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ARNet logo Muhammad Ali: The Quintessential American
Forum by
Dr. John C. Walter
Department of American Ethnic Studies
University of Washington
Seattle, WA. 98195

January 2000

John C. Walters In this stimulating article, John Walter argues that, In many ways Muhammad Ali is the "Quintessential American." In his stand   for religious and racial freedom, for his humility, generosity, braggadocio, deep and abiding physical and mental courage, though always larger than  life – Ali exhibited many typical and deep-rooted American traits. He struck a number of positively resonant notes in the American psyche, that make him now a revered person. His life also reflects and contributed to the changing attitude of Americans to Black athletes from the sixties to the present day.
Bibliographic citation data for this essay

The American character

Muhammad Ali: The Quintessential American?
Muhammad Ali Defender of America
Ali and the Horatio Alger Myth
Early Misperceptions
The Controversy Over Not Passing the Military Qualification Tests
The First Muhammad Ali Effect
The Second Ali Effect
From Conscientious Objector to Hero? Who Needs the Great White Hope?
$100,000. To A Jewish Home

The American character

Muhammad AliMost Americans when asked, "What defines an American?" take recourse in the U.S. Constitution; others say, "We are a hard working people, and friendly;" and others admit, "We have faults, but we try sooner or later to do the right thing." Intellectuals and academics, more analytical, refer to more specific characteristics such as rugged individualism, marked competitiveness, an over-whelming desire to win, and a tendency to brag.

Many other Americans constantly refer to their culture as one striving to achieve certain ideals – ideals not entirely uncharacteristic of say, Great Britain, but ideals Americans usually think they try harder than anyone else to achieve. These are present day assessments, but earlier observers saw Americans very much in the way Americans see themselves today.

Today, in the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is still an important reference work on the American character. It is as if time has stood still these 160 years. In 1840 Tocqueville noted:

  • Although the desire to acquire the good things of this world is the dominant passion among Americans, there are momentary respites when their souls seem suddenly to break the restraining bonds of matter and rush impetuously heavenward.1
  • As Tocqueville saw it, America exhibited a peculiar spirituality: another facet of the American character, as Tocqueville saw it.

  • Here and there throughout American society you meet men filled with an enthusiastic, almost fierce spirituality such as cannot be found in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which strive to open extraordinary roads to eternal happiness.2
  • Perhaps not fully as settled as their European forbears, Americans exhibited a distinguishing restlessness. As Tocqueville described it:

  • An American will build a house in which to pass his old age, and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest; he will take up a profession and leave it; settle in one place, and soon go off elsewhere with his changing desires. If his private business allows him a moment’s relaxation, he will plunge at once into the whirlpool of politics. Then, if at the end of a year crammed with work he has a little spare leisure, his restless curiosity goes with him traveling up and down the vast territories of the United States. 3
  • This was not an entirely surprising spectacle to Tocqueville for individuals or groups, but what was new was "to see a whole people performing in it."4

    Indigenous Americans also saw characteristics, which by the mid-nineteenth century differentiated Americans from other nationalities. All these characteristics, propagandized and believed in, inevitably led not only to a sense of American otherness, but an otherness that translated into superiority. Professor Carl N. Degler explains it this way:

  • Indeed so confident have Americans been regarding the future, that they have willingly borne a mission in the world. The Puritan who said ‘God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain over to this Wilderness’ was convinced of it. The leaders of the Revolution were sure that it would mark a turning in the history of free men. By the age of Jackson, Americans were convinced that their country was the model for the world. 5
  • Writing in 1959, a hundred odd years after Tocqueville, Degler concludes, "For better or worse, America still imagines itself the Savior of the World – with less braggadocio, to be sure, but in essential form just as in the first half the nineteenth century. 6

    Accordingly, Mrs. Trollope, a 19th century Englishwoman travelling in the United States before the Civil War remembered that "The favorite, the constant, the universal sneer that met me everywhere, was on our old-fashioned attachment to things obsolete."7

    Americans continue to perceive themselves as somehow unique. Even if they cannot be precise about it, they somehow know it, and reserve their most fervent applause for those who display this unique persona with style and aplomb. Such a person makes Americans proud. Such a person, despite a period of trials and tribulations, is Muhammad Ali.To top of page

    Muhammad Ali: The Quintessential American?

