America’s greatest export is Black culture. From Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to Air Jordan, to Tupac’s Rhythm and Poetry, a trip abroad reveals the cultural resonance of America’s artists, athletes, and freedom fighters.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s created a playbook for the grass-roots organizing and mobilization used in countless countries fighting for reform and by revolutionaries fighting for freedom.
Black leaders reviled in life, become martyred in death, part of the iconoclast accoutrement. Such is the life and death of Muhammad Ali.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. Wikipedia describes him as “an American professional boxer…” which is a painfully elementary summary. George Foreman is quoted as saying, “Boxing is just something he did. That’s no way to define Muhammad Ali. He was one of the greatest men to ever appear, on the scene of the Earth.” Agreed.
It is better said that he was a fighter, though a champion inside the ring, outside he was a ceaseless advocate for social justice, Black liberation, and Black empowerment. I can think of no other boxer, nor athlete so well versed in geopolitics, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality.
His significance would be the impact on culture and society at large, having lived a life defying constriction. It is any wonder that he is heralded with the likes of Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Prolific inside the ring, press box, and the bedroom, Ali produced nine children, the most famous being Laila Ali. Like him she is a precision pugilist, black & beautiful, fearless & fine. His daughter, both undefeated, and drop-dead gorgeous, is aptly representative of her father’s greatness.
Not easily understated, Ali’s comedy was impressively avant-garde. He at once took the risks of Lenny Bruce saying what was deemed culturally indecent, and delivered biting satire like Dick Gregory, a living legend and Civil Rights Icon.
To say he had a way with words is cliché, his cadence, rhythm, and timing demonstrated his mastery of prose. He even famously parodied himself in “The Greatest” by filming what today would be seen as a mockumentary. He had a joie de vie, establishing a brand of celebrity athlete and creating the career blueprint now enjoyed by Shaq and LeBron.
Ali is a man lionized not just for his fighting ability, but his style, grace and tenacity. He was a man self-determined enough to love himself, to love Black women, to love his people. There is not another boxer nor athlete imaginable able to capture the cultural zeitgeist, aside from say Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, or Paul Robeson.
Frankly, there aren’t enough adjectives for Ali. He was a strategist, witty, conscious, prophetic, poetic, powerful, militant, beautiful, arrogant, indignant, hilarious, and unapologetically Black.
Writing about Ali presents an exercise in futility. It is impossible to categorize or quantify Ali’s impact on the world. It is a thankless task attempting to artfully summarize, and describe such an American icon, particularly someone whose own skill as a wordsmith is legendary.
Perhaps the only way to honor his life and his memory within an editorial, is to litter said article with his own quotes - “Who’s the greatest?!”
An American Heavyweight historically presented as a hulking, brutish, menace. Massive, lumbering and powerful, built to deal punishing beatings to their unfortunate opponents.
Ali’s power seemed to emanate from his soul, empowered with a righteous indignation which lashed out with a fierceness equipped to silence those that doubted him.
Not being old enough to have lived during any of Ali’s fights, I contend that I’ve watched many because his matches were timeless works of art.
His feet were as nimble as his lips, his hands so fast one only realized he’d thrown punches after they’d landed.
My favorite clips show him tormenting his adversaries who had become infuriated with their inability to land hits to his face. Ali mocking their fury with a juvenile delight, deliberately dancing in their faces, shaking his shoulders, staring at them wide-eyed – miss me?
There are countless documentaries on Ali, several worthy of a careful study. The first for me, I watched my senior year of high school, “When We Were Kings.” Which captured Ali’s trek to Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) to fight George Foreman in, “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The film was released in 1996, and was emblematic of the 90s which held resurgence in the movement to affirm Black identity, and our African ancestry.
His professional career began in the 60’s, arguably one of the most merciless and deadly decades in history. A time filled with seemingly endless assassinations of revolutionaries: Patrice Lumumba (’61), Malcolm X (’65), Martin Luther King, Jr. (’68), Medgar Evars (’63), multiple Kennedys (’63 and ’65), and Che Guevera (’67). It would also produce for Ali a gold medal in the Olympics.
Selling a boxing match requires a backstory, often a hastily drawn up, hack accounting of why two fighters hate each other. An imperative dynamic, its ripple effect was to divide followers of the fight based on their allegiance to one combatant versus the other.
Ali was the penultimate controversial figure, a proudly Black, loud-mouthed, arrogant, obnoxious, pretty-boy and practitioner of Islam. He was the antithesis of the preferred American Negro, a docile, neutered, lover of Christ, whom accepted the status quo with a quiet dignity, unseen and unheard.
Look at Ali’s revolutionary response in the 60’s during the Civil Rights Movement, in the 70’s during the Vietnam War Protests, and think carefully about the fights he pursued during these eras.
It’s important to note that in the 60s when he started his professional career, he would still be known as Cassius Clay, and pitted against Sonny Liston.
Nevertheless, identity-politics were hard at play wanting the humble Liston to silence an opponent starkly contrasting American sensibilities which could not imbibe a brash, unruly Negro athlete telling folks he was the greatest.
“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."
A charismatic, empowered, self-affirming Black man believing himself beautiful was quite literally a target for the American establishment’s ire, imagine their outrage when he would meet Malcolm X and join the Nation of Islam. Though, I submit, that if any Black person were to have Malcolm X as their spiritual advisor and political advocate during the 60’s they too would join the Nation.
Ali would fight Joe Frazier three times, their first meeting in 1971 dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” their second ’74 “Super Fight II,” and finally clashing in ’75 “The Thrilla in Manilla.”
Frazier represented the establishment, a Korean War Veteran, devout Christian, and conservative chosen one – all things Ali wasn’t. Labeled a draft dodger, Ali’s outspoken and fierce opposition to the Vietnam War embodied the spirit of the progressive movement with far more flash, famously summarizing his opinion on the matter,
“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.”
I contend that Ali’s greatness is not circumscribed by his losses, obviously being undefeated carries clout, but nothing is greater than a comeback story. Refusing to enlist, would strip him of his World Champion title, and boxing license with which he provide for his family.
“It’s one thing you don’t mess with, it’s colored folks food and colored folks money.” He was tireless, enduring countless assaults on his station as a spirited advocate for his own beliefs. His greatest loss ironically would be his own voice, yet even in his silence his strength and dignity was peerless.
The commitment to task seen in Ali, is something all should employ, whom fight for human rights and advocate for justice. There is a conscious requirement of consistent and deliberate effort, with the understanding that setbacks and shortcomings will be part of the package.
Many find that during contemporary fights for freedom there is an absence of leadership, with movements like #BlackLivesMatter being fragmented across multiple regions, agitators, and actors.
Remembering Ali requires accounting that differences in opinions, beliefs, and actions are not a deterrent from the larger cause for equality, nor fight for justice.
Rather, having contributors across the spectrum of backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures provide a greater service to humanity by cherishing our unique differences, and recognizing the value in our otherness.
Ali let us know that we can all be beautiful, we can all be powerful, and we can all be great regardless of one’s race, color, religion, nationality, age, sex, gender, orientation, or disability - if we’re only willing to fight for what’s right.
“Rumble young man, rumble!”
(Photo: Kent Gavin/Keystone/Getty Images)