‘The Greatest’, Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali, 1942 – 2016
By EWART WALTERS
This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeedy
Of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speedy.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary
Then someone with colour and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans a-runnin’ with plenty of cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right,
If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night.
Cassius Clay, before the heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston.
The Olympic torch was nearing its destination. A crowd of 85,000 was watching the event in person. Three million five hundred spectators across the globe watched on their television screens. A female runner with the torch approached the familiar looking male figure waiting high up in the Atlanta stadium. The man took the torch and his face came into full view when the spotlight fell on him.
The packed stadium, already cheering the excitement of the moment, broke into loud, sustained applause. It was Ali! Ali! Ali! The Greatest! The former three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world! They were transfixed. His job now was to light the Olympic flame. But the ravages of time and Parkinson’s disease were now painfully plain to see, for his movements were very slow. His left hand shook violently. But when he brought both hands into play they were steady enough to apply the torch. It lit the fuse which formed a fireball that was carried by a pulley to the giant cauldron 143 steps above, where the Olympic flame would burn over the stadium until the closing ceremonies.
All over the world eyes brimmed with tears. Now they knew who it was. Now they remembered – the dancing feet of the Ali Shuffle. Now they remembered – the dazzling hand speed, stinging like a bee. Now they remembered the majesty of boxing’s greatest gladiator, an imposing figure standing 6 feet 3 inches tall in the ring. But it was his bewildering speed, never before seen among heavyweights, that was his greatest asset. His was a blinding, powerful jab followed by combinations no less dazzling.
Now it all flooded back and they remembered more. They remembered “The Louisville Lip”, the man who depicted his opponents as various levels of ugly and of himself boasted: “There’s not a mark on my face. I’m as pretty as a girl.” The man who embraced poetry in his mission to return heavyweight boxing to its former glory, or surpass it in his quest for the stars.
The applause which subsided while he struggled to light the fuse now grew to a roar. For the stunned crowd realized that the honour to light the Olympic cauldron had fallen to the hands of the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in boxing, Muhammad Ali, the man whose best years had been stolen from him by the bitterly hateful reaction to his refusal to be conscripted into the US army. They remembered the dancing master who had charmed the heavyweight division and the world with his ability to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”. But now he was a slow, shuffling shadow of himself, having fallen prey to the debilitating Parkinson’s disease.
It was a bittersweet moment. For it had not always been this way.
More than any other sportsman in history, Clay-Ali transcended his sport to reach out to the world as a role model and hero. Even before he won the light-heavyweight gold medal, Cassius Clay had proclaimed himself “The Greatest”. Returning from the 1960 Rome Olympics at age 18, he turned pro and began predicting accurately the round in which he would knock out opponents. Then in 1964 he took on the most feared and fearsome man in the ring, the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who was rumoured to have connections with the Las Vegas mob.
Clay affected disdain: “Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”
He did! To almost everyone’s surprise, Clay, floating like a butterfly, ran rings around Liston, stopping him when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round. And then he did two things that heralded his future path. First he announced that he had changed his name to Cassius X and joined the Nation of Islam.This ignited a firestorm of hatred, contempt and revulsion from Americans who had not yet emerged from the racism of Jim Crow and segregation. And when reporters questioned him on it, he said: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”
There it was; his declaration of independence, for which he paid a hefty price.
At the age of 21, Cassius Clay was inspired by Malcolm X to become a member of the Muslim faith. His new name was Cassius X. The following year Malcolm X said he would “mean more to his people than any athlete before him. He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the White man’s hero. But Cassius is the Black man’s hero. Do you know why? Because the White press wanted him to lose…because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability”.
Later he changed his name again to Muhammad Ali with a declaration that Cassius Clay was his slave name. Over the next four years he defended his title nine times.
The Nation of Islam was then known as the Black Muslims and, by that name, its members were held to be lesser beings – and more radical and fearsome – than ordinary Muslims. Twelve years later, on “Face the Nation”, Ali said: “We don’t have Black Muslims, that’s a press word. We have White brothers, we have brown, red, and yellow, all colours can be Muslims… I’m looking for peace one day with all people.”
By the time he turned pro, boxing had slipped into one of its not infrequent down spirals. Rocky Marciano was gone. The “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis, who had knocked out Hitler’s champion, Max Schmeling, had gone and the heavyweight title (there was only one in those days) was now held by the huge, mean and menacing Sonny Liston.
Ali could throw the jab, but he could also throw the jibe. He knew his rhymes would infuse interest and money into boxing, and he was his own best public relations man. In February 1964 he said: “If I were like a lot of…heavyweight boxers…you wouldn’t be reading this story right now. If you wonder what the difference between them and me is, I’ll break the news: you never heard of them. I’m not saying they’re not good boxers. Most of them…can fight almost as good as I can. I’m just saying you never heard of them. And the reason for that is because they cannot throw the jive. Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody.”
However, his becoming a Muslim and a conscientious objector resulted in the eruption of a tremendous public tsunami of hate. The governor of Illinois found Clay “disgusting” and the governor of Maine said Clay “should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American”. An American Legion post in Miami asked people to “join in condemnation of this unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic individual”. The Chicago Tribune waged a choleric campaign against holding the next Clay fight in Chicago.