    In his book, Free to Be Muhammad Ali, Robert Lipsyte recalls in 1977 that his relationship with Ali began in 1964 when Ali, then Cassius Clay, was characterized as a loud contender, and Lipsyte was a young sports writer for the New York Times. He remembers that after Ali won the world championship in 1964 by beating Sonny Liston he said, "I am free to be who I want." That for Lipsyte was "the single most important statement of the so-called athletic revolution in which athletes began to liberate themselves from the phony roles and false values imposed upon them by the owners and coaches, and journalists and fans." 8 But Ali’s statement could also be understood as another step in the larger struggle of African American people to free themselves from personal and institutional oppression – a struggle that still resonates as heroic and right for most Americans. A national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Civil Rights Movement is proof.

    In another context, just as important, Clay’s change of name and announced membership in the Nation of Islam, though controversial at the time, are both now perceived as a traditional American decision. Though there would be penalties, Ali was willing to bear them. After all, this was America in the 60’s, when a Black person need not accommodate as he might have been forced to a decade earlier. These were clear expressions of America’s oft stated democratic ideal of today, the right to self-determination. Though ill received in some quarters at the time, today Clay’s decision is remembered as part of the fabric of the American guarantee of freedom embodied in the United States Bill of Rights.To top of page

    Muhammad Ali - Defender of America

    When Ali, then Cassius Clay, Jr., won the light heavy weight championship in the Olympic games in Rome in 1960, he called himself the prettiest, the fastest, the greatest. Then, as if to undermine Ali’s self-concept and obviously strike a blow for Communism, a Soviet journalist questioned Ali about racial segregation in America. His response was, "Tell your readers we’ve got qualified people working on that, and I’m not worried about the outcome. To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world including yours. It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow, I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut." 9

    The American people greeted this response with approval because, here as in 1936 when Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling, viewed by most Americans as representation of Nazi bigotry, a Black American, just 18 years old, at the height of the Cold War, and despite problems at home, stoutly defended his country against its enemies. This for informed Americans, was reminiscent of the Bandung Conference of 1955. When under strikingly similar circumstances, the African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of New York received ovations in the House of Representatives when he "corrected the record" of the U.S. regarding segregation and discrimination at the Pan Asian/Pan African Conference. He said:

  • Second class citizenship is on the way out. A few years ago Washington was an open cesspool of United States democracy. Today it is a place of complete equality. Every hotel, restaurant, amusement place, school and golf course is completely integrated. It is a mark of distinction in the United States to be a Negro. To be a Negro is no longer a stigma. A Negro has been elected to a city-wide office in Atlanta. Negroes are in office in Richmond and Norfolk. Virginia has decided not to resist the Supreme Court decision in favor of ending segregation in schools. 10
  • Clay however, on returning to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, was unable to eat in "white" restaurants. His response, like Congressman Powell’s, nonetheless endured to serve him well away from Louisville, Kentucky.To top of page

    Ali and the Horatio Alger Myth

    Americans love to brag that theirs is a country where hard work and persistence is more often than not rewarded with success. It is instructive that the life of Muhammad Ali follows so closely to that belief. Although he did not come from the ghetto, but from the middle class, the fact that he grew up in the era of segregation should not be overlooked because the imposition of segregation in so many instances, as most studies show, stunted the aspirations of countless Black people, and caused many not to try even when they might have succeeded. But this was not the case with Ali. He knew that the path to the heavyweight championship had already been trod by the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and even Sonny Liston, "The Ugly Bear", as Ali dubbed him. His pursuit therefore was not be trammeled by uncertainty.To top of page


    Americans relentlessly imagine themselves as winners. They do not take failures easily. The American, as Tocqueville may have observed, expects to win in all contests. That is why in the Cold War years it became an American obsession to count the medals won in the Olympics, especially in the contests with the Soviets. Any loss to the Soviets created gloom and doom. Historians, sociologists, social psychologists and others write persuasively and with great earnestness that it took a long time for Americans to recover from their involvement in the Vietnam War because it was seen as a humiliating loss. Writers and television pundits called the national response a national trauma. Not until the successful Desert Storm operation, was the national depression, some called it the "Vietnam Syndrome," partially erased.

