BBC event, as in addition to the aforementioned boxing greats in attendance, there was also Elvis Stojko, three-time World Champion and two-time Olympic Silver Medalist in skating. Athletes such as Mr. Stojko were extraordinary competitors. Stojko, for example, was the first athlete to complete a quadruple jump combination in 1991, and six years later also completed the first quad-triple combination. For Stojko “Muhammad Ali was always one of my inspirations throughout my career… . What he continues to do for humanity is remarkable. I want him to know personally what he has meant to me in my life.”
Warren Moon also was at this tribute. After graduating from the University of Washington where he starred as a quarterback, he played football in Canada for six years, and led the Edmonton Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup titles. He later spent eleven years in the United States National Football League, during which time he played in nine Pro Bowl games. These men understood what it took to be a legend such as Muhammad Ali. Moon said, “I am thrilled to have been invited to pay tribute to Muhammad Ali—a man I have admired for a very long time.”
Daniel Igali, an Olympic wrestling champion who also attended this event remembers his childhood in Nigeria, and how he was sure Ali was a Nigerian because he was such an icon there. He realized that Ali wasn’t, only when he reached high school.
Will Smith, the very talented African American actor who played the title role in the biopic “Ali,” touched on the subject of Ali’s religion, which is not usually mentioned in encomiums or tributes, simply because even now that topic engenders some frisson. But Smith spoke of it directly and with conviction. For him, playing Ali was a labor of love and reverence, approximating a religious experience of his own. He spoke of taking the role, “There’s such a wonderful strength to his commitment to his God...I call it the complex simplicity of his devotion…to truth, and to his struggle to do just what was right…I think his life is too important to this country and too important to citizens of the world for an entire generation not to be aware of the depth of his commitment.” 
The number and dispersion of individuals who testified to owing Ali for their successes
is truly astonishing. James “Buster” Douglas, the unexpected destroyer of the supposedly indestructible Mike Tyson, recalled: “As an amateur, I tried to do everything I saw Ali do…Used to wear trunks like his, white with black stripes, still wear Ali tassels. Only arteests wear tassels. I learned a lot from Ali. Learned to be nice to people.”
Even Ali’s opponents were positively influenced by him. Several years after his losses to Ali, Ken Norton suffered a serious automobile accident and had to be hospitalized, and doctors thought he might never walk again. One of the first persons to visit him was Ali. Norton remembered looking up,
Ernie Shavers, once a serious contender for the heavyweight title and later a preacher, testifies also to Ali’s significant influence on his life. Because he fought Ali, people he said, opened their hearts to him. “And that’s why I say, most of what I am today I owe to God, but I also owe a lot to Ali. I’ll never forget his kindness to me. The man has such a big heart. He just wants to help everybody. And seeing how he is today, his health, it kind of hurts me. But wherever I go, wherever I speak, I ask people to pray for Ali.”
The Canadian George Chuvalo remembers the effect his bout with Ali in 1966 had on his life and on Canadians. For many years Canadians would compliment him on going the distance with Ali. Even though he lost, in a strange way he said, the fight “made my fellow Canadians feel proud about being Canadian. And that part makes me feel good, made me feel nice. I can feel proud of that part. I can feel happy about it.”
Belgians responded in similar fashion to their own Jean-Pierre Coopman’s fight with Ali in 1976. “Everybody forgets I was the European heavyweight champion. Nobody talks about that. But everybody asks me questions about the Ali fight, wherever I go in Belgium…It was the defining moment not only of my career, but of my life.”
But one major opponent remembers him not for their epic “Rumble in the Jungle,” but for the example he set for everyone at the 1996 Olympics. George Foreman saw Ali as someone to emulate not because he lost to Ali’s superior boxing skill, but because Ali, though sick, performed so well in lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. “Just think…Someone has something like Parkinson’s, they’ll just stay in the house and hide…This guy came up with that torch shaking and lighting that thing like that—I felt so proud of him. Muhammad Ali did a lot for the world when he did that…He deserves the feeling that people have for him.”
