Commentary: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Win Was Outside the Ring

Film shows how boxing icon fought for rights his brothers of color didn’t have.

Posted: 10/07/2013 03:08 PM EDT
Commentary: Muhammad Ali's Greatest Win Was Outside the Ring

It’s been a generation since Muhammad Ali was the self-styled “greatest,” a global icon and a public personality whose persona earned adulation from kings, sheiks and ordinary folk.

It earned him hatred, too.

An ailing Ali, 71, is now in the twilight of his life, so much of what his past was is just material today for history books and documentaries. But what Muhammad Ali was is a story worth retelling.

Those who appreciate what Ali was rediscovered Saturday how compelling his life was when HBO aired its film about him. Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight didn’t recap the glorious exploits of Ali in the ring: no Thrilla in Manilla, no Rumble in the Jungle, no recounting of the “Ali Shuffle” or his “Bum of the Month Club.”

HBO kept its film focused on a singular point in Ali’s life: his 1971 draft case in the U.S. Supreme Court. His triumph there wasn’t his alone; his case brought in front of the judicial system the plight of other Black men — men who loved America but loathed what it was doing to them.

Ali’s victory in court focused attention on the mistreatment of Black men, on how America had used them as fodder for an unpopular war, how it had sent these courageous Black men to fight to liberate colored people abroad when their people weren’t liberated at home.

To come of age in the ‘60s, you knew Black men who went to Vietnam; you also knew Black men who went there and never made it home. Their country shed no tear for them. It didn’t cry for them then; it doesn’t cry much for them now.

Yet the story of Vietnam remains in the minds of public figures that stood up like Ali in protest of a war America should not have fought; Vietnam remains on the minds of Black soldiers — men near the end of their lives — who went there and came home, as my cousins and brothers did, to face a country that didn’t value their selfless sacrifice.

They remember that the country hated Black men and liberals who protested the war but refused to go. The country hated those Black men even more when they heard Ali tell the world: "I ain't got not quarrel with them Viet Cong."

Ali’s words brought home how pointless Vietnam was for Black men. They had a fight on the home front, and as the 1960s inched closer to the 1970s and then beyond, this ugly war needed to end.

The HBO film portrayed a small piece of that ugliness. It told those of us of a certain age how fortunate we were to have had Muhammad Ali play such a significant role in reshaping our views of the world.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: CBS/Landov)

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