    But what has this to do with Muhammad Ali? In his life, there were indeed, a number of potentially trauma inducing incidents. But he dealt with losses in ways that appear distinguishably American. Asked many times in 1964 what would happen if he lost to Sonny Liston, who most people thought would destroy him, he replied he would be in the street the next day screaming, "You beat me once but you can’t twice." He did not lose, and from then on, began to predict the rounds in which people would fall. This confident arrogance is not the sort that results from inferiority complexes, but rather the kind that comes from a feeling of invincibility. Ali’s seemingly arrogant display, in time, resonated with the American public, whose approach to life is similar. Eventually, the negatives of a brown skin faded away to be replaced by an identification with the man on the bases of more important American characteristics.To top of page


    In Ali, were merged two other American personality identifiers. One is braggadocio, referred to earlier in the reference from Professor Degler, and the other, hucksterism. Taken together, they attract attention and, if properly channeled, insures successful advertising. In this context Ali’s interview by Alex Haley for Playboy Magazine in 1964 is revealing. In that interview, Haley asked Ali if Archie Moore, the former light heavy weight champion and a master of self promotion, had assisted him in developing his "ballyhoo" technique response.

  • I learned a lot from the old man, yeah. He showed me some proof of what I’d already figured out myself, that talking is a whole lot easier than fighting, and is a way to get up fast. . . . But the big difference between the old man and me is I’m bigger and louder and better. He believed in whispering something to reporters for them to print – but I believe in yelling.11
  • This was the context in which Ali dwelt. For even before he became world champion, his confidence knew no bounds. And optimism could have been his middle name. Consider for example his poetry:

  • This is a story about a man with iron fists and a beautiful tan.
    He talks a lot and boasts indeed,
    Of a power punch and blinding speed.
    And he went around claiming: "I’m beautiful."
    How could anyone not see "American" in the following?
    I’m the greatest.
    I’m the double greatest.
    I am clean and sparkling.
    I’ll be a clean and sparkling champion.
  • But what made him credible, before he became champion, was his fight with Archie Moore, then known as the "Old Mongoose." Before that fight, he predicted the end as follows:

  • Archie’s been living off the fat of the land.
    I’m here to give him his pension plan.
    When you come to fight don’t block the door,
    ‘Cause you’ll all go home after round four.
  • This was in 1962, and sure enough, he knocked out the old champion in the fourth round. What could Americans do? The predictions continued for a long time and seldom did they not come true. Soon he was a joy to behold, an exciting American, a person far above any Russian, Chinese communists or whatever!

    Is succumbing to Ali’s performance an American trait? It can be argued otherwise, but this romantic identification with a winner, even a bragging one, is what makes Americans so different from other nationalities. It is not so much predicting an outcome, but an overwhelming admiration for those who consistently achieve stated outcomes.To top of page

    Early Misperceptions

    In the Playboy interview, Ali made it clear that despite some reporters’ suggestion that he was a hysteric, he was anything but. He insisted that his extreme behavior was only to build up his fights. One sentence in the interview appears convincing. "People can’t stand a blowhard but they’ll always listen to him," he said. He continued:

  • Even people in Europe and Africa and Asia was hearing my big mouth. I didn’t miss no radio or television show or newspaper I could get in. And in between them, on the street I’d walk up to people and they’d tell me, tell one another about what that crazy Cassius Clay said. And then, on top of this, what the public didn’t know was that every chance I got, I was needling Sonny Liston direct.
  • This was the time when he almost overstepped the limits. He tells the story of how he saw Sonny Liston in a casino shooting craps, and he went over and took some of Sonny’s craps without asking. That caused a crowed to gather.