B.B. King is not a boxer, but one of the great blues performers. For him, Ali was important because he stood up against oppression, and “By his standing up as he did, gave many of us much more courage than we had. It gave us much more hope than we’d ever had before.”
In the Sixties there was a phrase among Black people: “Tell it like it is.” Very few people are willing to speak of life in these terms, but there were two persons, possibly because of their association with Ali, who told it like it was. One of them was Ferdie Pacheco, known as boxing’s “fight doctor.” He was in a position to observe Ali’s effect on the populations surrounding him, and on the communities that he visited during his boxing career. Pacheco reminds us that Ali singlehandedly defused the idea that Black was ugly, and points out that prior to Ali:
Bonnie Greer, a writer and broadcaster, concurs with Pacheco. Ali embodied blackness, she said, and contends that Black people actually learned from him what it meant to be proud of their skin color and other aspects of their phenotype. That pride, she said, made Ali “glorious for us.”
The relationship between African Americans and Americans of Italian ancestry has seldom been amicable. This has been so because in many instances in places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, migrant Black people from the South and from other rural areas moved into areas vacated by Italians. This resulted in Blacks living in neighborhoods contiguous to those of Italians. For many Italian Americans, social intermixing was unacceptable. But interestingly, Ali’s influence on the Italian community has been such that on August 21, 2000 the Italian Voice announced Muhammad Ali and his long-time trainer Angelo Dundee (of Italian ancestry) would receive the “One America” award from the National Italian American Foundation. This was a special award which, according to the Italian Voice, would be presented before 3,100 Italian American leaders in business, the arts, entertainment, sports and public service. The Voice pointed out that the Foundation existed to promote diversity in America, and the relationship between Ali and Dundee across racial and ethnic barriers made them deserving of the “One America” award. President Bill Clinton was scheduled to present this special award to Ali and Angelo.
Despite the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, Ali the humanitarian, teamed up with the Foundation for Education and Disarmament in 1996 to visit the country with aid for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. Prensa Latina reported that Ali donated medicine valued at 500,000 United States dollars. It was part of a plan to bring more than 60 million US dollars for medical equipment and additional medicines to Cuba. On this occasion Ali stated, “I hope this donation will pave the way for more understanding between the people of both countries.”
Ali’s numerous humanitarian activities prompted Jack Newfield to comment in The Nation magazine, “Ali believed that if he could beat Liston or Foreman or Frazier, that would inspire a junkie to get off drugs, a child to survive a terminal illness, a welfare recipient to get a job, a drunk to go to rehab. He believed his life could change other lives, that his fate was linked to the fate of the masses, that if he won a fight, that could motivate a derelict to rise out of the gutter.”
It is important to note that although Muhammad Ali was a Muslim, he did not exclude any group from his humanitarian efforts. Given the longstanding conflict between Muslims and Jews in the United States and abroad, many would assume that Muhammad Ali would not consider contributing to any Jewish causes. However, many sources have documented his contribution to the Self Help Community Services Hillside Aged Program of Washington Heights, New York City. According to these reports, Ali discovered that the center, which provided recreational facilities for 54 aged and handicapped members, needed $100,000 or it would soon be forced to shut its doors. Ferdie Pacheco remembers the occasion:
Someone leaked it to the New York newspapers, and Ali was on the front page.
Later, when Ali was asked about this gesture, he said: “These poor crippled people came to this place to eat and talk with each other and draw a little and color, and that kept them alive. And no one else came up with the money. Didn’t matter they were white or Jewish. Somebody’s got to make a stand. Ain’t nobody helping nobody in this country. It’s dog eat dog. The dollar, the dollar, that’s all they worry about.” In this simple yet profound statement, Ali reveals that his desire to aid others, particularly those who have fallen by the wayside, serves as an impetus in his life. Ali has continued his efforts to preserve the dignity and freedom of all peoples, regardless of race or creed to this very day, a fact recognized by the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, which held a ceremony in 1998 honoring Ali for his humanitarian work.
