Despite the Controversy, Muhammad Ali Was Electric

Muhammad Ali Photo: Getty Images
Muhammad Ali Photo: Getty Images

There was a time, before the Internet and cable and cell phones, when Muhammad Ali was considered the most famous man in the world. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but it’s one of those things people generally agreed upon — just as people agree, even now, that he is also among our most beloved. 

How is it that a black man from the Jim Crow south, boasting of his beauty and his boxing prowess, won over not just white America but Africans, Filipinos, Cubans — even Fidel Castro?

If someone told you today, in this culturally, racially, religiously polarized moment, that one of America’s most elite athletes tossed his gold Olympic medal away over prejudice at home, then changed his name, converted from Christianity to Islam and refused the draft while this country was at war — what would you think of his likely future? His income, his reputation, his legacy, were he to even have one?

This was Ali, in the 1960s and onward: radical and revolutionary, in the ring and out. He was lethal and hilarious, issuing threats that infuriated his opponents and made seasoned sportswriters laugh out loud.

In 1964, when he was still Cassius Clay and about to face heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, aka “The Big Bear,” in his first professional bout: “He even smells like a bear. After the fight, I’m going to donate him to the zoo.”

Clay was a natural showman, and at the pre-fight weigh-in, he taunted Liston. “Someone’s going to die at ringside tonight!” he bellowed. Conventional wisdom had that someone as Clay, who fought through the fifth round barely able to see. He won in the 7th by TKO, an electrifying upset.

“I shook up the world!” Clay shouted. He was 22, the youngest fighter ever to take the heavyweight title from a champion. Shortly after, Clay joined the Nation of Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

“Cassius Clay is my slave name,” he said. “Clay means dirt. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — Muhammad means free and Ali means most high.”

In 1966, he was drafted to serve in Vietnam and claimed conscientious objector status. “I ain’t got nothin’ against no Viet Cong,” he famously said. “No Viet Cong never called me n—-r.”

Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license, and he spent his prime years as a fighter out of the ring. But he kept training and he toured college campuses, speaking to college students about black power, social injustice, the unfairness of the draft and the wrongness of the war.

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Source: New York Post |  Maureen Callahan