  • "Naturally," he relates, "the word had spread and people were piling around us. But then very suddenly, Liston froze me with that look of his. He said real quiet, ‘Let’s go on over here.’ And he led the way to a table and the people hung back. I ain’t going to lie. This was the only time since I have known Sonny Liston that he really scared me. I just felt the power and the meanness of the man I was messing with. Anybody tell me about how he has fought cops and beat tough thugs and all of that, I believe it. I saw that streak in him when he told me, ‘Get the hell out of here or I’ll wipe you out.’" Haley: "What did you do?" Clay: "I got the hell out of there. I told you he really scared me." 12
  • This incident among others shows that Clay was not a motiveless hysteric. Neither was he a fool either; otherwise, he would have stayed around and he might have been literally wiped out. It would not have been a boxing match with rules, and it’s entirely likely that Liston would have prevailed.To top of page

    The Controversy Over Not Passing the Military Qualification Tests

    In that same interview for Playboy Magazine, Haley put the question directly to Ali:

  • Haley: There was another controversy about the honesty of your failure to pass the three army pre-induction qualification tests that you took shortly after the fight. Any comment?

    Clay: The truth don’t hurt nobody. The fact is I never was too bright in school. I just barely graduated. I had a D- average. I ain’t ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do principals make a month? But when I looked at a lot of the questions they had on them army tests, I just didn’t know the answers. I don’t even know how to start after finding the answers. That’s all. So I didn’t pass. It was the army’s decision that they didn’t want me to go into the service. They’re the boss. I don’t want to say no whole lot about it.

    Haley: Was it embarrassing to be declared mentally unfit?

    Clay: I have said I am the greatest. Ain’t nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest. 13To top of page

  • The First Muhammad Ali Effect

    Interestingly, that phrase resonates even in learned papers. In a 1994 issue of the Journal of Language and Communication, Thomas Holtgraves and Jeffrey Dulin present their article, "‘The Muhammad Ali Effect:’ Differences between African Americans and European Americans in their perception of a truthful bragger," this way:

  • No one has ever accused Muhammad Ali of being modest and reticent regarding his accomplishments. Possibly because of this, there was a time when he was viewed negatively by a substantial portion of non-African American people in the United States. In contrast, his penchant for bragging may not have damaged (and may, in fact, have helped) his image in the African American community. In this paper we argue for the existence of what we term the ‘Muhammad Ali effect:’ a tendency for a truthful bragger (regardless of ethnicity) to be perceived more positively by African Americans than by European Americans. Moreover, we argue that differences in this language-based impression occur because of different rules regarding appropriate conversational behaviors. These rules serve as an interpretive framework, and thus, the same conversational behaviors can have different meanings for African Americans and European Americans.
  • The ultimate finding of this test was, "As expected, African Americans evaluated the truthful bragger significantly more favorably than did European Americans." The authors continue: "In contrast, there were no significant differences between African Americans and European Americans in terms of their overall evaluation of the non-truthful bragger." But for European Americans, "positive self-statements (whether true or not) seem to violate a rule prescribing [sic] modesty, and this results in an overall negative evaluation of someone who brags." 14This is interesting, for while this study may be applicable to an ordinary person, it could be argued that in Ali’s case, he was the exception that proved the rule.

    Theories abound about what has made Ali an American icon, but I contend that Americans sensed Ali’s bragging was like theirs. It was never truly malicious, although some pundits interpret it this way.

    Bragging is a distinguishing American characteristic. Indeed, in contemporary American vernacular, the phrase "Bragging Rights," is common, referring to the winner’s rights after any contest to talk loudly about her win and claim whatever ancillary rights that accrue. Bragging therefore "is American as apple pie," and Americans recognized, with annoyance earlier and amusement later, that here too, Ali was the champion.To top of page

    The Second Ali Effect

    The case will not be made here that Americans value honesty more than any other nation, but if President Clinton’s recent problems with Monica Lewinsky tell us anything, it is that Americans admire greatly a "square shooter," a teller of the truth. Until Mr. Clinton admitted he lied to the American people, he was on shaky ground. "Coming clean," saved him. What has this to do with Muhammad Ali?