Mike Marqusee, author of Redemption Song, notes the way in which Ali’s unwavering principles have influenced significant segments of the international community. He observed that as he grew up Ali was, for him, a constant presence. He remembers that after moving to England in the 1970s, he realized that Ali belonged to the entire world, and people from all sections of the globe admired or were influenced by him, even those, according to Marqusee, who loathed boxing and its associated values.
From the early 1960s onwards, Ali was very often in the news. In the case of a poetry group in Bogotá, Columbia, circa 1969, Ali was not being honored for his fighting skills, but rather for his refusal to enter the army and his poetic talent. This group, called “Nothingness,” created the Cassius Clay poetry prize in honor of Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam. The prize amounted to $5000 Columbian pesos. North of Columbia, the Mexican newspaper El Imparcial reported on December 27, 2002 that the Worldwide Boxing Council (WBC) had officially declared Ali’s birthday as Muhammad Ali Day.
When he fought Joe Frazier in 1971, one newspaper, The HongKong Standard, perceiving the essence of the man, reported, “…Ali was still vertical at the end [of the bout] because he was just too proud a man, too magnificent an athlete and too gutsy a warrior to let himself stay down.” The next day the Standard quoted Ali himself. “It’s a good feeling to lose. The people who follow you are going to lose, too. You’ve got to set an example of how to lose. This way, they can see how I lose.” Ali’s view of himself on this occasion was profoundly perceptive, for as Chris Eubank, the British boxer, stated on the occasion of Ali’s loss to Larry Holmes: “He took his beating, as any person who practices a quality of integrity does, and in so doing, again, even in defeat, people would say, ‘What a guy. You inspired me.’” And the Standard was still at it in September 1978, when Ali won the crown for the third time and the headline read: “It was Ali all the way into history.”
On Ali’s 61st birthday the Nigerian Tribune, a Lagos newspaper, celebrated the event thus: “…Ali has become a challenge to many, for he has meant so many things to so many people throughout the world…During his career, he has been a man with enormous courage, whether in standing up against the brutish ferocity of Sonny Liston or the casual racism of the Old South.”
On September 15, 1998, Central American News reported that Ali, along with the actor Edward Asner, visited Cuba, bringing approximately $1,200,000 of valued equipment and medical supplies for a health clinic. Ali stated his reason for defying the official U.S. attitude towards the country quite simply: “I went to help the Cuban children.” The concern and generosity Ali demonstrated on this trip prompted Ana Fidelia Quirot, a great Cuban athlete, to express her admiration for Ali and his gesture. “I am truly impressed by this great champion…He has not let himself be defeated by illness, and he has become a model of determination, spending his life helping others, and especially children. This man…is now lending a hand to Cuba and its children, [which] inspires immense respect in all Cubans.”
Cuban president Fidel Castro met with Ali, and seized the moment to declare that Ali’s visit showed that the American people were against the United States embargo. But more important, on Ali’s return from Cuba, the Secretary-General of the United Nations declared: “I am proud to proclaim you, Muhammad Ali, Messenger of Peace for the United Nations.”
And in Ghana Ali’s reception was especially fulsome. Maya Angelou, the great African American poet and novelist describes that when Ali came to her home in Ghana, suddenly the street in front of her house filled with people shouting “Muhammad Ali the greatest!” in such stentorian tones that inside the house they could hardly hear one another speak. In the end she decided that Ali was not just Muhammad Ali the greatest, not even the great American pugilist, but he belonged to the people in the streets as well.
The scene was not very different in Indonesia. Yank Barry, chief executive officer of a food product Ali was promoting, recalled that traveling in Indonesia with Ali was like traveling with the Pope. He noted that Ali, there at the same time as Helmut Kohl, was mentioned twenty-one more times than the German Chancellor. “From ministers to people in the streets,” Barry said, “they were kissing his hands and touching his feet.”
Speaking of the pontiff, Jim Dasney writing in the Azerbaijan International, commented that when the Holy Father visited Baku, Azerbaijan, he got very close to the him, and remembered that “Seeing the Pope up so close reminded me of Muhammad Ali. Just like the great boxer, John Paul II commands great respect and love.”
