He was certainly the greatest boxer in the world; few boxers could match his agility, rapidity and technical ability. In boxing terms, he was the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’. Then and now, Ali’s skills, glorious to watch, are unprecedented.
Let’s begin with Ali’s story at the Olympic Games, for it was there he was awarded a gold medal for his success. A catalogue of achievements – such as the heavyweight champion of the world; gaining the Fighter of the Year Award; elected into the Boxing Hall of Fame, and receiving the Essence Living Legend Award – all followed. Yet, despite these and plenty more milestones, Ali’s ubiquitous legacy can also be seen in his achievements out of the ring.
The Jim Crow laws were designed to keep African Americans in their so-called place, legally investing power and privilege in the hands of Whites, and indignity and enslavement in the lives of African Americans. The laws ensured that such dehumanisation was rendered systemic and normative in American life. The Jim Crow laws were successful. It made its victims fearful of the consequences of breaking the law. Should African Americans ever raise their heads above the parapet, and challenge the law keepers and others, reprisals would be severe and plentiful.
Despite these incendiary racial circumstances, it was the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali who mustered the courage to say, in their own words, “God damn America.” Ali, I am sure, must have had less leverage than the other two giants. King and X were leaders of movements. Swathes of people, both in America and beyond, signed up to their narrative. With people power comes some influence; principalities and powers are forced to listen to the message. Ali, to my knowledge, had no such movement behind him. OK, he had a burgeoning fan club, many willing to give their right hand for his autograph. But belonging to a movement, such as the Nation of Islam, is not the same as being the leader of a movement. Did this mean that Ali had to be more courageous than the other two characters, in terms of standing up for the rights and indignities of others because of the absence of his own movement? Maybe, maybe not. However, what this does highlight is Ali’s remarkable courage in the face of a hostile racist world, and his capacity to speak truth to power, often on his own. His refusal to be drafted into the US Army on the grounds of being a conscientious objector is an example of this. Ali was no fool. The suspension of his boxing license, ban from the United States and the impending sentence for draft evasion, would not have surprised him. Yet, knowing that his decision would have massive ramifications – like throw his career into near oblivion – he did as he felt led. Difficult decisions made by X or King would have had the support of their movements. However, even though in one sense a representative of the Nation of Islam, Ali fought alone, and so carried the burden of the decisions alone.
His change of name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali was another example of a protest he made in the glare of the public and, to a large degree, alone. We really need to understand and appreciate the times he lived in, to get our minds around the seriousness of what Ali did. His change of name was not merely a personal thing. It was, indeed, a public repudiation of White oppression. In short, Ali was saying to White America: African Americans like all people are born with dignity, and should have the rights and power to take control of their destinies – including their names. And, to Black African Americans, the name change symbolised self-sufficiency, the ability to make choices that liberate us from oppression. For Ali, the absence of a movement to provide greater potency and clarity to his messages around justice possibly meant that, in order to be heard, he had to be more radical as an individual. There was nothing more radical than to change one’s name from a slave one to an Islamic one. To do so in the eye of the American racist press was toxic. Quite frankly, this man was ‘the greatest’.
Even the self-imposed ‘I am the greatest’ label was an act of defiance. Ali, again alone, was being subversive by his constant usage of it. The phrase ‘I am the greatest’ communicates a number of messages. Firstly, we should be reluctant to allow others to define our identity; we must define our identity ourselves. Second, there is an ocean of gifted Black people. It is our responsibility to identify them and encourage them to find their greatness. Third, names can either encourage or discourage one’s sense of identity. The name ‘Muhammad’ carried with it meaning, identity and a vision for the future beyond the now. Thus we must choose names with theological substance for our children.
In so many ways, Muhammad Ali was the greatest. He used his boxing prowess as a platform to empower masses of disempowered African Americans. Few could do, would do and have done. Muhammad Ali, the servant leader, deserves continued universal respect.