    Professors Paul A. M. Van Lange & Constantine Sedikides of The Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, U.S.A., respectively, in an article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 28, 1998, entitled, "Being More Honest, But Not Necessarily More Intelligent Than Others: Generality and Explanations for the ‘Muhammad Ali Effect’" argued that, "individuals think of the self as considerably more moral (i.e. more fair and less unfair) and only slightly more intelligent than others, a pattern of findings they (and other researchers) termed the ‘Muhammad Ali Effect’."15

    Arguing on this basis, Van Lange and Sedikides write in their abstract:

  • This research provides evidence for the generality of the Muhammad Ali effect, demonstrating that Dutch participants believe that the true trait honesty is more descriptive of the self than of others, whereas the trait intelligence is believed to be equally descriptive of the self and others. Congruent with proposed explanations for the Muhammad Ali Effect, participants regard honesty as more desirable, more controllable, and less verifiable than intelligence. Mediation analyses indicated that the Muhammad Ali effect is stronger among participants who view honesty as more desirable than intelligence.
  • The term, "Muhammad Ali Effect" is explained by the authors this way:

  • The label derives from Muhammad Ali’s (1975) autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story. The heavyweight boxing champion was asked whether he actually had failed the army mental examination or had performed poorly to stay out of the army service. Ali’s reply was: ‘I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest,’ thereby conveying a belief in being more moral, rather than more intelligent, than others. 16
  • If Americans are like the Dutch sample, valuing honesty highly, then the case can be made that Ali in addition came to be perceived as a true American because throughout his entire career he appeared to be a totally honest person. It is impossible in human life not to dissemble here and there, but in his public utterances and on issues of importance, Ali invariably left an impression of pugnacious honesty.

    Americans, like the Dutch participants, value honesty greatly and intelligence to them is like comparing apples and oranges. Ask most any American about his intelligence, and most will say, "I’m just a regular guy," or "I’m just a regular woman." Ali’s forthrightness about his intelligence, therefore, struck a resonant cord in the American psyche. To top of page

    From Conscientious Objector to Hero? Who Needs the Great White Hope?

    When in 1964, Ali failed the Armed Forces qualifying test, jingoists immediately decided that it could not have been possible that a man as fit and vocal as he could have failed the test. But early in 1966, the tests were revised and Ali was reclassified 1A. When told about this he replied, "I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong." There were, however, enough racists in the American population that demanded that he be conscripted. So on April 28, 1967, in Houston, Texas when he was called to step forward to be inducted into the army, he refused. It should be remembered that 1964, when Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali, was a time when the Black Muslims were seen as a distinct threat to the safety of the United States by many ordinary citizens as well as by the F.B.I. and other segments of the United States government. This was "the 60s," after all, at the height of the civil rights protests, and the Muslims were seen as no different from the Black Panthers, as a dangerous people indeed. And so the reaction was immediate. Both The World Boxing Association and its British counterpart, stripped him of his title, and soon afterwards he was sentenced to five years in jail and fined $100,000.00. Out on appeal, he fought his way through the courts. By 1970, many in the United States had come to see Ali in a different light and he was allowed to fight again. He re-christened himself "The People’s Champion," even though in the interim Joe Frazier had won the heavy weight championship of the world.

    In his attempt to regain his championship, he fought Joe Frazier in 1971 and lost. But even in defeat, he displayed incredible courage, the sort of thing Americans greatly admire. That fight signaled a rising tide of approval, soon bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Ali should not have been drafted in the first place. Thus, began an epic pugilistic journey, with names like the "Rumble in the Jungle," and the "Thrilla in Manila." In his quest to regain his title, Ali’s performances came to characterize that which Americans call "Grace Under Pressure," the same phrase used to describe President John F. Kennedy’s performance when in dire straits. It was the kind of performance to which all Americans are attracted, regardless of race.