Writing about Ali on his 60th birthday, the French magazine Le Figaro commented that Ali’s decision not to go to Vietnam “will confer him an aura no other athlete before him ever gained. A mixture of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara, Ali will feel bestowed upon with a sacred mission: to give the black people back their pride.” This view finds corroboration in the perspectives of Mario Basini and Gareth Jones writing in the Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales). They reported that during the administrations of President Richard Nixon in the U.S. and Prime Minister Harold Wilson in Great Britain, polls in both countries revealed Muhammad Ali was more familiar to average citizens than their own leaders. They declared that “If the pollsters had ventured into the Amazonian jungle or quizzed the inhabitants of a mountain village in Nepal, they would have found the same response.”
The same thing probably would have happened had a poll had been conducted in the Sahara desert. Even there, Ali was a popular figure. Davis Miller recalls that when he was a student at East Carolina University, a visiting American poet told the story of his visit to the Sahara with his wife. He said that for miles and miles they had traveled and met no one. Finally they came across a boy of about ten years with a herd of goats. When the poet informed him they were from America, the boy repeated “America,” and danced in a circle around his herd, shouting “Muhammad Ali! Muhammad Ali!”
The excitement displayed by this young boy is also seen in any appearance of Muhammad Ali worldwide. Ali was in London to attend the opening campaign point for Jubilee 2000, a worldwide coalition which aimed to cancel Third World debt by the end of the millennium. The audience was enthusiastic, as was the Jubilee coordinator, Kofi Mawuli, who remarked,
Similarly, in the showing of the film “Ali” in Lusaka, Zambia, more than 3,000 people flocked to the cinema hall during the movie’s opening week, astonishing the cinema manager.
The sheer number of invitations and demands to lend his transcending presence to various functions and events caught the attention of Jack Newfield in 2002, prompting him to write on this phenomenon in The Nation magazine. He said, “The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America’s Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.”
Jan-Philipp Reemtsma, the German intellectual, in his book More Than a Champion: The Style of Muhammad Ali, argues that Ali was the model for the famous Rocky films, all of which have done well. He writes that the entire premise of the various “Rockys” came from Ali, and he quotes Sylvester Stallone:
These films, according to Reemtsma are allegories. But he adds: “It would not be necessary to discuss the Rocky films any further if together they did not have something like a subtext that first becomes clear after you have seen the whole series. It is the transformation of Rocky Balboa into Muhammad Ali.” From the beginning, the American movie-going public saw through the cinematic sleight of film. It knew that Apollo Creed could not be mistaken for Ali. His character was not fully formed, nor was there much to him other than unconstrained athletic skill and dark skin. African American audiences would have preferred Rocky to represent Ali unequivocally, but understood Stallone had to satisfy a white audience, hence a white Ali.
David Zang sees it the same way, contending that “Ali had indeed become the seeming essence of an America more whole than it had been a quarter century earlier.” Indeed, by the time Ali regained his championship against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” (1974), he was at such an exalted position that in many instances people expected more of him than he could deliver. Davis Miller recalls a time when Ali was at a loss regarding what to do about what was asked of him, and appealed to Miller for help. Ali received a call, after which he said to Miller, “People want me to go to Iraq and Saudi Arabia…Stand between two big armies gettin’ ready to fight. They want me to put up my arms and say, ‘I’m Muhammad Ali. Don’t shoot.’ They believe I can stop the war.” This story has a strong ring of truth given Ali’s stature after 1971 and his influence on disparate cultures, particularly those in third world countries. Interestingly, in November 1990, Ali traveled to Baghdad and returned to New York with fifteen American hostages.
As expected, Ali found favor in Muslim countries, and directly influenced the lives of many individuals in such societies. When he fought the Englishman Henry Cooper in 1963, Mike Marqusee tells of a man named Akram, whose father “had never expressed an interest in [boxing] before Ali arrived in London. But he splashed out for the tickets…because Ali was a Muslim…For the young Akram, however, Ali was from the beginning more than an Islamic hero. He was also an ambassador of black America, the embodiment of the bewitching African-American style, as well as of black political defiance.”