Nowhere could he find peace. No state would grant him a boxing licence. As one writer put it: “Sports and news commentators, little old ladies…bookmakers, and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get-Cassius clamor. And they all refused to use his Muslim name.”
Yes, he paid a high price for his beliefs. Fanned by much of the US media, led by a sneering journalist named Red Smith, the hatred bubbled for two years. No one could beat him. Not in the ring anyway. It erupted outside the ring with attempts to sideline him by enlisting him for the Vietnam War. So it was that Ali resisted, embarking on the biggest fight of his life up to then when he applied for conscientious objector status on religious grounds as a minister with the Nation of Islam.
He was barred from pursuing his livelihood. The New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title in May of 1967, minutes after he announced he would not submit to induction. Ali said to Sports Illustrated contributor Edwin Shrake: “I’m giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I’ll come out stronger than ever. I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, Black people who can’t eat, Black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, Black people who don’t have no future.”
His comments on his resistance are worth preserving:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of White slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
“I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Or, the short form:
“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. He did not fight again for three and a half years.
Yet, his willingness to speak out against racism in the United States and the effect it had on domestic and foreign policy, earned him many supporters. He had taken on the power structure when he came out against the war, the first sports figure to do anything like that. When American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists at the Mexico City Olympics to protest American anti-Black racism it was the year 1968. In 1971, nearly five years after it began, Ali’s legal battle finally culminated with a unanimous decision (8-0 with Thurgood Marshall abstaining) by the United States Supreme Court overturning his draft conviction.
Whatever it was before, Clay’s personal posture against racism would have received a big boost shortly after his return from Rome with his gold medal which he wore night and day with pride. With his Olympic victory, Clay was an American hero. He now turned professional with the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group.
Then came the moment. He went into a soda fountain for a hamburger and was told “we don’t serve niggers”.
Revolted, he marched up to the nearest bridge, plucked the medal from his neck and tossed it as far as he could into the Ohio River below. “That gold medal didn’t mean a thing to me if my Black brothers and sisters were treated wrong in a country I was supposed to represent,” he said. He then developed a lexicon of common names and expressions including “blackmail,” “black mark,” “black-eye,” “white lie” and “White House” that he said were used subliminally to extend racism by promoting Whites and demeaning Blacks.
But this was the sixties; the Civil Rights Movement had started but America’s anti-Black racism was still unleashed and rampant. Dr. King had not yet marched to Washington to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. Blacks could not vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had not yet been signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The Black Panther Party had yet to see the light of day. So Ali in his own way was championing racial fairness and equality in an America where it was dangerous to do so – and paying a price.
But there is no cloud without a silver lining. Ali turned the situation to his advantage and became the most recognizable figure on earth. Banned from fighting in America, he took his bouts overseas. He regained his title in 1974 by knocking out George Foreman in a fight staged in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”.
It was a bout characterized by his rope-a-dope strategy in which he knocked out Foreman after spending a great deal of time resting on the ropes while Foreman expended his energy. With his international appeal and recognition that he had suffered injustice, he had also managed got the locals on his side. “Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him! Ali kill him!”) 60,000 Zairians shouted as he stepped into the ring and led the chant.
His greatest fights were with “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Having derided his opponents all along, he never spared Frazier. “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head,” he once teased. They split wins in two merciless bouts before “The Thrilla in Manilla,” the 1975 rubber match that he won.
But the sweet bird of youth had flown, and these fights took a lot out of him, as did his contests with Ken Norton and his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes.
Ali eventually retired from boxing in 1981 with a professional record of 56 wins and five losses. Despite the progress of his disease, he remained active in public life, devoting much of his time to humanitarian affairs and in 1998 he was honored with the United Nations Messenger of Peace Award. In 2005, Ali, the man who was reviled in and cast out in 1967, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President George W. Bush. It was an honour that immediately bracketed him with the likes of Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Ted Kennedy.
He was on hand to celebrate the inauguration of the first Black president in January 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn in. Soon after the inauguration, he received the President’s Award from the NAACP for his public service efforts. As he has done every year since its inception, Ali hosted the 15th Annual Celebrity Fight Night Awards in Phoenix in March 2009. The event benefited the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.
Yet, until his death June 3, 2016, he was still generally unrecognized as a central figure in the Black Power movement largely because as world champion and as a Muslim he operated outside the accepted organizational structures of the time. You will not easily find his name on the many Civil Rights timelines that dot the Internet.
But the organizers of the Atlanta Olympics, in a public act of understanding, gave him back his Olympic gold medal. It was a moment of recognition and reconciliation, a moment of restoration. The tributes now being published all over the globe are testimony to the virtue of a principled man, and of suffering for a noble cause. And for the millions who applauded him that night in Atlanta, he is and will forever be “The Greatest”.
And there is a Jamaican connection. Ali visited Jamaica as a guest of Prime Minister Michael Manley in December of 1974, and received the key of the city of Kingston in a ceremony at the National Stadium. Never at a loss for a quick quip, he immediately asked: “Is this the key to the bank?”