    Indeed by 1974, the year of "The Rumble in the Jungle," when Ali regained his title from George Foreman, he had so captured the nation’s imagination with his physical beauty, athletic grace, courage and charisma, thereby distracting the nation from its miasma of political corruption and chicanery, that interestingly and almost unnoticed, the nation unconsciously abandoned the search for The Great White Hope. Times had changed. Ali despite his color, could and did acquire and ascribed to himself so many positive and distinguishing American characteristics that he became almost overnight it seemed, the American Everyman. This was when Spiro Agnew, the vice president, left office in disgrace and Richard Millhouse Nixon, soon left the presidency in ignominy. Significantly, America by this time had come to realize that its involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, and that those very young people some had called "unwashed," were older now, in government, and in positions of influence. Only diehard racists and bigots continued to believe that civil rights gains were unfair impositions on Americans, that America had not progressed in the attempt to attain its much stated civic ideals. By then too, the feared Black Muslims were no longer segregationists, and the Black Panthers were in decline.

    Muhammad Ali brought much needed excitement and cohesion to Americans in the 60s and 70s era, one of the most tumultuous, divisive periods in 20th century American history. At the zenith of the Civil Rights Revolution, 1968, Ali was a known quantity, seen as unfairly stripped of his title, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous bigots. Ordinary Americans knew in their hearts that he had been grievously victimized. The joy and wonder and beauty that he had brought to them had been stifled by jingoism and racial and religious bigotry.

    Contemporary records will show that his return in 1971 was a joyous occasion. Even those who had doubted him, and looked at him with disfavor, became converts after those classic fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, especially the first fight against Frazier in Madison Square Garden. There, although he lost, he lost heroically. When regained his championship in "The Rumble in the Jungle," he proved to the world and to Joe Frazier at "The Thrilla in Manila" that he was a man of truly heroic heart. If no longer a totally dazzling pugilistic artist, he was still full of braggadocio, and a warrior of unprecedented courage. He brought back to Americans the excitement and the sheer beauty of athletic movement they had been deprived of in the doldrums of his exile.To top of page


    It is instructive that despite the bigoted fury surrounding his decision not to enter the U.S. Army, Muhammad Ali, in typical American fashion, pleaded his case the American way, in the courts, and by 1971 he was vindicated. This too carried weight with Americans. He had not gone out into the streets with a gun to shoot anybody; he had not displayed any excess of anger or bitterness, and when the decision came from the Supreme Court, he was delighted. He lost over $4 million in those three and half years, but he never complained, at least not publicly. In his own gentle way, he forgave those who persecuted him, remarking that the authorities did that which, at the time, they though was right.

    In the South there is a colloquialism, "Tastes have a right to differ." It’s an expression of tolerance. Some people expected Ali to retaliate after the Supreme Court ruling. His generous decision conformed to the American ideal of forgiveness, continuously hoped for although so often not achieved.To top of page

    $100,000. To A Jewish Home

    Robert Lipsyte in Free to be Muhammad Ali reports that Ali saw in a televised report that a New York home for the handicapped Jewish elderly would have to close for the lack of $100,000. The day after the newscast, Ali paid off the $100,000 and saved the home. Is this a quintessential American gesture? Americans do hold generosity as one of the highest ideals. In that instance Ali said:

  • "I couldn’t believe it. 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."17 To top of page
  • Humility

    It might seem contradictory, but the American people found out soon that Ali’s speech, flamboyance, and all that braggadocio was purposeful. One of the contradictions of the American psyche is that although Americans love to brag, they see themselves as a humble people. Bragging is for the moment. It is like being hungry.

    One incident will explain. A reporter remembers that he spoke to Ali once, about retirement. He responded that he might become among other things, the worlds’ greatest movie star, the worlds’ greatest businessman. Sometimes, he said, he didn’t worry about those things, that Allah would tell him what to do.

    But on one occasion, when the question was repeated Ali replied:

  • We are all like little ants. God sees all these little ants, millions of them, and he can’t answer all their prayer and bless every one of them. But he sees one ant with a little influence that the other ants will follow. Then he might give that one ant some special powers. I am like that special ant. Lots of other little ants follow me so God gives me some extra power.18
  • This is the essential Ali, such statements approximate the American ideal of humility. They resonate positively in the American psyche.

    Mike Marqusee writing for the journal, Race and Class in 1995 notes that after Ali defeated George Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle," he saw Ali in Germany.