Ali’s positive influences ranged far and wide. Marqusee notes that Ali’s refusal to enter the military was front-page news internationally. People picketed the U.S. embassies in many countries. For example, in Karachi, a Pakistani fasted in protest outside the American consulate. There were demonstrations in Great Britain as well as in Cairo, Egypt. The political leader Cheddi Jagan picketed the U.S. Embassy in Guyana. And even the English Nobel Peace Laureate Lord Bertrand Russell told Ali that those persons who hated him now would eventually come around to his point of view. Time proved Lord Russell profoundly prescient.
By the late 1960s, Muhammad Ali had transcended sports and the sporting scene in the view of millions of people around the globe. Reflecting on Ali’s life in 1989, Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated expressed this perception well. Rhetorically he asked:
There was something about Muhammad Ali that, by 1971 and later, had a transformative effect on astute, even hardnosed reporters, which caused them to write about him in mystical terms: a kind of reporting that was reserved especially for him. In Free to Be Muhammad Ali, for example, Robert Lipsyte wrote “[Ali] is far and away the most interesting character in that mythical kingdom I call SportsWorld, and his declaration after winning the championship—‘I’m free to be who I want’—was the single most important statement of the so-called Athletic Revolution…” This revolution, he argues, occurred when athletes began to resist phony and false values imposed on them by others. Richard Hoffer, writing in Sports Illustrated, concurs, describing Ali as a “magical character” who, rising above the role of mere boxer, “somehow made us reconsider politics, war, race and religion.”
Perhaps it was the aura of this mythical figure that former U.S. President Bill Clinton experienced when he witnessed Ali lighting the flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Speaking to Ali later, he confided, “They didn’t tell me who would light the flame, but when I saw it was you, I cried.” It is inconceivable that any other athlete could have induced such a response from a strong personality like Bill Clinton. Our view is corroborated by the reporter, who remarked, “there is no doubt that whatever his sport, Muhammad Ali would have transcended it.”
Interestingly, Ali never conceived of himself as a mythical figure, which underscores perhaps the absence of contrivance or artifice in his performances and in his everyday behavior. This rendered him even more profound. In his view of himself, he stated that “All of my boxing, all of my running around, all of my publicity, it was just the start of my life…Fighting injustice, fighting racism, fighting crime, fighting indecency, fighting poverty, using this face that the world knows, the fame, and going out and representing truth and helping certain causes. Boxing was just to introduce me to the world.” There it is, plainly stated by Ali; no one can refute the sincerity of that statement, and no one can accuse him of artifice or contrivance. In the courtroom of the world he would never be found guilty of those sins.
When Muhammad Ali was chosen as the Athlete of the Century by Sports Illustrated, as well as a number of other organizations in December of 1999, Richard Williams and Michael Rowbottom writing for the Independent (a British newspaper) felt compelled to comment. They rhetorically wondered why the selectors would have chosen a man who was by this time showing the terrible effects of his violent sport. They pointed out that none of the other nominees came close to Ali except for Pele, the great Brazilian soccer player. Ali was distinguished, in that all the other nominees belonged exclusively to the world of sport. Muhammad Ali, however, belonged to the world.
Canadian journalist Jack Todd also commented on Ali’s status as Athlete of the Century. As far as he was concerned, it was no contest.
From 1979 onwards, two years before his ultimate retirement, Ali had lost some of his luster as a boxer, but conversely his status as an icon in many facets of international affairs remained high. This elevation to be more than a sports icon was noted in various parts of the world. Andrew Walker, writing in the Weekly Trust (Kaduna, Nigeria) noticed this development and observed, “Quite simply, Muhammad Ali is a phenomenon. A showman, rebel, militant Muslim, civil rights campaigner and poet—Ali has transcended the bounds of sport, race and nationality.” Jack Newfield concurred, writing that “Muhammad Ali is the most socially significant athlete in American history,” noting that he constructed himself out of the Civil Rights era into an inimitable figure above the confines of sports and mere politics.
Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player, supports the thesis that Ali, being more than an outstanding athlete, was a catalyst for social change, a model for positive imitation, and an exemplar for the world. As Ashe saw it, “Muhammad was a great athlete…But Ali went beyond that. He combined his athletic talent with social action during the 1960s, when both he and the black social revolution reached their peak. And the result was that he became an icon for literally millions of black Americans.” He concluded referring to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, that he really believed it was Ali’s social activism that gave John Thomas, Thomas Smith, and John Carlos the courage to raise their fists in protest. “Ali had to be on their minds. He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.”
Sugar Ray Leonard, the great middleweight champion, also concluded that Ali was more than a boxer, while he was just a fighter. “I’m just a fighter. That’s all. If you want to know about greatness, watch Muhammad Ali. Watch people around Ali. If you put him in a hall of people with Castro and Gorbachev…everybody’d flock to Ali. That’s greatness.”
Howard Cosell, the ubiquitous sportscaster, never at a loss for words, got up from his sick bed to sum up, in his inimitable prose, the greatness and exemplary legacy of his friend. “Muhammad Ali is a figure transcendental to sport. He’s important to the history of his country because his entire life is an index to the bigotry lodged deep within the wellspring of this nation and its people.” Looking back on the Sixties, Cosell continued:
When one thinks of “freedom,” it means something far more profound to Black people everywhere than to their oppressors. But though Ali is today is seen as an embodiment of liberty, and was in fact the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, his stand against oppression was never a crusade. “I never thought of myself as great when I refused to go in the Army,” he said. “All I did was to stand up for what I believed. …Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.” And there can be no question that Ali’s stand for freedom in 1967—now that Medgar Evers and Malcolm X had been assassinated, the opposition to the war was growing, Lyndon Johnson, one year later, decided not to run again for the presidency—resonated and set an example for a large number of people in the United States, and abroad.
Ali’s message of freedom struck an especially strong chord with journalist Jack Todd. He wrote of an occasion in late November 1987 when Ali was staying in the same hotel as he. In an attempt to obtain an interview with his hero, he wrote to Ali thus: “Muhammad…you have been my hero since you won a gold medal in Rome in 1960…Your stand on the Vietnam War inspired me and my generation. You were part of the reason I decided, at the end, to walk away from it all, to come to Canada.”
But Ali’s decision outraged people in the United States criminal justice system, editors and reporters of white newspapers, and of course all the licensing commissions. He was, in effect, stripped of his title. Eventually he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In David Remnick’s view, radicals and conservatives celebrated Ali as a figure of defiance and courage. He records that “Eldridge Cleaver described [Ali] as a ‘genuine revolutionary’ and the ‘first “free” black champion ever to confront white America.’” He states further that Lew Alcindor was radicalized to the point of changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even the sportswriter Red Smith, who earlier had denigrated Ali, would come around. Remnick noted that earlier, in 1964, very few people “celebrated Clay’s transformation.” Remnick notes also how Gerald Early, the distinguished professor of literature at Washington University, St. Louis, felt when Ali refused to join the army. “When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon-slayer…The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.”
The awe and admiration these individuals experienced in response to Ali’s draft refusal is still prevalent in the Black community, illustrated in a 1980 Ebony magazine article which stated, “To many Blacks…Muhammad Ali is much more than a boxing legend…he is the man who spoke out against racism and who risked everything, including his freedom, when he refused to be drafted into the Army…That single act elevated him to a permanent symbol of Black manhood, Black courage and Black pride.” This sentiment was reiterated in 1997, when Essence magazine presented Ali with a Living Legend Award, with an accompanying article declaring that “Ali remains our authentic hero: a man of courage and conviction, brashness and beauty.”
Even the highly accomplished novelist James Michener, author of such celebrated novels as Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii and The Source felt compelled to reveal his feelings on Ali’s valiant stand for individual freedom. As a Quaker, Michener explained, he could have been excused from WWII, but he volunteered and served. Initially disdainful of Ali’s refusal, he changed his opinion when later he saw clearly that Ali’s decision was not only right, but eminently laudable. “And as I got to know him,” he said, “and better understand the splendid role he played in black American life, I excused him. I figured he had problems that I didn’t have, and he was solving them in ways that I would not have been brave enough to do, and I wound up being an unqualified admirer of his.”
