Why Was Muhammad Ali Greater Than His Legend?
By Taj Hashmi
14 June, 2016
Last Friday (June 10), the “Great” Muhammad Ali was laid to rest at his birthplace, Louisville Kentucky. Around 15,000 people attended his funeral. While Obama sent a message, eulogized him as “A man who fought for us”, former President Clinton attended the funeral and considered Ali a great American, a citizen of the world, and “greater than his legend”. Hundreds of celebrities – holding diverse faiths and political ideologies – attended the funeral, from Jesse Jackson to Yusuf Islam, David Beckham to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Hamid Karzai to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ali wasn’t legendary because of boxing. He wasn’t the greatest boxer of all time, either. This honour goes to Joe Louis (1914-1981), who remained the World Heavyweight Champion for the longest period, for twelve years between1937 and 1949. In 2005, the International Boxing Research Organization ranked Louis – not Ali – as the #1 heavyweight of all-time.
Yet the whole world was crazy about him. Even before he became the World Heavyweight Champion – the light heavyweight boxing champion from the Rome Olympics (1960) – media in America and elsewhere projected this young black man as the next world champion. I recall reading about his historic fight with World Champion Sonny Liston – as a high school student – in local newspapers in Bangladesh in 1964.
The “Ali Phenomenon” or what made Muhammad Ali CNN’s “most famous face in the world” is enigmatic. People, who don’t understand and like boxing, admire him most; and consider him to be the “Greatest” champion of human rights, human dignity, and world peace. His self-promotion as the “Greatest” – which he did before and after his becoming the World Champion, has nothing to do with it. On February 24, 1964 he defeated his more formidable rival Sonny Liston, converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
He came on Time magazine’s cover page five times in total. Interestingly, the first time was in February1963, one year before he became the World Champion; the second time, days after he lost his title to Leon Spinks in February 1978; and (possibly) the last time, after his death in June 2016. Had something not been that special about him, the Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, GQ and hundreds of newspapers, TV channels, and magazines across the world wouldn’t have given such wide coverage to what Ali was all about, during the peak of his boxing career, after his retirement from boxing in 1981, and after his death. While Time even put him on its cover after he had lost his title; in 1999 British public agreed by naming him BBC Sports Personality of the Century, and the GQ Magazine declared him as the “Athlete of the Century”.
The following is an excerpt from Time’s first cover story on the 21-year-old boxer, “I’m the Greatest” in 1963: “Some people think Cassius Clay talks too much. But Cassius just laughs, and keeps on talking. Sometimes he talks in doggerel: ‘This is the story about a man, With iron fists and a beautiful tan, He talks a lot and boasts indeed, Of a powerful punch and blinding speed’. Sometimes he sticks to prose. ‘I’m beee-ootiful’ he croons. ‘I’m the greatest. I’m the double greatest’…” His greatness, however, transcended the boxing ring.
He was the greatest because he emerged as a persistent symbol of courage, defiance, integrity, and loud protests against injustice. His first public protest against segregation in America was symbolic. As he writes in his autobiography, shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics in 1960, he threw away his gold medal into the Ohio river after a White waitress had refused to serve him at a “Whites Only” restaurant at Louisville, his hometown.
Ali epitomized what one single brave and bold individual, with honesty and integrity, could do to unnerve the vested interest groups, and mobilize mass support for Civil Rights in America, and for justice and world peace. Ali was – in a way – instrumental in the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of America. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to attribute the growing support among young Americans for Bernie Sanders’s movement against the Wall Street and the Military-Industrial Complex to Ali’s fight for justice.
He fought the US Administration, which stripped him of his world boxing title and passport almost for four years (1967-1971) for his refusal to fight an unjust war against the Vietnamese people. He refused to fight the Viet Cong who never harmed him, or called him a “nigger”, and asked: “Why should they ask me to … go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
His defiance of the mighty US Government lionized him. The good looking, humorous, talkative, and witty young boxer – that he was in the 1960s – became popular overnight, across the world. And finally, he won. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction. He made Blacks, Muslims, and underdogs everywhere proud of their heritage, and (gradually) bold enough to challenge the unjust world order. He strengthened the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and wholeheartedly supported the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” movement in America.
Henceforth the “Ali Phenomenon” has been working like sunshine and oxygen, keeping people’s hope and aspirations alive, within and beyond America. His defiance of White supremacist ideology, and the West’s hegemonic designs in the Third World emboldened people in Cuba and Cambodia, South Africa, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Palestine, Philippines and everywhere.
He was the butterfly people loved and admired; he was the power, power-drunk bully feared most. No wonder, both Democrats and Republicans honoured him with medals of freedom. They knew Ali wasn’t the “house negro”. No wonder, within days after his death, the New York City administration renamed Manhattan Street as Muhammad Ali Way. His influence is so overpowering that even those who hate him and his ideas most – viz. Donald Trump and his racist supporters – don’t dare to denigrate him publicly.
Underdogs in the world are so familiar with his name, face, and the causes he championed that, it’s no exaggeration his influence was much more profound and long-lasting than that of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. represented collectively. Unlike some of the great men of the 20th and 21st centuries, he never went to college – became a commencement speaker at Harvard in 1975 – and was not engaged in politics in the conventional sense of the expression. He was engaged in a violent sport for 25 years, but hated unnecessary violence, and killings of innocent human beings in unnecessary, unjust wars.
While the average Americans have strong reservations about Islam and Muslims after 9/11, yet they love and admire Muhammad Ali, who was not only a proud and practicing Muslim, but also a great lover of humanity, irrespective of people’s race and belief systems. In his own words:
We all have the same God, we just serve him differently. Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways, forms, and times. It doesn't matter whether you're a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can't love only some of his children.
The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org