  • In 1975, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I finally saw Ali in the flesh. He was by no means the only celebrity to turn up at the fair to promote his book, but he attracted more attention than the rest of them combined. As I drew closer to Ali, I marveled at the hugeness of his neck and shoulders. In the midst of what had rapidly become a mob scene, he sat quite still scribbling his name over and over again. I realized that this must happen to him everywhere. At the same time, he was probably the most famous human being on earth, adulated nearly everywhere as "the Greatest." Yet, he seemed a modest man, bored but patient, accepting the duties of celebrity with good grace. Could it be that the most notorious boaster in the history of sports was, at the bottom of it all, a humble man? Certainly, that is what many of his closest friends have always insisted. 19
  • This rings true in corroborating reports. By 1975, Ali had achieved another American ideal: modesty and humility in the midst of great success.To top of page


    In a 1989 Sports Illustrated retrospective on Muhammad Ali, sports writer Gary Smith asked:

  • Who else elevated an audience, . . . ? When Joe Frazier beat Ali in 1971, the thousands of closed-circuit viewers around me applauded or jeered for a few moments and then went their separate ways. But each time Ali won, people laughed and hugged, there was communion.20
  • Smith believed that admiration for other great athletes was like "a drive into a cul-de-sac." It was not liberating, merely gratifying. But for him

  • Ali was a doorway, an opening into something beyond. He spoke of god before his fights, he spoke of man, he spoke of hungry children, he cared about the sick and the old; he raised the game to drama. And because he stood for something greater, the people who climbed upon their chairs for him felt it: They stood for something greater too. 21
  • But there was more. The subtitle to the article reminded us of a trait highly prized by Americans, but characteristic of too few. "No other athlete," it read, "has so commanded our attention. And the careers of few have been so varied, so complex and so little tainted by hypocrisy."22

    Observing Muhammad Ali’s life, one could perceive an American success story. It conforms perfectly to the American mythology of hard work and the application of "smarts" to achieve life’s goal. Ali’s life trajectory combined with the other "All American" attributes of the man, in time, erased the memory of all other flaws and caused a massive outpouring of understanding and love for his persona, if not his person. In his overcoming adversity, segregation, racism, on the one hand, and standing up for America, on the other, while becoming in the eyes of the rest of the world a youthful, brash American, Ali was not only "a credit to his race," but could extend that old phrase to say that Americans recognized him as a credit to his country.

    In his stand then, for religious and racial freedom, for being what he wanted to be, for the right to be different within legitimate boundaries, for his humility, generosity, braggadocio, deep and abiding physical and mental courage, though always larger than  life – Ali struck a number of positively resonant notes in the American psyche, that make him now a revered person, and the "Quintessential American."To top of page


    1 Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1966) p. 534.


    2 Ibid. Back
    3 de Toqueville, p. 536. Back
    4 Ibid Back
    5 Carl N. Degler, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1959), p. 156-157. Back
    6 Ibid. Back
    7 Ibid., p. 155.Interestingly, in the 20th century particularly after WWI, African Americans have come to embrace the idea also. Back
    8 Robert Lipsyte, Free to be Muhammad Ali, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 2. Back
    9 Robert Lipsyte, Free to be Muhammad Ali, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), p. 3. Back
    10 Charles v. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, (New York: Atheneum, 1991), p. 243 Back
    11 Playboy Magazine, 1964. Back
    12 Playboy Magazine, (1964) Back
    13 Playboy Magazine, (1964) Back
    14 Thomas Holtgraves and Jeffrey Dulin, Journal of Language and Communication, "The Muhammad Ali Effect: Differences Between African Americans and European Americans in their Perception of a Truthful Bragger," Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 275-285. Back
    15 European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 28, 1998, p. 675, "Be More Honest, But Not Necessarily More Intelligent Than Others: Generality and Explanations for the Muhammad Ali Effect on Culture." Back
    16 Ibid. Back
    17 Robert Lipsyte, Free to be Muhammad Ali, p. 116. Back
    18 Ibid., p. 116. Back
    19 Mike Marqusee, Race & Class, April-June, 1995, p. 25. Back
    20 Sports Illustrated, November 15, 1989, p. 217 Back
    21 Sports Illustrated, p. 218 Back
    22 Sports Illustrated, p. 215. Back

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