Initially, the well-publicized negative response to Ali’s presumed radicalism caused many people who cared for him to advise giving in to the government. Otherwise, they argued, if he continued with his defiant stand, he would come to a bad end. To forestall such an eventuality, Herbert Muhammad of the Nation of Islam gathered a group of sports stars to pressure Ali to make a deal with the government. In the group were Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and the great Bill Russell. But Ali was unmoved. So staunch was he that the experience moved Lew Alcindor to say, “Ali didn’t need our help…because as far as the black community was concerned, he already had everybody’s heart. He gave so many people courage to test the system.” Ali made a similar impression on Mike Marqusee, who noted that Ali was “the principal public role model for conscientious objectors and draft resisters, he gave courage to thousands of young men, many of them isolated from the organized movement. He made dissent visible, audible and attractive.”
Soon after Ali refused to join the military, he toured Black neighborhoods and university campuses, where he was welcomed by large supportive crowds. At the University of Chicago he told admiring students, “I have lost nothing…I have gained the respect of thousands worldwide, I have gained peace of mind.” By the end of 1967 Ali was a hero for Black as well as white youth, especially those on college and university campuses. Marqusee notes that it was a derogatory remark about Ali by the editor of the San Francisco State University newspaper that started a struggle at the university for Black Studies and increased minority student admissions.
On March 8, 1971, Ali was allowed to fight for his championship again in New York’s Madison Square Garden. By this time, Joe Frazier had become the heavyweight champion of the world, but Muhammad Ali was sorely missed. For many people, the period 1969-1974 was repugnant, for by 1969, Ali was essentially gone, LBJ was gone, Vice President Spiro Agnew had left his position in disgrace in 1973, and President Richard Nixon followed one year later. And the war in Vietnam worsened. By 1971, antiwar sentiment and demonstrations neared their peak. Just a year before, four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, and two students were shot dead by police at Jackson State University, all within a single month. In this murky milieu, Joe Frazier came to be seen as an embodiment of what America stood for, and Muhammad Ali the anti-establishment figure. People on the left hoped that Ali would win, while those on the right rooted for Frazier. How these two African American pugilists became representatives of these two factions of American life baffled many. But analyzed in the context of American race relations, this development was not so strange. Joe Frazier seemed in many ways to be a clone of Joe Louis, the former African American boxing champion (1937-1949), a man who throughout his professional career offered no strong political opinions, was a staunch family man, a very hard worker, and the epitome of the blue-collar work force. Ali, on the other hand, seemed uppity, brash, self-confident and a braggart. He appeared to be afraid of no one. Indeed, he seemed ready to take on the entire United States government. In sum, to many he appeared to be an even greater threat to the American Way than his insufferable predecessor, Jack Johnson (world boxing champion 1908-1915).
Ali lost. Newspapers reported it was so depressing for the left that many people didn’t get over it for months! In deep despair, Diana Ross of the Supremes got down on her knees and hugged Ali’s leg in pure agony. It was, a significant number of reporters agreed, a Pyrrhic victory for Frazier, for in the end, the loser was soon seen as the victor, and the victor, the loser. It was as the Beatles would say in Penny Lane—“very strange.”
Bill Russell, the great basketball player, an athlete who broke the color line in sports as a coach of basketball, commented on Ali’s role as a fighter for freedom. Remembering his refusal to join the army, he said, “I saw a man accepting special responsibilities, someone who conducted himself in a way that the people he came in contact with were better for the experience. Philosophically, Ali was a free man…And he was free at a time when historically it was very difficult to be free no matter who you were or what you were. Ali was one of the first truly free people in America.”
It was a depressing experience to listen to Bill Russell’s praise of Ali’s determination to be free, and to hear Howard Cosell’s litany of the United States authorities’ attempt to deprive Ali of his freedom. For Cosell, the whole charade was an “absolute disgrace.” “There’d been no grand jury empanelment, no arraignment. Due process of law hadn’t even begun, yet they took away his livelihood because he failed the test of political and social conformity, and it took him seven years to get his title back. It’s disgusting.”
Despite what was done to him, Muhammad Ali remained firm in his desire to be free. For Jeremiah Shabazz, Ali’s struggle for freedom reminded him of Black people’s fight from the time of slavery to be free. “Why should a slave who isn’t going to benefit at all from the outcome take a gun, go fight, and come home to be mistreated, kicked around, abused, and persecuted again?...If Ali had consented to be inducted, thousands of young men would have followed him into the army. But because he refused, thousands more were inspired to oppose military service and stay home.”
It is Ali’s refusal to be inducted that, in the beginning, caused his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to reject him as a native son. He was, as Jonathan Este wrote, “reviled…as draft-dodger and a rabble-rouser when he refused the draft to Vietnam and declared he had ‘nothing against the Vietcong.’” Years later, when the city of Los Angeles named January 17 “Muhammad Ali Day,” Este observed that this accolade was a far cry from the days when even his own hometown rejected him for his struggle to be free.
In Ali’s commitment to be free, he influenced a number of powerful people. One of them was Senator Ted Kennedy. He revealed that his brother Robert Kennedy (shot dead in 1968) shared a commitment of resistance to the Vietnam War, and to freedom from being coerced into a war they felt unjust. Senator Kennedy remembers that Muhammad gave him a pair of autographed boxing gloves, which, Ali hoped, would help him in his fight to “knock out injustice.”
Although admired by many people for his fight for freedom, Ali had no illusions about what would happen to him should he fail. In recalling his one week in prison in December 1968 for driving without a valid license he said,
It is unlikely that anytime in the near future, a figure such as Muhammad Ali will arrive on the world stage. Certainly there will be individuals, most likely in the political realm, who will be revered and remembered, not because of any intrinsically humane qualities, but rather because of manipulation by the media. It appears now, that in the world of politics, and to a great extent in business relations, “spin” has become so imbedded in the cultures of the West, particularly, that more often than not, it is difficult to determine truth from fiction. In the present circumstances, it is daunting for anyone with a well-developed sense of right and wrong to tread a path of compassion and human decency. In these times, therefore, Muhammad Ali is truly a phenomenon in every sense of the word.
The great middleweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard, commenting on his own distinguished career, called himself “only a fighter,” and some might regard Ali in the same way. But for the intuitive as well as the perceptive observer, even in the very beginning of Muhammad Ali’s career, there was something about the young man that forecasted greatness over and above boxing. For one thing, there was the poetry. Deemed not bright enough to enter the armed forces, the discerning person sensed that this assessment of Ali’s intelligence was wrong. One only has to read his poems. The perspicacious person would also have noticed the deep determination to achieve against all odds. And anyone of intelligence who spent time with this young man in his early years as a boxer would have noticed that here was a person who would stand firm in whatever his convictions may be, to the bitter end if necessary.
The importance Ali attached to changing his name could not have been lost on any intelligent observer as a harbinger of things to come. He realized that it would be an unpopular decision, but he stood by it, because in his view, it was an act of throwing off, as he calls it, his “slave name.” With this gesture, Ali took a psychological step forward in the achievement of his personal freedom. So when the time came to enter the U.S. Army, this young man had already been through the crucible of racial fires. By this time, one could say, Ali was a purified human being, and was already free. Therefore, his refusal to step across the yellow line was preordained. Truly free persons are rare in this world. Extremely rare. And the world senses that in Muhammad Ali there is that quality which everyone yearns for, but can seldom achieve, due to the myriad myths, beliefs, and other circumstances that constrain us all. It is no mystery then, that the peoples of the world find in this most unusual man, a figure and humanity that passeth all understanding.
And so this work is our attempt to put together a brief synthesis, from many sources, to show the reader that in our view, Muhammad Ali positively influenced individuals and communities around the world, more than any other person in recent history. He achieved this not by conquering countries or discovering new physical worlds, but by setting an example, which if followed, will result in peace and the betterment of human relations the world over.
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